Printer Friendly

The legacy of Pius XI.

Pope Pius XI was born Achille Ratti, May 31, 1857, in Desio near Milan. Growing up in the milieu of the aspiring industrial middle class of Lombardi, he felt the impact of the modern rush for social and economic prosperity.(1) After excelling in his course in the humanities at Milan's state college and completing two years in the Milan seminary, at twenty-two years of age he entered the Lombard College in Rome. For three years he studied church history, theology, and philosophy and received his degree in all three. On December 20, 1879, he was ordained priest in the Lateran Basilica.

Early Years in Parish and Academic Ministry

In 1882 he returned to Milan. After serving for a short time as the administrator of a parish, he was assigned to teach "sacred eloquence" (homiletics) and a dogma course in the major seminary. After teaching for five years, he joined the staff of the Ambrosian Library and from that time onward was engaged in intensive academic research and writing. He published Guida sommaria per il visitatore della Biblioteca Ambrosiana e delle collezioni annesse |Brief Visitor's Guide to the Ambrosian Library and Its Related Collections~ (Milan, 1907) and numerous works on the history of the church in Milan as well as on Charles Borromeo and other subjects.(2) In 1907 he was appointed director of the Ambrosian Library and also papal domestic prelate.

When Franz Ehrle, S.J., resigned his post in 1911 as prefect of the Vatican Library, Pius X appointed Achille Ratti as vice-prefect; and, in 1914, as prefect. Monsignor Ratti was uprooted from his scholarly library routine on April 25, 1918, when Benedict XV appointed him apostolic visitor to Poland.(3) This new ecclesiastico-political and diplomatic task he performed skillfully and tactfully. Because of his knowledge of languages (German, French, Spanish, English) and his repeated journeys into Germany, Switzerland, and England, he was well prepared for this new assignment. His apostolic travels and visits took him through the whole of Poland and the Baltic States. After Poland achieved political independence in 1919, the pope appointed him apostolic nuncio and titular archbishop. However, his additional appointment as head commissioner for Silesia, East and West Prussia put him into diplomatic conflict both with Poland and with Germany. The pope freed him from this delicate situation by appointing him archbishop of Milan, and he raised him to membership in the College of Cardinals on June 13, 1921. His tenure as chief shepherd in Milan lasted for only a few months. Benedict XV died on January 22, 1922, and on February 6, Ratti emerged from the conclave as Pius XI.

Besides the traditional measures taken as pope for the promotion of the Gospel, his international relationships with states and peoples are of particular significance. The concluding of the Lateran Pact and the concordat with Italy, whereby after nearly sixty years the "Roman Question" was finally solved, clarified and underlined the church's spiritual role. The religious and pastoral tasks of the papacy manifestly came to the foreground, its temporal and political interests faded into the background, and the roman Curia enjoyed as never before a universal moral esteem.(4)

Pius XI and Mission Science

Modern scholarly study of missions owes its foundations to Gustav Warneck (1834-1910), who in 1874 founded the Allgemeine Missionszeitschrift and in 1896 became the first professor of missions in Halle. His activities and publications in mission studies wielded their influence and became the norm for the founding of a Catholic science of missions. In his 1919 encyclical Maximum illud, Benedict XV had outlined a concept of missionary formation in sacred and profane sciences, and he asked that a center of mission studies be established in the Collegio Urbano in Rome.(5) Cardinal Willem van Rossum, prefect of the Sacred Congregation "de Propaganda Fide" (1918-32), immediately went to work to establish an academic chair for mission studies.

Pius XI took up these ideas right from the outset of his pontificate. Adopting the motto "Pax Christi in Regno Christi," the pope proclaimed 1925, 1929, and 1933 Holy Years. His lively concern for missions, and his bent for speedy execution, became evident when he gave orders that a missions exhibit, featuring a missions library, be organized in the Vatican for the 1925 Holy Years.(6) He selected a splendid location for the exhibit, the great courtyard of the Pigna, adjacent to the new wing of the museums. Vicars and prefects apostolic were asked to send mission books and maps to the exhibit.(7)

Close to 30,000 volumes, in all languages, arrived in Rome for the Vatican Missionary Exhibition, and experts from all over the world were invited to Rome to assist in its preparation. Among them was Father Robert Streit, O.M.I., already known in Rome for the publication of the first volumes of the monumental Bibliotheca Missionum. No one seemed better prepared to organize the library section, which was meant to display the literary and scholarly work of Catholic missionaries and missiologists. The pope followed Streit's work with special interest. When he visited the exhibition for the first time, he went directly to the library, where he paused to examine the collections grouped according to the origin of the volumes. When he came to open other pavilions, he stopped again in the library to inspect the new collections and documents that had recently arrived. "Whenever he would come to the exhibition in the quiet hours," recalls Father Streit, "he would never fail to come to the library to see how the work was progressing."(8)

"The importance," he said on the day of inauguration, "given to the scientific and literary section proclaims that even in holiness, hardships and sacrifices are not sufficient; neither is empiricism, but knowledge is necessary in order that fruit may be gathered from these hardships and sacrifices. Just as today in industry, commerce, and the more material occupations of life there is a search for scientific guidelines, so these must not be lacking in the missionary field."(9)

At the close of the Missionary Exhibition, which the pope compared to "a vast book," Pius XI expressed the desire that this "book" might always be open in Rome, "where the real center of propulsion and diffusion of all the missions is ... where it will be ever available to all." Thus was founded the Missionary Museum at the Lateran (now in the Vatican Museum). With the same purpose in mind, he also decided that the literary section of the exhibition should remain in Rome as the Pontifical Missionary Library in order to make it a center for missiological research on the very site of the offices of Propaganda Fide. Father Robert Streit was named the first head librarian.(10)

That was a decisive step on the way to carrying out the mission science plans of the pope. Because of the prodding of Benedict XV from 1920 onward, missionary science courses were given in the theology faculty of the Athenaeum (today University) Urbanianum of Propaganda Fide. Finally, in 1933 Pius XI established in the same Athenaeum the Institutum Missionale Scientificum. The previous year the Jesuits had expanded their Gregorian University in Rome with a faculty of mission sciences.

The Mission Program of Pius XI

The missionary encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae of February 28, 1926,(11) is of the greatest importance in Pius XI's missionary program. In it are expressed in all its fullness "his broad outlook, his creative energy, the nobility of his heart burning with love for Christ."(12) In the modern missionary literature, Rerum Ecclesiae must be numbered among the church's basic documents. "Converting the pagans is an obligation of charity toward God and neighbor and binds all the faithful, especially the clergy and ecclesiastical superiors."(13) The pope thus strongly admonished the faithful to be more fruitful in their missionary activity. They were summoned to more insistent and constant prayer for missions and for missionary vocations. The bishops were exhorted to promote missionary vocations and not to fear a lessening of priestly vocations for their dioceses. The Pontifical Works for the Propagation of the Faith were recommended. To vicars and prefects apostolic, the pope strongly recommended the formation of an indigenous clergy and the establishment of new diocesan seminaries. Local priests were not to be employed in subordinate services only but ought to be educated to assume the direction of the missions so that the foreign missionaries could devote themselves to new tasks in other territories. Formation of local clergy was indispensable both because indigenous leaders know better the languages and customs of mission areas and because they run less danger of being expelled in case of war or internal upheavals.

The pope then asked that native persons of both sexes be admitted into the already-existing religious congregations and that they be helped to found new ones in conformity with local conditions and with the way native peoples think. The contemplative life must especially be furthered in missions, both because of its intrinsic value and because it corresponds to the natural dispositions of various peoples in mission lands. The number of catechists too ought to be increased. The encyclical concludes with some practical advice concerning the external organization of the church in mission lands and the development of schools of higher learning.

Pius XI's missionary program thus embraced the whole work of the evangelization of peoples, including the faithful of the established churches and the new churches. The pope reminded all the faithful, especially clergy and bishops, of their duty to collaborate and cooperate effectively in the world's evangelization, for all are responsible for the missions. Pius XI especially insisted that bishops were responsible for the missionary activity of the entire church.

In spite of the centuries-old tradition of the church and repeated reminders from the pontiffs and the decrees and instructions of Propaganda Fide, the problem of native clergy was far from solved. Pius XI tackled this problem and asked for an energetic and radical solution. He was aware that the contemporary world was moving at a rapid pace and that if the church failed to solve the problem of native clergy, it would be left behind. From the very outset Propaganda Fide had struggled against the interference of the colonial powers in mission affairs and had done its best to encourage the development of autonomous local churches. Now, after the First World War, the era of political colonialism was winding down, even though not all the powers were convinced of that. Pius XI, a far-seeing man, was preparing the future of the church in the new countries that were nearing their time of independence.

Carrying Out the Mission Program

Already in 1926, the year the mission encyclical appeared, Pius XI took the first steps to achieve the missionary aims he had set for himself. He wrote the apostolic letter Ab ipsis pontificatus primordiis on June 15, 1926, which was addressed to the vicars and prefects apostolic of the missionary church in China.(14) In it the pope condemned missionary involvement in political activities, referring to recent dreadful consequences, and stressed the purely spiritual character of missions. He also warned against setting up barriers between the foreign and native clergies. He expressed joy that it had been possible in a short while to hand over several mission territories to the Chinese clergy and hinted that soon some Chinese priests would be ordained bishops. The pope also spoke about the French Protectorate in China. He stressed that if the church tolerated the exercise by foreign powers of a certain protectorate over the church in a foreign land, it was only inasmuch as it recognized the right of each state to protect its citizens all over the world.

The indication of an imminent ordination of Chinese bishops brought great joy in the whole Catholic world, but especially in China. The actual deed was not long in coming. Cardinal van Rossum informed the pope that a Chinese priest had just been named to the post of vicar apostolic, with all the episcopal dignity. Pius XI was not only pleased but also immediately declared himself ready to ordain personally the first Chinese bishop in the modern era. The episcopal ordination was to take place in the autumn of 1926.

The pope's readiness to ordain personally the first Chinese bishop prompted a flurry of activity both in Rome and in China. Not one but several Chinese episcopal candidates were to be presented to the pope.

Two Chinese prefects apostolic already in office were named bishops, and three new vicariates apostolic with Chinese ordinaries were established. Thereby six Chinese bishops were at hand for the solemn consecration in Rome on October 28, 1926. Pius XI had chosen this date because he himself had received episcopal ordination on October 28 in 1919.(15)

This event caused a sensation across the world. Celso Costantini, the apostolic delegate to China who had come to Rome with these bishops, compared it to an electric current that aroused the missions in China to new life and a new direction.

A year later in Rome, on October 30, 1927, on the feast of Christ the King, Pius XI ordained the first Japanese bishop; and on June 11, 1933, the first Vietnamese bishop. He would also have liked to ordain the first bishops from Africa in the modern era. This privilege, however, was reserved for his successor.

In the mid-1930s Pius XI addressed another exceptionally important item, namely, the inculturation of the Christian message. This was particularly urgent in China in order to counter the accusation that Christianity was a foreign religion, serving only to spread Western culture and a Western mentality. Inevitably, the issue of inculturation revived the "Chinese rites" question.

The first step in this regard was taken in 1935 in Manchukuo. The vicars apostolic of this new state, which had been established out of five Chinese provinces in 1932 by Japan against China's will, witnessed a revival of the old Confucius cult. Pondering earlier Roman decisions against the Chinese rites which honored Confucius and the ancestors, they alerted Rome about this matter. In a letter of December 3, 1934, Cardinal Pietro Fumasoni-Biondi, prefect of Propaganda Fide since 1933, encouraged them to study this delicate question and to submit concrete criteria that would enable Propaganda Fide to come up with practical guidelines.

On March 25, 1935, the vicars apostolic submitted the requested data. They had consulted local authorities about the contemporary meaning of the Confucius cult. The Manchukuo government's reply was unmistakably clear: it was only a matter of a civil honor with no religious significance. Thereupon, with Pius XI's authorization, Propoganda Fide addressed the famous letter of May 28, 1935, to the bishops of Manchukuo.(16) It contains the following determinations: Missionaries should take care that the government's declaration regarding the civil character of the Confucius cult become known among the people. It was permissible in Catholic schools to display Confucius's picture and to pay him the state-prescribed homage. Because of the danger of confusion with religious devotion, Christian believers should not set up altars or burn candles before this image. Material contributions in honor of Confucius, but no "offerings," could be tolerated. Christians could also contribute money for the building and renovation of Confucian temples if this was included in the common taxes levied by the state. It was also permitted that Christians could participate in local burial ceremonies conducted as an expression of honor and gratitude toward the deceased person.

Pius XI emphasized that these decisions should be given due publicity throughout the whole of China. The result, as anticipated and desired by the pope, was that one after the other of the vicars apostolic in China reported to Rome that Christians were no longer attributing any religious significance to the Chinese rites. Therefore, they asked, could the same measures allowed in Manchukuo be granted in other areas as well? Such requests were granted. Finally, on December 8, 1939, the pope authorized Propaganda Fide to provide the following principles for the whole of China:

1. Catholics are allowed to take part in expressions of honor made before images and plaques of Confucius in Confucian memorial places or in schools.

2. It is permissible in Catholic schools to put up the picture of Confucius, or a plaque bearing his name, and to greet it with a bow of one's head.

3. Catholic teachers and students, who are ordered thereto, may take part in public ceremonies in honor of Confucius, insofar as such ceremonies can be considered purely civil.

4. Bowing the head and other civil signs of honor before the dead or their images or tombplates bearing only the inscription of the name are allowed and permissible.(17)


By means of all these historic measures, Pius XI gave testimony to his conviction that spreading Christ's message and the evangelizing of peoples was to be the first and highest aim of his pontificate. Other measures and decisions in regard to this aim were also taken; they can only be listed here.

In the first year of his pontificate, in regard to the three hundredth anniversary of the establishing of Propaganda Fide and the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the (French) Society for the Propagation of the Faith (Lyons, 1822), he took advantage of the occasion to summon all Catholics to zealous missionary cooperation along with prayer and sacrifice. In the same year he declared that the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle (to provide spiritual and material assistance for the clergy in mission countries), and the Society of the Holy Childhood (Catholic children helping children in the mission countries) were now pontifical societies.(18) By this measure he gave new impulse to the missionary cooperation of the faithful on the home front.

The pope promoted the training of a native clergy and requested foreign mission superiors to prepare native priests to take over the leadership of the church. He expressed his special good will to the native seminarians in the Collegio Urbano in Rome. He provided the college with a new location on the Janiculum, and in 1931 he established the Ethiopian College in the Vatican. In 1927 the Agenzia Internazionale Fides was founded to inform the faithful on the home front about mission activities.(19) World Mission Sunday was also established.(20) In 1937 Pius XI laid plans for an exhibit of religious art from missions. Delayed by the Second World War, it became a reality only during the 1950 Holy Year.

An important step in carrying out his mission program was also the setting up of apostolic delegations in the mission countries. They were meant to help bring uniformity into missionary methods; later they were changed into nunciatures with diplomatic status. This happened in China in 1922, where the French Protectorate was to be terminated, as well as in South Africa (1922), French Indochina (1925), the Belgian Congo (1929), British East and West Africa (1930), and Italian East Africa (1937).

A rich literature on Pius XI as pope of missions underlines among other things the importance of this pope for missions on the home front, for missionary science and research, and for the promotion of the spread of the faith in all parts of the world. The fact that during his pontificate some 200 new mission sees were established and that 40 of these were given over to native ecclesiastical superiors speaks eloquently of the missionary legacy of Pius XI. He died on February 10, 1939, after a pontificate of seventeen years, which was fruitful for the entire church and especially for the Christian world mission.


1. Josef Schmidlin, Papstgeschichte der neuesten Zeit, vol. 4: Papsttum and Papste im XX. Jahrhundert. Pius XI. (1922-1939) (New York, 1939), pp. 5-6.

2. Ibid., p. 9.

3. Cf. Ottavio Cavalleri, "L'Archivio di Mons. Achille Ratti. Visitatore Apostolico e Nunzio a Varsavia (1918-1921). Inventario." In Appendice le Istruzioni e la Relazione finale (Vatican City, 1990).

4. Karl Bihlmeyer and Hermann Tuchle, Kirchengeschichte, pt. 3: Die Neuzeit und die neueste Zeit (Paderborn, 1956), p. 493.

5. Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1919), p. 448.

6. Cf. Josef Metzler, O.M.I., "The Pontifical Missionary Library 'De Propaganda Fide,'" in De Archivis et Bibliothecis Missionibus atque Scientiae Missionum inservientibus (Rome, 1968), pp. 347-60.

7. "Norme per l'invio dei libri destinati all'Esposizione Missionaria Vaticana dell'Anno Santo 1925," Esposizione Missionaria dell' Anno Santo 1925. Bollettino Ufficiale (Rome) 1, no. 1 (February 1924): 375.

8. Robert Streit, O.M.I., "Papst Pius XI. und die Missionswissenschaft," Die katholischen Missionen (M. Gladbach) 57 (1929): 215.

9. Cronistoria dell'Anno Santo 1925 (Rome, 1928), pp. 117-18.

10. Since 1972 Willi Henkel, O.M.I., has been head librarian. In 1979 the Missionary Library was unified with the Urbanian University Library, and Henkel became head librarian of both.

11. Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1926), pp. 65-83.

12. Johannes Dindinger, O.M.I., in Guida delle Missioni Cattoliche (Rome, 1934), p. 19.

13. Rerum Ecclesiae (Feb. 26, 1928), par. 5.

14. Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1926), pp. 303-7.

15. Ibid., pp. 432-33.

16. Sylloge praecipuorum documentorum recentium Summorum Pontificum et S. Congregationis de Propaganda Fide (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1939), pp. 479-82.

17. Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1940), pp. 24-26. For other publications, see Bibliotheca Missionum 14, no. 3 (1960): 336-37.

18. Sylloge, pp. 672-82 ("Romanorum Pontificum").

19. Ibid., pp. 717-18.

20. A Sunday dedicated to the idea of mission, with prayers for the success of the missionary effort.


Bierbaum, Max. Das Papsttum: Leben und Werk Pius XI. Cologne, 1937. See esp. "Die katholische Weltmission," pp. 125-62.

Brou, Alexandre, S.J. "L'oeuvre missionnaire de S.S. Pie XI (1922-1929)." Etudes Tom. (Paris) 201 (1929): 202-15.

Bruehl, C. "Pius XI and the Missions." Homiletic and Pastoral Review (New York) 39 (1939): 1257-67.

Burke, Francis J., S.J. Pius XI, Pope of the Missions. New York, 1929.

Carminati, Franco. L'Opera di Pio XI per le Missioni. Rome, 1929.

Gurpide, Pablo. "Pio XI, el Pontifice de las Misiones y del Oriente." Illuminare (Vitoria) 9 (1931): 151-57; 10 (1932): 33-37, 209-16; 11 (1933): 41-45.

Hughes, Philip. Pope Pius the Eleventh. London, 1938. See esp. "The Foreign Missions," pp. 150-62.

Lavarenne, J. L'oeuvre missionnaire de Pie XI. Lyons, 1935.

Ledrus, Michel, S.J. "La doctrine missionnaire de S.S. Pie XI." Nouvelle Revue Theologique (Paris and Tournai) 56 (1929): 481-94.

Lima Vidal, Joao Evangelista de. "A Obra da Propagacao de Fe e o Santo Padre Pio XI." Anais de Propagacao de Fe (Lisbon) 6 (1935): 246-55.

Martindale, Cyril C., S.J. The Call of the Missions. London, 1939. See esp. "Pius XI--Pope of the Missions," pp. 10-20.

Olichon, Armand. Pie XI et les Missions. Paris, 1928.

Ortiz de Urbina, Ignacio. "Pio XI, las Misiones y la Union de las iglesias." Razon y Fe (Madrid) 87 (1929): 42-53.

Peters, Joseph. "Die Neuordnung des Missionshilfswesens durch Pius XI." Die katholischen Missionen (M. Gladbach) 59 (1931): 40-44, 126-31, 212-18, 246-51, 274-79, 344-49.

Pinedo, Ignacio F. de, S.J. "Pio XI y las Misiones." El Siglo de las Misiones (Bilbao) 21 (1934): 36-39, 65-69.

Streit, Robert, O.M.I. "Unser Missionspapst Pius XI." Priester und Mission (Aachen) 13 (1929): 7-16.

Tragella, Giovanni Battista, P.I.M.E. Pio XI, Papa Missionario. Milan, 1930.

Josef Metzler, a German Oblate of Mary Immaculate, taught mission history for more than thirty years at the Papal University Urbaniana, Rome, and was archivist of Propaganda Fide. Since 1984 he has been Prefect of the Vatican Archives.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Overseas Ministries Study Center
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Metzler, Josef
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:My pilgrimage in mission.
Next Article:The legacy of Jakob Jocz.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |