United in History and Tragedy: JFK and Pope Pius XII

COMMENTARY: The president and pontiff met several times.

Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to London, and Mrs. Rose Kennedy, with their children, photographed as they left Vatican City March 20, 1939, after Pope Pius XII had received them in a private audience.
Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to London, and Mrs. Rose Kennedy, with their children, photographed as they left Vatican City March 20, 1939, after Pope Pius XII had received them in a private audience. (photo: AP photo)

President Donald Trump recently authorized a massive declassification of documents relating to the 1963 assassination of America’s first and only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. The dreadful anniversary of the shooting, Nov. 22, is again upon us. Remembrances this time around are focusing on any potential new revelations.

One item of interest that will not be found in those documents, however, is the intriguing relationship between Kennedy and Pope Pius XII. To be sure, this wasn’t a close association, and Pius died in 1958, not long before Kennedy became president. Nonetheless, the two men knew one another and met one another, and they shared a few words and moments that have managed to almost elude our historical knowledge.

I presented some of that information in a book released a few months ago (on another pope and president). I’d like to share it with readers here, especially in the hope of prompting fellow Catholic scholars, writers and researchers to dig deeper.

The first Kennedy encounter with Pope Pius XII might not have included John, though it involved the rest of the Kennedy family, and it occurred before Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was elected pope — when he was an impressive Vatican diplomat. It was November 1936, and Cardinal Pacelli was making an important first trip to America, where he spent several weeks crisscrossing 8,000 miles of terrain.

Among his meetings — which followed a meeting with the newly re-elected president, Franklin Roosevelt, at FDR’s home in Hyde Park — was a visit with the Kennedy clan at their home in Bronxville, New York. In fact, Cardinal Pacelli was escorted from the Roosevelt home to the Kennedy home by the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, who at the time was a rising political force. If Joe Kennedy had a serious political blind spot, it was to the threat of fascism in Europe, whereas FDR’s political blind spot was to the threat of communism.

Cardinal Pacelli suffered neither delusion; he viewed both Nazism and Bolshevism as serious international menaces, and he pushed the current president and father of the future president to be vigilant to both dangers.

Much of that heavy political discourse occurred before the cardinal’s arrival at the Kennedy home in Bronxville, where the visit was much lighter. The matriarch, Rose Kennedy, provided a surviving written account of Cardinal Pacelli’s activities that day.

In an undated entry in her diary, which she years later went back and amended with the label, “Cardinal Pacelli, Now Pope Pius XII, visits President Roosevelt,” she described the day. Other than Rose, very few sources have reported on this intriguing historic visit.

For the record, John had started college at Harvard that fall, though Bronxville was not too far a ride for him to come home to greet such an esteemed Vatican official. His ambitious father would have wanted him to meet the Holy See’s secretary of state. Nonetheless, Rose’s account suggests that John was not there.

She remembered joyously that Cardinal Pacelli sat on a couch surrounded by her children (Bobby was among them). The kids asked the cardinal “childish questions about his jeweled cross and about his cardinal’s ring.”

She said he answered the questions “simply and smilingly.” He then “stood outside patiently” for photographs, gave a final benediction to the Kennedys and their servants and left. “We had a last glimpse of the colorful red robe with the noble, endearing face,” wrote a touched Rose, “and His Eminence had gone.”

From New York, Cardinal Pacelli traveled the country. He took in the sights and ideas of the American founding. In Philadelphia, he visited the Liberty Bell. He spoke at the National Press Club. When he went to Washington, he was escorted by motorcade along the Potomac for a tour of George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon.

While in Washington, he also spoke at The Catholic University of America, where he said that “only the fatherly prohibition” of Pope Pius X had kept him from accepting a professorship offered there years earlier, where he could have taught alongside another renowned Catholic — Fulton J. Sheen.

But that wasn’t meant to be. God had another plan for Eugenio Pacelli: Three years later, with war erupting in Europe, solidified when two ideological gangsters, Hitler and Stalin, signed a pact, Cardinal Pacelli was called to the Chair of St. Peter. He became Pope Pius XII.

And there for the coronation was John F. Kennedy.

On March 12, 1939, JFK attended Cardinal Pacelli’s elevation to the papacy. Kennedy attended with his father, who was sent as the personal representative of President Roosevelt.

“Friday I leave for Rome as J.P. [Joseph P. Kennedy] has been appointed to represent Roosevelt at the Pope’s coronation,” JFK reported at the time. “So far, it’s been damn good and I feel quite important.”

The March 1939 encounter was certainly quite important. Because of the Vatican’s dispute with a succession of Italian leaders, there had not been a traditional papal inaugural ceremony in over a century. This one made up for the slight. It was a glorious ceremony. Nearly every nation sent an official representative. The United States sent its Catholic ambassador to England and his son, the future president. They were the first official U.S. representatives at the coronation of a pope.

The new Pope not only invited all of the Kennedys to his coronation, but also a private audience, and he even offered Joe the honorific title of “papal duke.”

On the day after the coronation, Pope Pius and Joseph Kennedy held a series of meetings. The senior Kennedy, who had infamously poor judgment of the Nazis, seemed alarmed at what he called Pius’ “subconscious prejudice … that Nazism and Fascism are pro-pagan.”

The Holy Father was greatly troubled by this “trend of the times,” Ambassador Kennedy told the State Department. Kennedy urged the Pope to talk to the Nazis and keep his strong opinions private. Pius seemed to reject that advice, saying the Church would do “what it can,” even if “the Church can only do so much.”

When JFK returned from Rome, he filled in Lem Billings, a friend of his since their prep-school days, on some of the grand details, and with his usual good humor:

“Just got back from Rome where we had a great time. Pacelli is now riding high, so it’s good you bowed and groveled like you did when you met him. … Teddy received his first Communion from him, the first time that a pope has ever done this in the last couple hundred years. He gave Dad + I Communion with Eunice at the same time at a private Mass, and all in all it was very impressive.”

Note, then, that John F. Kennedy, the future first Catholic president, received Communion from Pope Pius XII. (Also notable, and ironic, given his later wild behavior, Ted Kennedy received his first Communion from Pius XII.)

But also note JFK’s jab at his buddy Lem, about him having “groveled” before Pius XII when he first met him as Eugenio Pacelli. Indeed, both Lem and JFK had actually met Pacelli two years before, in the summer of 1937, when the two young men made a trip through Europe.

That was August 1937. The 20-year-old Kennedy, a college student, was doing an eight-week tour of Europe. The sojourn was recommended by his father — aggressively grooming his sons for public life and even possibly the presidency — as a fact-finding tour to help the young man become keenly aware of events stirring in Europe.

Throughout that time, Kennedy visited cathedrals and attended Mass, including at Notre Dame. On July 27, he stopped at Lourdes to visit the grotto where the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette. From there, Kennedy and Billings crossed the border into Italy, where they climbed Mount Vesuvius and visited Naples, Capri, Milan, Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome.

Kennedy attended Mass and visited religious sites and artifacts and observed art. The few sources that have reported on this Kennedy stop are again short on details, but they affirm that Kennedy saw Cardinal Pacelli at least twice (Aug. 5 and 7) and met with him privately at least once.

“Of course, we had introductions to everybody in the Vatican,” recalled Billings, who died in 1981, “because Cardinal Pacelli was friendly with Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy. … Also, Count [Enrico] Galeazzi, the chief layman for the Catholic Church, was a close friend of the Kennedys. So we had all the entrees to the Vatican that were necessary, and we were treated very well.”

JFK was very impressed with Cardinal Pacelli, recording in his diary: “Had a private audience with Cardinal Pacelli … who asked after Mother and Dad. He is really a great man.”

The fact that Kennedy got a private meeting with Cardinal Pacelli is remarkable, and certainly resulted from his father, who just several months later would be named U.S. ambassador to England.

So, in summary, JFK met with Pacelli-Pius XII in 1937 and 1939. And those were not his final encounters.

Another occasion came Jan. 30, 1951, when the 33-year-old Kennedy was a congressman. And then came another, but not direct: On Sept. 12, 1953, John married Jacqueline Bouvier at St. Mary’s Church in Newport, Rhode Island. Officiating was Boston Archbishop Richard Cushing. Pope Pius XII sent his personal blessing.

The next time the two would meet would be Sept. 19, 1955, with JFK this time a senator. They met privately at the Pope’s residence at Castel Gandolfo. A surviving photograph shows a weak Kennedy — who long suffered greatly from various ailments, including Addison’s disease — leaning painfully on crutches aside the aging Pope.

(For the record, this is a meeting on which I have not been able to find information, and I encourage others to do some digging.)

From there, interestingly, Kennedy headed to the turf of another pope, or at least one in the making. He headed to Poland, where, reported biographer Herb Parmet, he would “make a study of conditions in Communist Poland.”

No one has ever reported or knows (this side of heaven) whether the future president might have bumped into a 35-year-old Karol Wojtyla. Wojtyla would have been a young priest, lecturer and theology professor, fresh from completing his second doctoral dissertation in phenomenology.

In all, John F. Kennedy and Eugenio Pacelli met several times, often privately and meaningfully.

Alas, among those meetings, Kennedy and Pacelli surely spent some time discussing the great international menace of the time: atheistic communism. This is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Our Lady of Fatima’s prophetic warnings of the crimes and errors that would be spread by communism in the 20th century were dire. One of those crimes and errors would be the vicious smearing of a saintly man, Pope Pius XII, as “Hitler’s Pope,” a malicious disinformation campaign launched by the communists. And another would be the murder 54 years ago of America’s first and only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, by a man named Lee Harvey Oswald, who many believe pulled that trigger out of profession and passion for the international communism to which he gave himself and his service.

In that way, too, Pius XII and John F. Kennedy stand united in history, and in tragedy.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College.

His latest book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan,

and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.