A sudden, unexpected death is shocking, especially when the victim is well-known, young, and apparently healthy. Some find it hard to believe that, in the normal course of events, a person can be here one day and gone the next. When President John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana passed away, it wasn’t long before conspiracy theories began to surface.
Strangely enough, the mantle of religion is no guarantee that a death will be peaceful, natural, and unquestioned. The Vatican itself has been host to a number of suspicious deaths, such as that of Pope Pius XI in 1939.
Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti was born near Milan, Italy in 1857. He was ordained a priest in 1879. A brilliant scholar, he worked in the Vatican library, becoming its head in 1914. It was at this time he came to the attention of Pope Benedict XV.
In 1919, Father Ratti became a cardinal and he was sent to Warsaw, Poland, as Papal Nuncio. There, he developed effective diplomatic skills. He returned to Italy in 1921 and became cardinal archbishop of Milan. In 1922, as Benito Mussolini marched toward Rome, Achille Ratti was elected Pope. He chose the name Pius XI.
During his pontificate, he negotiated the Lateran Treaty with Italy , through which the Vatican became a fully sovereign state. He successfully negotiated peaceful relations between Church and state in Mexico. He signed a concordat with Germany, which that country quickly violated. He increased the number of diplomatic missions around the world.
In the closing months of his reign, he became more closely associated with democracies in the West, realizing that they were all threatened by the militant regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and the Soviet Union.
Pius XI spoke out against all forms of racism, anti- Semitism, nationalism and totalitarianism, under which one leader or one party holds complete control of a government. He promoted human dignity for all people. He believed in the brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God.
On November 25, 1938, the Pope suffered two heart attacks within several hours. Following these, he had breathing problems. In February, 1939, his condition deteriorated. He had pain and difficulty walking. Soon, he was unable to leave his bed because of serious breathing problems.
He was extremely ill, and his team of doctors announced to Vatican staff that his prognosis was poor. He died at age 81, of a third heart attack at 5:31 A.M. (Rome Time) on February 10, 1939, shortly before World War II broke out.
Supposedly, before his death, he was writing an encyclical condemning all forms of totalitarianism, including Nazism and Fascism. His successor, Pope Pius XII chose not to deliver it exactly as it had been written, since hostilities were already at a peak and, in fact, war had begun.
Soon, talk of assassination surfaced. The Pope’s chief doctor was Francesco Petracci, the father of Claretta Petracci, who was Mussolini’s mistress. The doctor possibly had motive and opportunity to inject the already frail pontiff with a lethal dose of some drug, causing immediate death.
Had Pope Pius lived to deliver his encyclical, popular support for the enemy powers would have been weakened just as the Nazis and their allies were launching aggressive invasions. Enemy commanders needed complete dedication and high moral among their troops to subdue the citizens of invaded countries.
Despite the distinct possibility that Pope Pius XI was assassinated, I would argue that it was unlikely, for these reasons:
* A team of doctors had already declared that the Pope, 81 years old, to be gravely ill.
* It was doubtful that he had the strength to finish writing the encyclical,, let alone deliver it.
* Had his death been in any way unusual or unexpected, one of the other physicians would have spoken up.
* Doctor Petracci would only have had to wait a short time and the Pope would have died of natural causes, sparing him the danger of being discovered and prosecuted.
President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were young, vigorous people when they died suddenly and unexpectedly. Had they lived their normal life span, they might have caused serious problems or become major obstacles for other people, some of whom may have been completely unscrupulous.
In contrast, Pope Pius XI was a frail, sick, old man already at the point of death. Would any doctor be foolish enough to risk his freedom and reputation to kill him, even to accomodate his daughter’s love interest? I sincerely doubt it.
On this occasion, at least, it seems unlikely that assassination occurred at the Vatican.