She was called “La Popessa,” depicted as the iron lady of the Vatican, and said to have wielded more power in Rome than any woman in centuries. She is the subject of numerous books, movies, and even a musicaloften more fiction than fact. But the real story of Mother Pascalina Lehnertthe life-long assistant to Pope Pius XIIis still not widely known. Now, thanks to the English translation of her memoirs, His Humble Servant, she speaks for herself, to a far larger audience.
Born in 1894 into a large German Catholic family, she entered the Franciscan teaching order of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. In 1918 her superior sent the young Sr. Pascalina and two fellow nuns to provide housekeeping services to the new papal nuncio in Munich, Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII). He was so impressed with her dedication and organizational skills that he retained her services when he became Cardinal Secretary of State, in 1930, and again when he was elected Pope in 1939.
By then her responsibilities had expanded. Pius XII relied upon her for a variety of deedsarranging private visits, secretarial work, special requests and charitable activitiesbut not everyone was pleased with her growing influence, nor her strong personality.
In those days, the presence of women in highranking church circlesespecially in the Vaticanwas rare and raised suspicion. ”There was unfortunately a good deal of misogyny circulating at the time, and this affected even the Church,” said Fr. Peter Gumpel (in a recent interview with me), a leading expert on Pius XII, who knew both Mother Pascalina and Pius. “It is to the credit of Mother Pascalina that she endured it, and to Pius XII that he defended her against unjust attacks.”
Even before she served at the Vatican, noted Fr. Gumpel, when Pascalina was sent to the Papal Nunciature in Munich, she experienced hostility. Dark rumors were spread about an alleged romance between her and Pacelli, but Fr. Gumpel stressed, “There was no truth to this charge; rather, they were two honorable people, and the suggestion was immediately dismissed by those who knew them. But the incident shows you the lengths Mother’s detractors would go to harm her, not to mention the future Pope.”
In her memoirs Mother Pascalina does not dignify her detractors by responding, instead focusing on the privilege of serving Pius XII for over forty years. Recounting the day-to-day activities of his adult life, especially his demanding nineteen year pontificate, she describes Pius as faithful, hard working, compassionate, and above all conscientious.
Before her memoirs appeared, Carlo Falconi, a critic of the Church, predicted Mother Pascalina’s revelations would prove explosive, and shake the Church. But the only thing they explode are myths about Pius XII.
What she reveals about Pius’early reaction to Nazism, for example, debunks the idea he was politically naïve. She writes:
One development preyed heavily on the Nuncio’s mind when he left Germany : the steady rise of National Socialism. How well he saw through Hitler even then! He constantly drew attention to the danger threatening the German people. No one would believe him, and people of all stations and classes told the Nuncio on his departure what hope they placed in Hitler: hope to the rise for greatness of the German nation.
Pacelli, as Mother Pascalina makes clear, quoting him, had a far different assessment.:
This man [Hitler] is utterly possessed with himself. Anything that does not serve his interests he rejects; what he says and writes bears the stamp of egoism; he stops at nothing, trampling down anything in his way.
When one of Hitler’s disillusioned supporters later came to Rome, Mother reveals, “he said to me, ‘What dreadful misery, what terrible degradation and shame would have been spared us and the whole world if we had listened to Nuncio Pacelli back then!’”
The years leading up to the Second World Warwhen Cardinal Pacelli, as Vatican Secretary of State, travelled the worldwere among the most difficult in Church history, and Mother Pascalina does not disappoint in recounting them.
After he became Pope, Pius XII did everything in his power to prevent the war from breaking outissuing appeal after appeal, warning the mass destruction that would ensuebut the forces of evil would not listen, and war commenced. Undeterred, Pius immediately set up and coordinated a vast humanitarian campaign on behalf of the war’s victims without regard to nationality, race, or creed.
Discussing the terrors of the Holocaust, and the anguish they brought the pontiff, Mother Pascalina showscontrary to his criticshow active he was on behalf of the persecuted, highlighting Pius XII’s life-saving interventions for the many Jews in Rome. “And it should be stressed,” said Fr. Gumpel, “since Mother Pascalina was humble about her own work, how often Pius XII assigned Mother the task of taking food and supplies to the religious houses providing refuge.”
After the War, Pius XII faced three major challenges: the rebuilding of post-War Europe; the Cold War; and the internal governance and reform of the Church. He excelled at addressing all three; and so it is no surprise that his moral and social teachings are cited more than any other pontiff’s in the documents of Vatican II.
His Humble Servant ends with Pius XII’s death in 1958, and so doesn’t cover Mother’s subsequent activities: her productive time at the Pontifical North American College in Rome (1959-1969), and her highly praised leadership of the “Casa Pastor Angelicus,” a residence for the elderly, until her death in 1983.
In recognition of her achievements, Saint John XXIII awarded Mother Pascalina the papal honor Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, and Saint John Paul II made certain her memoirsfirst published in German and now in Englishsaw the light of day.
Upon her death, Mother Pascalina’s Order described her life as one of “prayer and indefatigable commitment to others.” That it was, and His Humble Servant is an extension of that extraordinary commitment. It should restore Mother Pascalina’s legacy to its rightful place.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.