‘Popes on Air’ highlights unique challenges and legacy of Vatican Radio


Readers looking for exoneration of Pope Pius XII for his “silence” about the Holocaust (Shoah) during World War II might be disappointed with this new release from Fordham University Press.
“The Popes on Air,” an extensively researched history of Vatican Radio from its modest beginnings to the end of World War II, captures the Holy See’s dilemma in leading the Catholic Church in the age of Fascist and totalitarian governments in Europe. While extolling Pius XII’s struggles to protect the church from Nazi aggression and Soviet communist expansion, the book suggests the pope could have done more to defend European Jews in their time of greatest need.
Author Raffaella Perin is an associate professor of the history of Christianity at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy. Her history of Vatican Radio is the result of the recent opening of secret Vatican archives dealing with Pius XII’s pontificate from 1939 until his death in 1958.
Perin’s work is effective in outlining the Holy See’s interest in exploiting advances in radio communications in the early 1930s to spread the Gospel message in a far-reaching new medium. Assisted by wireless communications pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, Vatican Radio was founded in February 1931, but did not begin broadcasting until 1936.
As Perin notes, Vatican officials were initially uncertain as to how to adapt the church’s pastoral work for transmission over the airwaves. “The Catholic Church did not remain indifferent to the political repercussions that this international climate of discoveries and innovations had caused. However the interest aroused in radio broadcasting was accompanied by the traditional mistrust toward modernity.”
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939 however, Vatican Radio took on new significance as a forum for news, propaganda and even diplomacy in a continent torn apart by war.
Perin takes pains to explain how Vatican Radio during the war years struggled to remain as impartial as possible in broadcasting church news in various languages throughout Europe. There was always some confusion -- perhaps deliberately sown by Vatican diplomats -- in clarifying if Vatican Radio was the official voice of the papacy and the Vatican Secretariat of State or if it was a fully independent news service.
The book makes it clear that Pius XII’s first priority was to shield the church -- particularly in Germany -- from abuse by Nazi authorities. On some occasions, Pius instructed Vatican Radio announcers not to mention the plight of the German bishops in their broadcasts to prevent worsening relations between the Vatican and Hitler’s Third Reich.
“The fear of worsening the situation of the Catholics in the Third Reich immediately appears as one of the main concerns and became one of the reasons most frequently put forward to justify the decision of Pius XII to not publicly intervene against Nazi policy,” Perin observes.
This is not to suggest that Vatican Radio continually censored its own broadcasts to appease the Nazis. In many cases, particularly in occupied France, the voice of Vatican Radio helped inspire French resistance and rekindled thoughts of liberated France’s rebirth as a Christian nation.
The book affirms the general perception that Pope Pius XII was more concerned with communism’s expansion than with Hitler’s Germany. The author notes for example, that the condemnations of communism were pronounced in a much clearer way than condemnations of the Nazis. In turn, this created a “blind spot” for Vatican Radio announcers caught between obeying the orders of Pius XII and the need not to make the Nazis appear as champions of anti-communism and religious freedom.
“The Popes on Air” was written in Italian and translated into English. The translation is occasionally choppy and difficult to follow, but it doesn’t detract from the author’s essential message, namely that Pope Pius XII faced a near-impossible challenge in attempting to use the church’s moral authority for realpolitik ends.
All told, the book adds to the scholarship on the Pius XII papacy and the unprecedented challenges of his times. It also sheds light on the Vatican’s halting steps in embracing a new media (radio in the 1930s) for pastoral or evangelical purposes.
But as the book seeks to justify the wartime pope’s cautious embrace of Vatican Radio as an instrument to speak the truth and denounce evil, it also hints at what more might have been done.
As Perin concludes, “The decision of Pius XII to remain silent on the Shoah was not due to a lack of information on the fate of the deportees, or to pro-Nazism, but was a tragic and aware choice, closely connected with the decision to keep the Holy See’s line of impartiality right until the end. Perhaps the authority of a word proffered by the Holy See would have awoken the consciences of the Catholics and would have spurred them to a bolder resistance, or at least alert the Jews who could have tried to seek safety.”
Mike Mastromatteo is a writer, editor and book reviewer from Toronto.