Death of Pope Pius XII

Main article: Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII, illness and death describes the events during October 1958, the death of Pius XII, and views of his close associates during his pontificate, Domenico Tardini, Robert Leiber, and Madre Pascalina Lehnert.

Illness and last days

Many people who worked closely with Pope Pius XII were present during his last days.[1] Domenico Tardini was possibly his closest associate. Robert Leiber, a professor at the Gregorian University, helped him with his speeches and publications. Augustin Bea, rector of the Biblicum, was his personal confessor and is considered the spiritus behind the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu on biblical research. Madre Pascalina Lehnert was for forty years his housekeeper and loyal assistant. All of them published memorials on Pope Pius XII,[2] which depict a highly intelligent, sensitive, shy, and disarmingly friendly person. Leiber and Tardini describe him as warm and yet distant. Tardini: “Pius XII was truly separated from all and everything. Not that he was absent or did not participate. He saw everything in the light of God and evaluated everything with God and for God."[3]

This fascination with the personality of Pope Pius XII was not limited to close associates. Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, not a Catholic, wrote after an audience with Pope Pius XII:I kneeled not in front of a person, but before a mild idol in white, who visualizes two millennia [4] Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, D.C. described a private audience for United States army chaplains. Entering the room, Pope Pius asked the first chaplain, a war hero from the Normandy landings, his name. The priest could not answer. Pope Pius then asked about his dioceses. The priest did not remember either. Finally the Pope gently hugged the American war hero and went on the next guest.[5]

Madre Pascalina

The role of Madre Sister Pascalina Lehnert[6] — who had served Pacelli since he was nuncio to Bavaria — was within the paternalistic Vatican not without controversy, since she was, in the humorous words of Bavarian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "the most powerful Bavarian ever in the Vatican". Pope Benedict XVI continued, "as housekeeper and secretary Madre Pascalina managed to create the human living space for Pius XII, which he needed, to fulfil his duties in a difficult time"[7] In 1943, Madre Pascalina was asked by the Pope to direct his personal charity efforts. Pascalina organized and led the Magazino, a huge private papal charity office, which she continued until 1959.[8][9]

The health of Pope Pius XII

Late in 1953, Pope Pius XII became sick. A strong hiccup developed and his Swiss doctor asked him to rest. He refused with the consequence that soon after he had to rest for five weeks. His gastritis prohibited food-intake and the hiccup accelerated. He was ready to resign the Papacy.[10] Doctors assured him that with time he would recuperate. Blood transfusions kept the Pope alive and, after months, he could resume his full duties. Like all Popes, a group of physicians watched constantly over him, and this included Professors Gasbarini and Paul Niehans.[11] During his long illness in 1954, American doctors were consulted by intervention of Cardinal Francis Spellman.[12] Niehans and the American doctors concluded that the origin of the illness was incurable in the hypothalamus of the brain.[13]


After a long and arduous schedule on October 5, 1958, Pius XII once again felt complications and his hiccups had returned. He was afraid of not being able to meet the multitudes who came all the way to Castel Gandolfo to see him. After the meetings, he sank down in his bed, quietly saying, adesso non posso piu, now I can't do any more. He slept but insisted on taking his walk afterwards. He went to the chapel to pray, worked for another hour, always resting in between. He had little to eat during dinner and went to pray the rosary with his household, then continued to work on his speeches for the next day until midnight. The doctors came early next morning to pump his stomach, which seemed to go well, but then the Pope became unconscious.

He received the last rites without indication of life. At 4:30 P.M, the Pope awoke and asked for his eyeglasses and documents to continue work. But as he was not allowed to get up, he insisted that all the pilgrims receive blessings on his behalf in their native languages. In the evening, the nuns opened the door to the Papal Chapel and prayed the rosary, so he could see and hear them. He insisted on blessing rosaries for pilgrims as he had done every day in his pontificate. The sisters tried to shorten the rosary to facilitate the Pope’s participation, but he opened his eyes and asked for its completion. The next day, the feast of the Holy Rosary, he wanted to say mass but was prohibited by his doctors. He ate the prescribed food, and slowly turned to Madre Pascalina Lehnert, who had taken care of him for 40 years. Questa e la mia giornata! - "This is my day." Two years earlier, on May 15, 1956, the Pope had told the sisters, “ I will die quickly, but I asked the Lord for one day.”

But the doctors were confident. The patient seemed to improve. The day went by with visitors and guests and doctors and the Pope wanted to read his manuscript on the 200th anniversary of the death of Pope Benedict XIV, which the doctors prohibited. His favourite little bird had stopped eating, and he wanted to feed it, but was not allowed to get up. As the evening arrived, the sisters again prayed the rosary, with the door open to his adjoining bedroom. Sister Conrada opened afterwards the window a bit. Pope Pius XII looked out into the darkness and the stars, and said quietly, "look, how beautiful, how great is our Lord.”. For the coming night, doctors stayed in the nearby room and Madre Pascalina stayed well. Next morning, Pius XII felt miserable. Se sento tanto tanto male. He received oxygen, but his temperature was constantly rising. He seemed to suffer, started perspiring and his breathing became increasingly difficult and painful to watch. At once, all breathing stopped, but then continued. The eyes of Pope Pius XII opened a bit, his mouth formed into a smile, his head lowered. One more last deep breath. “He is now with God”, exclaimed Madre Pascalina Lehnert, while Monsignor Domenico Tardini prayed the Magnificat Anima mea dominum, Mary's praise of the Lord, in Latin.

His doctor Gaspanini said afterwards: "The Holy Father did not die because of any specific illness. He was completely exhausted. He was overworked beyond limit. His heart was healthy, his lungs were good. He could have lived another 20 years, had he spared himself."[14]

Pius XII died on October 9, 1958 at 3:52 A.M. in Castel Gandolfo, the Papal Summer Residence. His funeral procession into Rome was the largest congregation of Romans as of that date, Romans mourned "their" Pope, who was born in their city, especially as hero of the Eternal City in time of war.[15] Pope Pius XII's cause of canonization was opened on November 18, 1965 by Pope Paul VI. On September 2, 2000, during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, Pius XII was given the title of Venerable.


  • Acta Apostolicae Sedis. (AAS), Vatican City 1939-1958. Official documents of the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII
  • Richard Cushing, Pope Pius XII, Boston, 1959
  • Robert Leiber, Papst Pius XII, Herbert Schambeck, in Pius XII, Butzon & Bercker, 1986,
  • Pascalina Lehnert, Ich durfte Ihm Dienen, Erinnerungen an Papst Pius XII. Naumann, Würzburg, 1986
  • Pio XII, Discorsi e Radio Messaggi di Sua Santita Pio XII, Vatican City 1939-1958,Official speeches of Pius XII, 20 vol.
  • Pio XII, Discorsi Ai Medici collected by Fiorenzo Angelini, Roma, 1959, 725 pages,
  • Soziale Summe Pius XII ed. A. F. Utz, J. F. Gröner, 4010 pages. in German, the non-theological teachings 1939-1958, III Vol.
  • Burkhard Schneider, Pio XII, Pace Opera della Guistizia, Edizione Paoline, 1974, German, Pius XII, Würzburg, 1974
  • Domenico Tardini, Pio XII, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1960


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