(This was published, slightly edited, in The Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday, April 25, 2014, to coincide with the Canonisation of Good Pope John, and Pope John Paul II.)
Spy Wednesday — the Wednesday of Holy Week; so called because it is taken by tradition to be the day upon which Judas Iscariot sold out his Master for thirty pieces of silver — found me reading a recently published book, an early birthday present, which I had put aside to read specifically on that day. (Since you ask, my birthday was on April 17, Holy Thursday this year. I shared it with Victoria “Posh” Beckham and Brian down The Gates Bar. Isabel, the owner, got Brian and me a pint. Posh didn’t turn up.)
“A Spy Among Friends” (see above, I have an odd sense of humour), by Ben Macintyre, is about someone who sold out his masters, his country, his friends and his family (he spied on his own father). It is the story of that most notorious and treacherous, as well as most lethally successful, spy of the 20th century: Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby (see picture).
And Good Pope John gets an honourable mention.
As Europe was for a second time in the 20th century set at war, Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli had been Apostolic Delegate to both Greece and Turkey — something which would be unthinkable now — since the end of November of 1934. Prior to that, for over nine years he had been, firstly, Apostolic Visitor (1925-31) and then, secondly, Apostolic Delegate (1931-34) in neighbouring (to both) Bulgaria.
"A man of peace does more good than a very learned man." Thomas a Kemps, The Imitation of Christ, Chapter 28, but often in a slightly different form mis-attributed as an original quote to God Pope John
In the war, Turkey, like the Holy See, was neutral and so Mgr Roncalli made his base there and not in Greece. However, just like most of the diplomatic corps, he based himself not in Ankara, the capital, but at Istanbul, a mere 40 miles from the border with Bulgaria. By 1942, Bulgaria was occupied by the Nazis and this great teeming metropolis, the gateway from Europe to the Orient, and potentially the quickest way for the Third Reich to the oilfields of North Africa, had become “an espionage hothouse… the scene of a fierce, secret war”.
Which war was being fought out by no less than 17 different intelligence organisations, not including the host nation but most definitely including the Italians. And part of their effort was being waged from within the Apostolic Delegate’s residence. But not by the future Pope and Saint.
It was to Istanbul in 1942, to lead MI6’s counter-espionage operations, that one of the, appropriately enough styled in this connection, “Young Turks” of the Secret Intelligence Service, Nicholas Elliott, was sent. Elliott was Kim Philby’s best friend and greatest supporter within MI6. Twenty one years later he would beg to be, and was, allowed to confront him in Beirut in January 1963 with final proof of his treachery.
But in Istanbul Elliott became involved with another interesting piece of treachery. And it involved the Apostolic Delegate’s secretary, a Mgr Rici, “a most unattractive little man.” He had, Elliott discovered, been “operating a clandestine wireless set on behalf of the Italian military intelligence.” Elliott tipped off the authorities and Mgr Rici was arrested. It was left to Elliott, “with some embarrassment”, to inform his friend, Archbishop Roncalli, that his secretary would be “spending a considerable period breaking rocks in an Anatolian penal colony.”
Since Elliott later stated that His Excellency “merely shrugged” and gave him the impression that “he was not altogether displeased”, it would seem unlikely that the future John XXIII would have quickly or strenuously prayed diplomatic immunity in his underling’s behalf.
The spy and the prelate had become friends because Elliott — who was not a Catholic, his father being Sir Claude Aurelius Elliott, then headmaster of Eton — had fallen in love with his secretary, Elizabeth Holberton, a “quite posh” and devout Catholic. Mgr Roncalli officiated at the wedding in his own private chapel on April 10, 1943.
Elliott (through Macintyre) summed up Archbishop Roncalli thus: “Roncalli… proved to be a fund of good intelligence, and a vigorous anti-Fascist. Like so many in wartime Istanbul, Roncalli was playing a double game, dining with von Papen and taking his wife’s confession, while using his office to smuggle Jewish refugees out of occupied Europe.” (Von Papen and the German Military Attaché were seated at the next table during Elliott’s stag party in the Park Hotel, Istanbul not Glasgow.)
Two things registered about this. Firstly, Papa Roncalli was entirely human. Here is a man we can admire not as an alabaster likeness on the mantelpieces of the devout but as a heroic character in an entirely profane drama.
Secondly, in this singular man — whom Mgr Domenico Tardini, the Secretary for the Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Holy See, the Vatican’s Foreign Secretary as it were (who as his first and most important administrative act Good Pope John would appoint as his Cardinal Secretary of State), dismissed as an intellectual nonentity who should never have been recruited to the diplomatic service of the Holy See — this secret agent of His Majesty’s Government, who despite his love for his bride had no love for her religion, clearly discerned a prelate putting the exceedingly profane, the dark arts of the intelligence operative’s world, his world, to a saintly use: the saving of the lives of countless thousands of Jews from their hellish destiny: the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Over nearly twenty years, Mgr Roncalli had built up contacts at all levels, in the Church and out, throughout the region: in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, the Levant and, of course, back in Italy. And he used them all to save the Jews in their hour of need. And I am confident that time will prove that he did so with the approval of Pope Pius XII and the help of his friend, Mgr Giovanni Battista Montini, who would later succeed him as Pope.