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World War II and the witness of three future popes

Amidst the bloody darkness of the Second World War, which began eighty years ago this month, Angelo Roncalli, Karol Wojtyła, and Joseph Ratzinger were remarkable examples of compassion, integrity, and heroism.

This month marks the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, the bloodiest conflict in human history that claimed an astonishing 85 million human lives, the majority of them civilians. Amidst this bloody darkness, three future popes were remarkable examples of compassion, integrity, and heroism.

Between 1931 and 1934, Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope St. John XXIII, was the papal nuncio to Bulgaria, and from 1934 to 1944 he served as nuncio to Greece and Turkey. Those were difficult missions, especially since Catholics, in all three countries, were a tiny and unpopular minority. In particular Greece, where Catholics had committed many atrocities during the Crusades and whose island of Crete was for many years oppressively ruled by the Republic of Venice, has a strong tradition of anti-Catholicism.

Yet in all these places Roncalli built trust and gained friends. Invaded and occupied by Bulgaria, Italy, and Germany during World War II Greece endured a brutal occupation and crippling famine. The British blockade of food to the country only increased the Greeks’ misery. The papal nuncio was deeply affected by their plight and took specific steps to help them. During an audience with Pope Pius XII, he persuaded the pontiff to appeal to the British to allow grain to Greece. Roncalli also pleaded (without success) to the German commander of Athens to spare the lives of Greek partisans slated for execution. He worked closely with the International Red Cross to provide humanitarian aid to Greek war victims.

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