Vatican Corner 08-16-2020

Before the pandemic lockdown and the delayed opening to historians of the archives of Pope Pius XII’s wartime pontificate, Cesare Catananti a retired Italian doctor, and professor of medical history, was given access to a unique collection of WWII documents from the Vatican police (Pontifical Gendarmes). The result is a new 360-page book entitled “II Vaticano nella Tormenta” (“The Vatican in the Storm”). The Gendarmes is the 200 year old police force which along with the famous Swiss Guard, protect the pope. They also defend the territory of the Vatican City State and maintain law and order. The book describes the period during WWII when their police duties were much more difficult and dangerous. In 1940 the Vatican, a sovereign and neutral nation located within the City of Rome, found that it was surrounded by fascist Italy. Later Nazi soldiers from Germany occupied Rome in 1943, and still later the Allies liberated Rome and occupied it in 1944. The Vatican police had to deal with Allied soldiers escaping from prison camps. There was an Irish monsignor operating a secret and dangerous church-run network to help those soldiers. German deserting soldiers seeking asylum had to be housed and fed by the Gendarmes. The Vatican police took control of the Allied diplomats who moved their posts inside the Vatican for safety. The Italians demanded strict control over those enemy diplomats who might carry out espionage activities for the benefit of their counties from inside the Vatican. The Vatican was totally dependent on Italy for essential services such as water, electricity and transportation and it was under constant blackmail. Being neutral, the freedom the Vatican had, frightened many, and everyone was trying to find out what was going on inside. The book’s author Catananti explained that “everyone was spying on everyone.” Even the barber of the Gendarmes was spying for the Italian police. Containing the damage from stray bombs dropped on the Vatican was another police duty. But the biggest worry for the police was a possible invasion by Nazi soldiers and how to defend the life and safety of Pope Pius XII from Adolf Hitler’s threat to kidnap him. Historians are unsure if there was an actual planned operation to kidnap the pope or just an empty threat, but this book reveals that the Vatican took the threat seriously. A defense plan was drafted and approved one week before the Germans took control of Rome. All Vatican entrances were fortified. Water cannons were to be used in an “energetic” yet “passive defense.” Weapons could be used only for legitimate self-defense or fired only if ordered by superiors. If the borders were breached then all Vatican residents were to go to the Apostolic Palace where food and water were stored. In case of an air raid, everyone was to go to the shelters near St. John’s Tower. If the palace was breached, the guardsmen were to go to the papal apartments and use their bodies as shields to protect the pope. The book tells of how the Vatican tried to be neutral in the time of war while still opening its arms to anyone in need. About 6,000 people, mainly women and children took shelter at the papal villa. The book’s author found that even if the orders to the Gendarmes were to ‘turn away’ people, the reality was that they welcomed people, and the Gospel was the true law they respected.