Persecutions of the Catholic Church and Pius XII

Persecutions of the Catholic Church and Pius XII

Persecutions against the Catholic Church took place in virtually all the years of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, especially after World War II in Eastern Europe, the USSR and the People's Republic of China. The Catholic Church was under attack in all Communist governed countries and lost most of its existence in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Communist China and the Soviet Union (including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). This article focuses on the post-war persecutions, leaving out the persecutions during World War II in several countries.

Josyf Slipyj was from 1945-1963 in Soviet Gulags and prisons]


Over sixty million Catholics were subjected to Stalinist rule from the Elbe river in Germany to Taiwan after World War II. Massive deportations of Catholic populations from Eastern Europe to Siberia and Church persecutions followed from the newly acquired territories. During the Joseph Stalin era, the Church experienced the most systematic persecutions in its history in these Eastern countries. According to John Cornwell, the Church was faced with an agonizing dilemma: compromise with the regimes in order to maintain a structure with which to survive or resist, or confront and risk annihilation. [Cornwell 333] To save its faithful, the Vatican attempted both at varying times.

A few years after the death of Joseph Stalin, in 1956, the situation improved to varying degrees in Poland and Yugoslavia. In East Germany and Hungary, the Church was subjected to ongoing attacks, but was able to continue some of its activities, however on a much reduced scale. In Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, persecution continued to the point that the Church faced extinction. In the Soviet Union and mainland China, the Catholic Church largely ceased to exist at least publicly during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. In the last months of his reign, diplomatic feelers from the Soviet Union indicated a possible Soviet willingness to improve relations with the Vatican.

Church diplomacy

Pius XII was a diplomat who valued diplomatic relations in order to keep contact with the local Church. As previously with Germany under the National Socialist government, Pope Pius refused to break diplomatic relations with communist authorities. [Before 1939, as Secretary of State, he had debated this point with Pope Pius XI. Pacelli argued, that a break of diplomatic relations means losing all contacts with the local hierarchy and, eventually, paying a much higher price:

* Pius XI asked me, how can the Holy See keep its nuncio there? This is against our honour. I answered: Your Holiness, what do we do afterwards? How do we maintain any contacts with our bishops? He understood and calmed down. (Actes et documents Vol II, p.424)]

Thus, after World War II, the Vatican kept its nuncios in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia Rumania and China, until these countries severed relations, interrupting communication with bishops as well. The Vatican responded, by giving local bishops unprecedented authority to deal with authorities on their own, but without granting the right to define overall relations, viewed as the sole privilege of the Holy See. [Letter of Monsignor Tardini to the Archbishop of Belgrad, 2 16, 1952, in HK VII, 1952 447] In encyclicals such as Invicti Athletae, and Apostolic letters to Czech Bishops, Polish Bishops, the Bishops of Hungary, China, and Romania [Czechoslovakia AAS 1948 33, Poland AAS 1949 29, Hungary AAS 1952 249, China AAS 1952 153, Romania AAS 1947, 223] , the Pope encouraged local bishops to be firm, modest and wise in their dealings with the new communist authorities. He excommunicated all those who imprisoned Cardinals and bishops as in the case of Stepinac, Mindszenty, Grösz, Beran, Wyszinski and Pacha. [Stepinac 10.14.1946, Mindszenty 12 28,1948, and 2 12, 1949, Gosz 6 29, 1951, Beran 3 17, 1951, Wyszinski 9 30, 1953 and Pacha 9 17, 1951]

In an attempt to prevent governmental usurpation of ecclsastical offices, The Vatican threatened to excommunicate anyone who do so, or, illegally grant or receive episcopal ordination. Nevertheless, the Vatican was not successful in blocking episcopal enthronements by the regimes of China and Czechoslovakia. These persons were not excommunicated, however. In his last encyclical Ad Apostolorum Principis to the bishops of China, Pope Pius XII expressed the opinion, that schismatic bishops and priests are the final step towards total elimination of the Catholic Church in that country. [AAS 1958 601] Questions were raised as to why the Vatican appointed powerful but often inexperienced American bishops as nuncios in some Eastern countries, given the anti-American, anti-imperialist tendencies in these countries. [see Stehle, Ostpolitik] While there is no documentation on Vatican motives, a possible reason could be the relative security of US nationals in foreign countries.

Persecutions and Church policies


For centuries, access to the people of China was difficult for the Catholic Church, because it did not recognize local Confucian customs of honouring deceased family members. To the Chinese, this was an ancient ritual, to the Vatican, it was a religious exercise, which conflicted with Catholic dogma. As a result, the Church made little progress in China. Within month of his election, Pope Pius issued a dramatic change in policies. On December 8, 1939, the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of Faith issues at request of Pius XII new instruction, by which Chinese customs were no longer considered superstitious, but a honourable way of esteeming ones relatives and therefore permitted by Catholic Christians. [Smit 186-187.] The Government of China established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1943, within a short interval. The Papal degree changed the ecclesiastical situation in China in an almost revolutionary way. [Smit 188] As the Church began to flourish, Pius XII established a local ecclesiastical hierarchy, and, received the Archbishop of Peking, Thomas Tien Ken-sin, SVD, in to the Sacred College of Cardinals. [Smit 188.]

After World War II, about four million Chinese were members of the Catholic faith. This was less than one percent of the population but numbers increased dramatically. In 1949, there existed * 20 archdioceses, * 85 dioceses * 39 apostolic prefectures * 3080 foreign missionaries * 2557 Chinese priests [Giovanetti 230]

The establishment of Mao Zedong's communist regime in 1949 put these early advances on hold and led to the persecution of thousands of clergy and faithful in China. A patriotic Chinese Church was formed. Since that time, the persecuted Catholic Church exists as a tiny fraction in secrecy and underground only. The losses were considerable. For example, in 1948, the Catholic Church operated some 254 orphanages and 196 hospitals with 81628 beds. [Herder Korrespondenz 5, 201] Catholic clergy experienced increased supervision. Bishops and priests were forced to engage in degrading menial jobs to earn their living. Foreign missionaries were accused to be foreign agents, ready to turn the country over to imperialist forces. [Giovanetti 232]

oviet Union

Relations between Soviet authorities and the Vatican were always difficult. January 23, 1918, the Soviet government declared separation of Church and State and began with the systematic dissolution of Catholic institutions and the confiscation of Catholic properties. Two years later, in 1920, Pope Benedict XV issued "Bonum Sana" [AAS 12, 1020, 313-317] in which he condemned the philosophy and practices of communism. Pius XI followed this line with numerous statements [AAS 29, 1937, 67] and the encyclicals Miserantissimus Redemptor, [ AAS 20 1928 165-178 ] Caritate Christi, [AAS 24 1932 177-194] and Divini Redemptoris [AAS 29, 1937 65-106] The pontificate of Pius XII from the very beginning faced problems, as large parts of Poland, the Baltic States and their Catholic populations were incorporated into the USSR. At once, the United Catholic Churches of Armenia, Ukraine and Ruthenia were attacked.

Catholic Ruthanian and Ukrainian Churches

Soviet attempts to separate the United Churches from Rome, reflected not only Soviet policy, but were a continuation century-old of Russian policies towards the Papacy, viewed as anti-Russian. [see main article, Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII] He also was aware, that in months preceding the encyclical Orientales Omnes, all Catholic bishops of the Ukrainian Church had been arrested. Josyf Slipyj, Gregory Chomysyn, John Laysevkyi, Nicolas Carneckyi, Josaphat Kocylovskyi Some, including Bishop Nicetas Budka perished in Siberia. [Giovannetti, 131] Subjected to Stalinist Show Trials, they all received severe sentencing. The remaining leaders of the hierarchies and heads of all seminaries and Episcopal offices were arrested and tried in 1945 and 1946.

After the Church was thus robbed of all its leadership, a "spontaneous movement" for separation from Rome, and unification with the Russian Orthodox Church developed. Mass arrests of priests followed. In Lemko, some five hundred priests were jailed in 1945 [Giovannetti, 90] or sent to a Gulag, officially called, "an unknown destination because of political reasons". [Smit, 174] Church institutions were confiscated and expropriated; churches, monasteries and seminaries closed and looted, [Adrianyi, 517] Catholic United Churches were integrated under the Moscow Patriarchy, after all residing bishops and apostolic administrators were arrested. [Adrianyi, 518] The Catholic Church of the Ukraine was thus liquidated and its properties turned over to the Orthodox Church under the Patriarch of Moscow.

After Joseph Stalin died in 1953, "peaceful coexistence" became subject of numerous discussions. In his Christmas Message of 1954, Pius XII defined possibilities and preconditions for peaceful coexistence. He indicated Vatican willingness to practical cooperation, whenever possible in the interest of the faithful. The slow pace of de-stalinisation and the Soviet crack-down of the Hungarian Revolution did not produce major results, aside from modest improvements in Poland and Yugoslavia after 1956. January 1958, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko expressed willingness of Moscow, to have formal relations with the Vatican in light of the position of Pope Pius XII on World peace and the uses of atomic energy for peaceful purposes, a position, which he claimed was identical with Kremlin policy. [Giovannetti, 88]

Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia

The small Catholic Church of Estonia and the Church in Latvia were completely annihilated after the Soviet Union reintegrated these countries into its territory in 1945. All Church organizations were outlawed and all bishops jailed. [Adrianyi, 514.]

In 1939, Pope Pius received the ambassador of Lithuania for a final meeting prior to the Soviet occupation. Catholic Lithuania suffered especially under the new Soviet regime. At the outbreak of World War II there were 800 parishes, 1500 priests, 600 candidates for the priesthood in four seminaries. As a part of the Soviet crackdown, the complete hierarchy, a large part of the clergy and about a third of the Catholic population was deported. [Adrianyi, 515]


With the war over, the Pope discontinued his war-time policy of neutrality, stating that he had abstained from protests during he war, despite of massive persecutions. [Giovannetti, 139] The communist party of Poland assumed governmental control in 1947, and began to confiscate Church properties in the months thereafter. By late 1947, Catholic educational institutes, kindergartens, schools, orphanages were expropriated as well. Starting in 1948, mass arrest and show trials began to take place against Catholic bishops and clergy. Pope Pius XII responded with an apostolic letter "Flagranti Semper Animi", [January 18, 1948, AAS 1948, 324] , in which he defended the Church against attacks and Stalinist persecution tactics. However, pressures against the Church increased with the de facto outlawing of religious meetings and organizations. Pope Pius responded with a letter commemorating the 10th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, Decennium Dum Expletur. He writes, that while the Polish people had suffered like nobody else during the war, ten years afterwards, the suffering continues. Cum Jam Lustri commemorates the death of two Polish Cardinals, Hlond and Sapieha and gives courage to the Church in Poland. In honour of Saint Stanisław, Pope Pius XII issues Poloniae Annalibus, giving consolation and again expressing his certain conviction, that Christ will win and the persecution end. By 1952 some 1000 priests are incarcerated, all seminaries of religious orders closed [Giovannetti, 150] On November 19, 1953, the pontiff addressed the Diplomatic Corps to issue a protest against the incarceration of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. [AAS, 1953, 755] After the arrest of the Cardinal, Communist authorities support patriotic priests, who aspire a separation from Rome. At the 300th anniversary of the successful defence of Jasna Góra, Pope Pius XII writes again to Poland, congratulating the courageous defenders of the faith in his time. Gloriosam Reginam salutes the modern day Polish martyrs and expresses confidence in victory of the queen of Poland. He salutes Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski upon his return from arrest in October 1956.

In 1957, Pope Pius addressed with Invicti Athletae in strong words the Polish episcopate, which celebrated the 300th. Anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Andrew Bobola through the Russians. "The haters of God and enemies of Christian teaching attack Jesus Christ and his Church" The Pope asks for endurance and bravery. The people and clergy must overcome many obstacles, and even sacrifices in time and money, but they must never give in. [Invicti Athletae 29 in AAS 1957, 321 ff] The Pope urges his bishops in Poland not to be overwhelmed by the situation but to mix courage with prudence, and knowledge with wisdom:

** Act boldly, but with that Christian promptness of soul, which goes hand in hand with prudence, knowledge, and wisdom. Keep Catholic faith and unity. [Invicti Athletae 34, in AAS 1957, 321]


"They can take away your freedom, but they cannot tear the Catholic faith from your hearts. They can turn you into martyrs, but they can never turn you into traitors". [AAS, XXXVII, 1945, 252] In 1945, the Czecheslovakian government expelled its Hungarian and German populations expelled from Czechoslovakian territories, thus greatly reducing the percentage of Catholics in the country. After the Communist coup in 1948, the regime expelled the Papal Nuncio and closed Catholic seminaries for the formation of priests. Prague outlawed all religious orders and Catholic associations and gradually suppressed the Catholic press. [ Adrianyi, 525] Attempts were made, to divide the clergy into opposing camps by creating a peace loving association of priests headed by Bishop Joseph Plojhar. Archbishop Josef Beran and others refusing to participate were subjected to public show trials and long incarcerations. In 1949, the governmental "Church Office" assumed all functions of the Catholic Church.


After the occupation of Hungary by the Red Army in 1945, socialist policies gaind only gradually ground in the country. But in the following five years, the Church lost three thousand and three-hundred schools, numerous hospitals and newspapers. 11.500 Religious were asked to leave their convents and monasteries and institutes. [Adrianyi, 528.] The nuncio was expelled already in 1945. The Church attempted to come to agreements with the regime in 1950, when the continuation of about ten Catholic schools was permitted. The overwhelming experience of Hungarian Catholicism were the public show trials and degradations of Archbishop Jozsef Grosz and Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty. They resulted in a complete exclusion of the Church from all public life and Hungarian society. [Adrianyi 529]

Jozsef Mindszenty

Jozsef Mindszenty had been jailed by the Germans, freed by the Soviet army and was ordained Bishop in 1944. After coup of the communist party in Hungary, a reign of terror backed by the Soviet army was instituted [Cornwell 333] Pope Pius XII named Mindzenty Primate of Hungary and received him in the College of Cardinals in 1946. "After a propaganda campaign, he was arrested on changes of collaboration with the Nazis, spying, treason, and currency fraud. None of the accusations were true. He was tortured, mentally and physically, beaten daily with rubber truncheons until he signed a confession. His show trial was condemned by the United Nations... The trumped up proceedings, fully reported in the West, gripped and horrified Catholics the world over." [Cornwell 333] The Cardinal remained in prison until 1956, when, during the Hungarian Revolution he was freed. After the failure of he revolution, he lived in the American embassy for the following 15 years.

Romania, Bulgaria and Albania

After World War I, Romania inherited large parts of Catholic Hungary including large Catholic populations, which were not always treated well between the wars. [Adryani 530] The Apostolic Constitution "Solemmni Conventione" of 1930 includes a concordat between Romania and the Vatican. [AAS 1930, 381] It allowed for four dioceses and free exercise of religion within the country. Because of rival interpretations the concordat was enacted ten years later in 1940. In 1948, the Communist regime withdrew from the concordat and closed most Catholic institutes. Only two small dioceses were permitted to continue, the others were considered non-existent. [Adrianyi,531] The six united bishops and several Latin rite bishops were jailed to long sentences. All schools were closed, Catholic activities were outlawed. [Adrianyi,532.] [Orientales Ecclesiae,9 Bulgaria, Rumania, 9-10, 20]

Bulgaria became a People's Republic on October 15, 1946. The new constitution of 1947 limited religious activities. Massive Church persecution followed. The Church lost all its bishops, organizations, religious institutes. Most of the priests and religious perished within five years, [Adrianyi, 536] many of them in Siberia.

In Albania, the communist regime assumed the role of liberator, since the country was under Italian occupation since 1939. The Catholic Church was denounced as the Church of the oppressors. All foreign priests and religious were expelled. Domestic bishops, priests and religious were killed, jailed or sent to unknown destinations. As in other countries, a peace-loving national Church was attempted as well. The government prided itself on having eradicated religion and closed every Catholic Church. [Adrianyi,536]


After defining relations with the Orthodox Church in 1929, Muslims in 1931, Protestants and Jews in 1933, a Concordat was signed in 1935 between Yugoslavia and the Vatican. After the Orthodox Church excommunicated all politicians involved in its parliamentary passing, the government withdrew the text from final vote in the upper house. De Facto however, the spirit of the concordat was accepted and the Church began to flourish in the years prior to World War II. [Adrianyi,533] The war was difficult for the Church, as the country was largely occupied by Italian and German forces. In Croatia, which declared independence from Belgrade, a nationalistic regime was open to the needs of the Church, which led to open collaboration of several Church officials with Croatian government policies.

After the war, the systematic persecution of the Church began as it did in all the other socialist countries. Some 1300 of the clergy was assassinated among them 139 Franciscan monks, 50% of the clergy was jailed. [Adrianyi,534] As in Czechoslovakia and other countries, Belgrade created peace loving organizations of progressive priests, in an attempt to divide the clergy. A major bone of contention was Cardinal Stepinac, who was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1953. To President Tito "a provocation", this represented to Pope Pius "a just recognition of his extraordinary merits and a symbol of our affection and encouragement for our beloved sons and daughters, who testify their faith with steadfastness and courage in very difficult times. The Pope explained that he did not intend to insult the Yugoslavian authotities, but neither did he agree with any of the unjust accusations which resulted in the punishment of the Archbishop. [Pio XII Discorsi, 1952, January 12, 1953] Stepinac was not permitted to receive the red hat in Rome, and remained under house arrest until his death in 1960. Pope John Paul II beatified him. After his death, relations to the Vatican improved significantly. In 1974, the Church in Yugoslavia counted 15500 priests, religious and nuns [ HK 1977,318-324]

Persecution of Religious Orders

Religious orders and institutions are historically visible targets in time of conflict and strive. Their houses, convents or monasteries were looted, burned or destroyed throughout Europe for centuries in virtually all European countries. The beginning of the pontificate of Pius XII coincided with the end of the Civil War in Spain, in which in addition to thousands of faithful, some 4184 secular priests, 2365 religious and 283 female religious were killed within a three year period. [Dammertz 375]

In the following World War Two, the Religious of Poland suffered from an exceptionally brutal German occupation. A thirteen point Program from 1940 provided that "all religious institutes convents and monasteries will be closed because they do not reflect German morality and population policy." [Dammertz 376] The German policy, to treat Poles as subhuman "Untermenschen," was especially brutal against representatives of religious orders. Gestapo raids let to the murdering, assassination and deportation to concentration camps of numerous religious, including the Franciscan monk Maximilian Kolbe. In the Dachau concentration camp alone, some 2800 Polish priests and Religious incarcerated of which approximately 1000 were killed or died of Hunger. In the year 1942, between April and October 500 Polish Religious died in Dachau, in part due to mistreatment, hunger or the gas chambers. [HK 1960, 27] Long time inmate Bishop Kozlowiecki reports "What a happy day, if I was beaten only once or twice". Especially brutal was Holy Week in 1942. One thousand and eight hundred Polish priests and Religious had to punishment drills and exercises uninterrupted from morning to night every day. [HK 1960, 27] Pope Pius XII informed the Cardinals in 1945, that among all the horrors, which priests and religious had to endure in concentration camps, the fate of Polish inmates was by far the worst. [Pio XII, Discorsi VII, 1945, Roma, Vaticano, 74 ]

After 1945, Poland was resurrected but the Polish government continued the attacks against the Catholic Church. All religious were forced to leave hospitals and educational institutions, their properties were confiscated. Within seven years, fifty-four religious were killed. One hundred and seventy priests were deported into gulags. [Dammertz 378] However, after a change of government in 1956, the condition of the Church improved. Harassment and persecution of the Church continued but religious vocations were permitted and Poland became the only Eastern country which contributed in great numbers religious missionaries to world-wide service. ." [Dammertz 379]

In all Eastern countries, after World War II, persecution of Religious assumed new dimensions. All religious houses in the Ukraine were confiscated and its inhabitants either jailed or sent home. All religious houses were confiscated and closed in Lithuania as well. In Albania, all religious orders were forcibly closed. In Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, all monasteries and religious institutes were erased after 1950. [Dammertz 377] In Hungary, 10 000 members of religious orders were ordered to leave their residences within three months. Some 300 were permitted to remain. [Dammertz 378] The Hungarian hierarchy entered an agreement with the authorities, which permitted the reopening of eight Catholic schools [Galter, 345-353,] [Herder Korrespondenz, 5, 1950, 33]

In Yugoslavia, all orders were closed after the war and properties confiscated. In Bosnia, numerous religious were killed, among them 139 Franciscan priests. However, as the Tito regime distanced itself increasingly from Moscow, significant improvements were noticed in Slovenia and Croatia during the last two years of the Pacelli pontificate. In China and North-Korea Catholic religious do no longer exist. Foreign missionaries were expelled, the fate of most domestic religious is not known. [Dammertz 379]

Degrees of the Holy Office on Communism

The Vatican, having been silent during the war on communist excesses, displayed a harder line on communism after 1945. The Holy office issued several decrees, falling broadly into two categories:
* Defence of Church rights regarding the ordination of bishops and Church activities, and,
* Condemnations of participation in Communist parties and organizations.

On July 15, 1948, "L’Osservatore Romano" published a decree about communism, which excommunicated those who propagate "the materialistic and anti-Christian teachings of communism", which was widely interpreted as an excommunication of the Communist Party of Italy, which however, was not mentioned in the decree. [L’Osservatore Romano July 15, 1948] The Sanctum Officium continued to issue condemnations:
** Membership in communist parties, July 1, 1949 [AAS 1949, 334] :
** Excommunication of Bishop Dechet, February 18, 1950, [AAS 1950, 195]
** Membership in communist youth organizations, September 28, 1950, [AAS 1950, 533:]
** Usurpation of Church functions by the State, June 29, 1950, [AAS 1950, 601]
** Illegitimate state ordered ordinations of bishops, April 9, 1951, [ AAS 1951, 217]
** Publications favouring totalitarian Communism, June 28 and July 22, 1955, [AAS 1955, 455 and 558]

Encyclicals of Pope Pius XII on Church persecutions

The name of a Papal Encyclical is always taken from its first two or three words.


* "Acta Apostolicae Sedis" (AAS), Roma, Vaticano 1922-1960
* Gabriel Adrianyi, "Die Kirche in Nord, Ost und Südeuropa", in "Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte", VII, Herder Freiburg, 1979
* Pierre Blet, "Pius XII and the Second World War, According to the Archives of the Vatican", Paulist Press, New York, 2000
* Owen Chadwick, "The Christian Church in the Cold War", London 1993
* John Cornwell, "Hitler's Pope, the secret history of Pope Pius XII", Viking, New York, 1999
* Richard Cardinal Cushing, "Pope Pius XII", St. Paul Editions, Boston, 1959
* ictor Dammertz OSB, "Ordensgemeinschaften und Säkularinstitute", in "Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte", VII, Herder Freiburg, 1979, 355-380
* A Galter, "Rotbuch der verfolgten Kirchen", Paulus Verlag, Recklinghausen, 1957,
* Alberto Giovanetti, "Pio XII parla alla Chiesa del Silenzio", Editrice Ancona, Milano, 1959, German translation, "Der Papst spricht zur Kirche des Schweigens", Paulus Verlag, Recklinghausen, 1959
* Herder Korrespondenz "Orbis Catholicus", Freiburg, 1946-1961
* Pio XII, "Discorsi e Radiomessaggi", Roma Vaticano, 1939-1958
* Jan Olav Smit, "Pope Pius XII", London Burns Oates & Washbourne LTD,1951
* Antonio Spinosa, "Pio XII, Un Papa nelle Tenebre", Milano, 1992


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