A remarkable book about a remarkable woman
DR. RICHARD SONNENSHEIN
Father Charles Murr has written a remarkable book about a remarkable woman, one who has been written about before by a number of authors but who has never been revealed with such insight, tenderness and appreciation of her intellectual gifts, canny assessments of others, and personal humility as he records of her here. In a series of weekly meetings —part conversation, part interview— he succeeds in drawing out this remarkable nun's opinions and judgments about major players in Vatican politics and world affairs, and of her tenure as Pope Pius XII's closest and most trusted advisor and confidant. Her stature and influence is all the more remarkable since she was a woman and a foreigner, a Tedesca, in a diplomatic community totally dominated by Italian males, and inevitably the victim of venomous envy and fear of her undeniable power as being closer to the pope's ear than any other person on earth.
Mother Pascalina Lehnert as a young nun was rather improbably sent from Bavaria, where she met and worked with the then papal nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, to Rome early in her religious life, and where she remained for the rest of her many days. Murr found her to be bright, alert, very astute in her assessments of the holders of important Vatican posts, and yet a warm and sensitive soul. Father Charlie was young, somewhat impulsive, an appreciator of jokes and wordplay, and at times unpredictable. This unlikely mix slowly resulted in Mother Pascalina's coming to trust her weekly visitor. She begin to confide intimate facts about Il Santo Padre, whom she so clearly revered as a saint and to whom she was deeply devoted as a most holy Pontiff and an effective administrator of Vatican affairs. For example, she was closely involved in the Pope's indefatigable efforts all through the Second World War to harbor and protect Jewish lives in Rome, placing them in monasteries, convents, private homes —anywhere to keep them from the eyes of the Nazis. In fact, he never undertook a major project without seeking out her advice and assistance. And in the course of these conversations, which took place over a period of five years in the late 1970s, it became clear to Charlie —as he always refers to himself— that, despite the endless stream of gossip attributing her closeness to this pope to pride, ambition, dictatorial tendencies, her motives were a selfless and impassioned devotion to the man himself and to the extremely important role in the affairs of the Church and the world that history had thrust upon him. Undoubtedly it was this very selflessness and humility, combined with her sharp intellect and shrewd common sense, that made her an invaluable and perceptive aide and advisor. Along with a genuine human warmth that slowly began to manifest itself in the talks that Charlie appreciated more and more as Mother Pascalina came to trust and confide in him.
In fact, she had a noteworthy ability to accurately assess the behavior of high-placed Vatican clergy with inflated egos and could characterize their shortcomings succinctly and adroitly. She also summarized what she felt were the regrettable shortcomings of the then-current Pontiff, Paul VI. Charlie came to place great confidence in her evaluations, which were based upon much personal experience as well as a native astuteness.
The cloistered nun after some time came to appreciate and look forward to their lively exchanges. In time Charlie was occasionally commandeered to drive her to talks and conferences in his "slightly-used-but-in-great-condition" Volkswagon. A genuine intimacy developed and they came to mean a great deal to each other as the years passed by. Their last meeting is imbued with a quiet melancholy as la Madre asked again for his blessing but for the first time, being now quite infirm, did not kneel to receive it.
It is abundantly evident that this friendship was one of Father Murr's most personally valued ones, and he has reflected upon it with thoughtful reverence and gratitude, with the result that his portrait of this remarkable woman is nuanced, subtle, and imbued with warmth and affection. The reader will finish this study with a similar admiring reflection as he reluctantly learns of her death at age 89 in 1983.
And the book's simple but subtle illustrations, by Enrique Aguilar, perfectly capture the moments limned in the various chapters which they introduce.
Professor of English (retired)
Fairmont (WV) State University