For keen insight into some of the malevolent forces at work in the Church right now, an unexpected source is a fascinating book by Father Charles Theodore Murr, titled, The Godmother: Madre Pascalina. Published in May 2017, for the centenary of Fatima, it is one of the most interesting yet underreported Catholic books of recent years.
The impetus was Fr. Murr’s utterly unique relationship with the figure closest to Pope Pius XII: Sister Josephine Lehnert (1894-1983). Mother Pascalina was so close to, so trusted by, and so influential to Pope Pius XII, that wise-guys around the Vatican alternately called her La Popessa and Virgo Potens (Powerful Virgin).
Charles Murr was a young American seminarian in Rome in the 1970s. He had a lifelong special devotion to Pius XII. He knew about the iconic Madre Pascalina. Over dinner one day at Il Scarpone restaurant with his colorful friend Monsignor Mario Marini—a classic boisterous Italian who held an important job at the Vatican Secretariat of State—Charlie learned that the old nun was still alive.
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“She’s alive?” he asked with astonishment.
“Very much so,” said Marini, adding: “Not everyone’s as happy about that as you seem to be. No one knows better than La Madre where the bodies are buried.”
As a favor to Charlie, Marini made some moves within the Curia and secured an address and phone number. Charlie picked up a phone and took a chance. The rest is history—this history in this delightful book.
Charlie and Madre Pascalina first met in 1973, quickly becoming close friends. She would become his literal godmother at his ordination, the date of which she suggested: May 13, 1977, Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima. They met frequently until Charlie was sent to Mexico in 1979. He would see her once more in 1983, only weeks before her death. The things she told him constitute a remarkable heretofore unpublished account of the Church in the twentieth century, from the historical to the theological to the ideological—and perhaps even to the level of diabolical, in some cases. At long last, Charles Murr has shared them.
The book’s accounts of Pope Pius XII, from the person who knew him best, are striking enough. So are the insights regarding nearly every twentieth-century pope and even would-be popes such as the excellent Cardinal Giuseppe Siri and Cardinal Giuseppe Benelli, who both barely missed the papacy in the late 1970s. There are compelling stories I had never heard before about Padre Pio, about China’s Cardinal Thomas Tien Ken-Sin, and about Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, a dedicated French-Canadian—and future prefect for the Pontifical Commission for the Family—who was greatly frustrated by the failures of Paul VI to react to what Gagnon had documented (at Paul VI’s request) regarding wholesale corruption of the Curia. There are also intriguing inside tales of the rivalry between Fulton Sheen and Cardinal Francis Spellman, and of the perfectly preserved corpse of Pius IX that Madre Pascalina was there to inspect first, many decades after the pontiff passed.
But getting closer to some of the seeds that were laid for the current chaos in the Church, Charles Murr takes a deep dig into the circumstances around Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli and Giovanni Battista Montini, who assumed the papacy as, respectively, John XXIII and Paul VI. The Madre wasn’t a big fan of either, particularly John XXIII, whom she dismissed as un buffone (“a clown”).
It wasn’t always the popes themselves that Pascalina held responsible for certain troubles—it was often the men they surrounded themselves with and naively listened to and were often misled by. Take Pope Paul VI, whose right-hand man in dealing with murderous communists was Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, whose counsel on handling the Soviets and Communist Bloc despots was often downright lousy and counterproductive. Of course, Casaroli and Paul VI and John XXIII were certainly not Marxists, but they thought they could deal with Marxists, that they could negotiate with them, that they could even accommodate them. Like Pope Francis, these two popes were heavily influenced by key advisers (whom they chose themselves) who were leftist-progressives and who gave them bad advice in dealing with enemies of the Church, sometimes internal enemies.
As to Paul VI, we know about the tragic case of Cardinal Mindszenty as an indicator of his embarrassments in trying to satisfy Moscow. Roncalli likewise had his share. For Vatican II, according to Madre Pascalina, the one thing that Pope Pius XII had wanted ahead of time—and yes, she says it was Pius XII who had the initial idea for a council—was an unequivocal condemnation of communism. And yet, that was “the one thing that Roncalli absolutely refused to do.” (This adds new insight to my piece last year on Vatican II’s unpublished condemnations of communism.) This refusal, revealed Madre Pascalina to Charlie, was done as a promise to the Soviet government and the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church in the name of ecumenism, and it presaged later such moves by Paul VI.
As for Paul VI, whom many of us admire in key respects, The Godmother surely nailed it when she described him as “not a strong man” who was “always easily manipulated.” He frequently struggled to “see the obvious” and realize just how gravely “the Church had enemies,” even as he came to realize that “the smoke of Satan had entered the Church.”
I personally believe this is very fitting to our situation with our pope today, who I contend is far more naïve than nefarious, duped than duplicitous—but has nonetheless created his own terrible mess by surrounding himself with progressive Church officials who have served him dreadfully.
Indeed, there is so much in this book that is important if not profound to current realities as we watch the crises in the Church unfold, from my home dioceses in Western Pennsylvania to Cardinal McCarrick to the unacceptable happenings at the Vatican under the nose of Pope Francis.
Charles Murr calls attention to some dubious characters, if not outright evildoers, in the latter twentieth-century Church. And that’s where Murr’s eyewitness testimony, based on what he saw in Rome in the 1970s and what Madre Pascalina conveyed to him, is so rich and relevant. What we’re seeing right now are the bitter fruits of the rotten seeds sown by a network of progressives, liberals, and the very “modernist” heresy that Pope Pius X warned about in 1907.
Madre Pascalina told Charlie that Pope Pius XII was convinced, just as St. Pope Pius X was convinced and officially declared, that modernism is “the synthesis of all heresies.” The Madre herself was convinced of this, declaring: “And the disgraziati [wretches] behind modernism were the same disgraziati who, for centuries, had been behind every plot to destroy the Church.” Who were they? She looked heavenward and explained to Charlie: “the Freemasons; the liberals; i progressisti [the progressives] … atheists, Marxists, communists.” Whatever the latest masquerade that “Lucifer goes by today…. I often wonder, what name will he go by tomorrow?”
Well, tomorrow in Madre’s time is now today in ours. Fill in the blank with the latest modernist label. And whatever its manifestation, she remarked, “evil is evil.”
Pius XII, said La Madre, wanted to be briefed at all times about the activities of these groups on their various fronts, particularly i communisti in the universities. He smelled them in the 1950s. And for Pope Pius XII, she said, “the worst” of his enemies were “liberals from inside the Church.”
This brings me to maybe the most ignominious villain in Charles Murr’s book: Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio. Murr reports that it was Baggio who appointed so many of the “progressive” prelates who enabled the wreckage we’ve seen in recent decades. Baggio was Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops from 1973-84, which oversees the selection of new bishops. (Cardinal McCarrick, incidentally, was made an auxiliary bishop in New York in 1977 and then bishop in New Jersey in 1981 before becoming archbishop of Newark in 1986.)
Baggio, Charles Murr contends, was not merely a progressive/modernist but a Freemason. He died in March 1993, living the last decade of his life with (in Murr’s words) “Pope John Paul II watching his every move.” The Polish pontiff put the former “Appointer of Bishops” in charge of printing and distributing Vatican City postage stamps. It was a demotion and slap-down, but the damage was done. The seeds for the bitter harvest were in place.
I asked Murr last week whether he saw the hand of the likes of Baggio in the current crisis. “Unquestionably,” he responded. Murr stressed that Baggio dedicated “much time and very particular attention” to potential “archbishop material,” since it was from such persons that cardinals were created. Baggio spent summer vacations visiting out of the way places in the world; places where he had named the archbishops. He would be their house guest, and when they traveled to Rome on Church business, Baggio made sure they saw him in his prefect’s office in the Congregation for Bishops. Murr said flatly that Baggio deliberated and exclusively created liberal bishops, and that any orthodox bishop or archbishop who managed to be named during those years occurred only due to dramatic efforts by orthodox members of the Roman Curia to convince Pope John Paul II to override Baggio. These exceptions infuriated Baggio.
As Murr today ponders the misdirection that the Catholic Church has often mistakenly taken these past 50 years, he notes that Madre Pascalina foresaw what would go wrong. While there was plenty of blame to go around, including during the “great disintegration” that included not only the Paul VI years but carried over into many of the John Paul II years, “the principal culprit” was Sebastiano Baggio, who “highhandedly appointed the world’s bishops for those extremely crucial, post-Council years…. He made certain that the new breed of bishops was, in a word, liberal.”
Pope Paul VI failed to deal with Baggio. When Charlie’s good friend, Edouard Gagnon, fulfilled Paul VI’s request to provide an in-depth report on what that “smoke of Satan” inside the Church looked like, Gagnon was practically despondent when the old, ailing Papa Montini made clear that he would choose to punt—that is, to pass along Gagnon’s investigation to the next pope.
The next pope would be John Paul I, who attempted to discipline Sebastiano Baggio. How did that go? That night was not a good one. In one of the most dramatic sections of his book, Fr. Charles Murr writes this of John Paul I and Cardinal Baggio: “The last person to see him [John Paul I] alive,” Gagnon told Murr, “was none other than Sebastiano Baggio. He [Baggio] entered the papal apartments after eight o’clock that night; the last person to speak, to scream, at the pope.” Following Cardinal Benelli’s wise counsel, Pope John Paul I had just removed Baggio from the Congregation for Bishops. The new pope died right after that.
Make of that what you will. I can neither add to that nor confirm.
Of course, Cardinal Baggio was not the only person causing mischief and mayhem. It was a team effort by multiple players of bad faith.
Madre Pascalina called out the liberal Archbishop Jean Jadot as a “colossal mistake” to be papal nuncio to the United States. She believed he would (in Murr’s words) “ruin the body of bishops” in America. He held that position from 1973-80 (again overlapping McCarrick’s appointment as bishop). Agreeing with La Madre was Mario Marini, who called Jadot “a mediocrity” whose “right niche” would have been “dog-catcher in some remote Belgian hamlet.”
Still another Church official who seems to have caused serious problems was Cardinal Annibale Bugnini, through his appalling “liturgy reforms.” Murr likewise casts a light on Bugnini.
Madre Pascalina lamented to Charles Murr that hundreds of thousands of religious had left the Church between 1965 and 1975. But still worse, she grimaced, “you should see the liberal tyrants who remain!”
In all, such were the kind of men in the Church who appointed the kind of men in the Church who have disappointed us so often.
Alas, here’s an interesting distinction underscored by Murr: He says that Cardinal Gagnon explained to him hundreds of times that the enemies of the Church were not out to totally destroy the Church, because the membership and organization of the Church were far too precious; rather, they wanted to control the Church according to their own vision and scheme. They wanted to remold and use it. They wanted it to be their Church remade in their image.
Needless to say, this book (and this article) is not a comprehensive accounting of all that has hurt the Roman Catholic Church over recent decades. There were plenty of insidious influences from all sorts of destructive forces. Nonetheless, we should not look past these progressive modernists in the Church. Madre Pascalina saw them coming, and the chaos that would ensue, and Fr. Charles Murr offers this crucial timely reminder of who they were—and are still.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a view of the procession of the Council Fathers October 11, 1962 in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, at the opening of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II. (Photo credit: OFF/AFP/Getty Images)