In Vatican Insider
Elected Pope by surprise on 6 February 1922, after just seven months in his position as Archbishop of Milan, Achille Ratti was a man accustomed from childhood to climbing mountains, to tenaciously conquering every peak. He was «a challenger who doesn’t like to be challenged».
But the most tempestuous audience in memory with Pius XI was the one with the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer. On 15 March 1938, three days after the Anschluss annexing Austria to Germany, Innitzer warmly received Adolf Hitler, and published a letter that urged all Austrians to speak out in favor of «our glorious return into the Great Reich» and ended with the words "Heil Hitler".
The Pope and his Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli met with the cardinal in the Vatican, where he was forced to sign a pre-written retraction in which he declared that the bishops are subordinated to the directives of the Holy See and that the Austrian faithful must not feel constrained in conscience by the favorable welcome that the ecclesiastic hierarchy had extended to the Führer of Berlin.
After having placed his signature at the foot of the document, Innitzer was received by Pope Ratti, and those who were in the waiting room would testify to distinctly hearing the yelling and uproar. The Austrian Cardinal would return to Vienna with his tail between his legs, even though his public about-face will not change the result of the voting: 99.08 percent of his fellow citizens will give consent to the «reunification of Austria with the Great Reich».
It is also said that one day the Pope asked a prelate what was being said about him in the Vatican Curia. The response: «They say that Your Holiness is an excellent Pontiff, but too energetic». As a matter of fact, the curates were used to defining him with the words of the Dies irae: «Rex tremendae majestatis», Ratti responded: «The Pope cannot be a faint-hearted person, since, as the Duke de La Rochefoucauld said, ‘Weakness is more opposed to virtue than vice».
When Hitler visited Rome, accompanied triumphantly by Benito Mussolini, Pius XI gave the order that no flag be placed on the balconies of the buildings of the Holy See. He abandoned the capital and retired to Castel Gandolfo, and had it written in the Osservatore Romano that the air of the Castle did him good, while the air of Rome did him evil.
Pope Ratti disdained any form of nepotism, never granting special audiences to family members. When one of his engineer nephews did some work in the Vatican, Pius put in writing that the work would not be paid. He was also allergic to flatterers. A pope of great missionary impulses, under his pontificate eighteen agreements would be concluded with various states for the purpose of guaranteeing the greatest freedom possible to the Church. On 13 May 1929, he said «When it is a question of saving souls, we would feel the courage to deal with the devil in person».
His strong character did not prevent him from feeling moved, as shown in his of 6 September 1938 pronunciations in support of the Jews, when he received the gift of an antique missal from a group of Belgian pilgrims. Opening the missal to the second prayer after the elevation of the consecrated host, Pope Ratti, read aloud the passage in which God is implored to accept the offer from the altar with the same benevolence with which he had once accepted the sacrifice of Abraham.
«Every time I read the words ‘the sacrifice of Abraham», he said,
«I cannot help but be deeply moved. Take note: we call Abraham our patriarch, our ancestor. Anti-Semitism is irreconcilable with this elevated thought, with the noble reality expressed by this prayer…Spiritually we are all Semites».