A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Eugenio by Name, Pius by Choice (1)

Fr Michael Sullivan sm

Fr Michael Sullivan sm

Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, is a towering papal figure. His image is iconic. But what went before the image? The child, the boy, the young man? There are many photographs of Eugenio’s early life. What do we see? As the child, so the man, maybe -- timidity, innocence, intelligence, sensitivity, early intentionality. Do his early eyes show something of the window of his soul? All possible.

Eugenio was born early in the morning of 2nd March 1876. His father’s name was Fillipo and his mother’s name was Virginia. He was born into the tradition of his parents. His father was a Vatican lawyer, as was his father before that. The family on both sides were long connected to the Holy See. Eugenio grew up in the Parione district of Rome, close to the church of Saint Philip Neri. The Vatican was more or less his backyard.

Virginia and Filippo Pacelli, Pope Pius XII’s parents

Virginia and Filippo Pacelli, Pope Pius XII’s parents

At the age of five, Eugenio was enrolled in kindergarten, then moved on to a private school, both of which were run by nuns, then to a government school, then in his teens to the Jesuit school, all in Rome. Like many boys, Eugenio had his childhood heroes. One, it seems, was Saint Augustine. For an essay on a favourite historical figure, in middle school, he chose this figure. For the talk and essay he gave at this time he took the topic ‘Christian Civilisation,’ a theme absent from the government school he was attending at the time. He pointed this out in both the essay and the talk.

At the age of twelve he was at the Jesuit school. His teacher Ignazio Bari sj asked him to write a self-portrait. He wrote: ‘I am tall, my figure is slender (it was to remain so), the colour of my skin is brown, my face is rather pale, my hair colour is chestnut and I have a pair of long thin legs and two feet, not a minor size. The study of Latin,’ he goes on, ‘gives me the highest enjoyment (he compared it to solving puzzles), my character is pretty impatient, I will not tolerate disagreement but I easily forgive those who insult me.’

Eugenio Pacelli, front left, at Collegio Padri Filippini in Rome

Eugenio Pacelli, front left, at Collegio Padri Filippini in Rome

Around the time he was 14 years old, Eugenio became aware, probably through one of his Jesuit teachers, of the spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, attributed to the German mystic Thomas á Kempis. This classic urges the genuine seeker after holiness to study ‘the plain word of Scripture and read it with the same spirit wherewith it was written!’ He committed this volume to memory, which was often commented on as being acute, and his recall of The Imitation exact.

At the age of 15 Eugenio announced to his family that he would enter the priesthood at a future date, rather than become a lawyer like his father and grandfather before him. Elizabetha, his sister, said ‘nobody was surprised.’

It seems his parents accepted this for what it was. They did not push; this was his future. He revealed at this time that he lived to pray and Elizabetha said later ‘he never really understood why other boys would talk and do nothing.’

What else did Eugenio take to? All sorts of things! He liked birds, birds of all types, and early on could identify the different ones by colour, size, habit. He would go up to the Janalicum Hill, to the woods there in those days, and engage in this hobby. The bird sellers had their market there on different days. He liked the song of birds.

The family summered in Onono, a little village not far from Lake Bolseno. Here he learnt to swim. He also had lessons in horsemanship, a pastime that was to stay with him till middle-age. As nuncio, later in Munich, he would ride out in the parks there. He hiked all over with his summer friends. They would seek out distinctive stones, shells and fossils, then try and guess how old they were.

Eugenio enjoyed picnics with family and friends at various spots around the lake. He also enjoyed camping. Early on he was drawn to the Alps and later, as a seminarian, did the snow climb from Italy to Switzerland, the face of the Rothorn, and parts of the Dolomites in Northern Italy.

Back in Rome and at study, he expanded his knowledge of history, languages and geography. He liked learning things and was an avid user of encyclopaedias. He had a bit of time for mechanics for a while, but numbers did not engage him at that stage, unless they related to Roman history and dates.

Pacelli young priest

Pacelli young priest

At this time, at around 17 or so, he renewed his interest in the violin and music in general. Mendelssohn was a favourite composer. At the urging of his mother, he turned his attention very closely to public speaking (early on he had a slight speech impediment). He acted in the school play, a favourite device of the Jesuits. Through drama he learned to control his long arms, to use gesture and movement. Later on, as pope, he would become very skilled at this – eyes to heaven, arms stretched wide, wide, wide.

Eugenio tended, by observation of others, to respond to emotions rather than imitating them. He used his eyes to convey and feel – they were very large, clear and very centred. By the age of 18 Eugenio was beginning to know his own mind clearly and harbour his own counsel. He had a way of proceeding and a defined presence. There was also a certain inscrutability descending on Eugenio – the ‘what’s there?’ question. This was to surface from time to time later on in his career. He was emerging into his adult pattern and in 1894, at the age of 18 years, he entered the Roman seminary where he was to do very well.

Did he ever look back? Who knows? He worked with the lights he had or was given and continued to do so into the future. Eugenio was on his way and what a way it would be. There was one hitch, Elizabetha reports again: he did not like the seminary food so he made his own arrangements.


Diaries of Sir D’Arcy Osbourne, British Minister to the
Holy See;
The Pope: A portrait from Life, Constantine, Prince of Bavaria (trans. Diana Pyke)

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