IN Rome in 1960, before the second Vatican Council, a document was drawn up laying down conditions by which the clergy should live. It was hoped by many that this would remove old anomalies. For instance, while priests could go to the cinema, they should not go to the theatre; they could go to greyhound tracks, but not to horse meetings.
Instead of removing such anomalies, the document endorsed them. Now priests should not go to the cinema or the theatre; nor to the greyhounds or the horse races.
This was the guide for the diocese of Rome but it was expected it would be copied by dioceses worldwide. While this was being debated, I met a prominent North American priest in Rome who was indignant about the way things were going. He said: "This is meant for Rome and everywhere else is meant to do the same, but this is the last place in the world where these rules will be observed".
I recalled this encounter on the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope at the age of 76. Every bishop in the 2,500 or so dioceses in the world must tender his resignation at age 75, but this does not apply to the Rome diocese, of which the Pope is bishop.
Of course, good Pope John XXIII was 76 when he ascended the chair of Peter. He was a benign reformer: much admired by another reformer, Sean Lemass. So the exception may be better than the rule.
Another comparison from those far-off days struck me. The predecessor of Pope John was Pope Pius XII, who also was inaugurated in the month of March – in 1939. He, too – like St Francis – was a lover of animals and birds; he cared for the poor and desired to be a humble parish priest rather than pope.
And both – Pope Francis now; Pope Pius posthumously – have been arraigned as to what they did or did not do when confronted with despotic regimes.
From 1976 to 1983, Argentina was ruled by a cruel military junta. More than 30,000 perceived opponents of the junta were caused to "disappear". The church has been criticised for failing to condemn the junta.
There was a specific charge against Pope Francis. It was that as Father Bergoglio, and head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he failed to protect two Jesuit priests serving under him who were kidnapped and tortured by the authorities in 1976. He has denied this and said that he intervened with General Videla, then the head of the junta, to save the priests' lives.
One of the priests, Fr Jalics, has said: "After our liberation I left Argentina. Only years later did we have the chance to speak about what had happened with Fr Bergoglio, who had, in the meantime, been appointed archbishop of Buenos Aires. Afterwards we publicly celebrated Mass together and solemnly embraced one another. I am reconciled to what happened and consider the matter closed. I wish Pope Francis God's rich blessings for his office."
The other priest who had been kidnapped, Fr Yorio, died in 2000.
In that year, too, the church in Argentina issued a statement of contrition for failing to take a stand against the dictatorship.
So, the defence rests.
As for Pius XII, it should be remembered that, for his time, he was regarded as a very modernising pope. As Cardinal Secretary of State he had visited the United States, met President Roosevelt and was a close friend of the Kennedys.
As pope, he expanded the College of Cardinals worldwide; he was very receptive to all manner of people. In one of his books, the novelist Bruce Marshall has him receiving a venerable archbishop after the winner of the Rome-San Remo cycle race! He was very devoted to the Virgin Mary, proclaiming the doctrine of the Assumption and designating 1954 as the Marian year.
But his approach to dealing with the fascist, Mussolini, in Italy, and the Nazi menace under Hitler was cautious, to say the least.
Ever since the performance of the drama 'The Deputy', by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth in 1963, there have been many attacks on Pius portraying him as at best timid and indecisive in failing to take on the dictators.
Now a new life of Pius, 'Soldier of Christ' by Professor Robert A Ventresca of the University of Western Ontario, seeks to provide a balanced assessment of the pope's role. He guides us from the extremes of the suggestion that the pope was a Nazi sympathiser to the depiction that he was a wartime saint.
It would have been morally right for the pope to have denounced the dictators, but would it have done more harm than good? When the Dutch bishops spoke out they suffered. Similarly with the post-war puppet police states of Eastern Europe, in Hungary Cardinal Mindszenty denounced the tyrants and suffered; Cardinal Wyszynski of Poland negotiated with despots and he suffered, too. Could Pius have done more for the Jews?
As recounted by Prof Ventresca, never before had a pope been thanked with such warm praise by the Jewish communities of the world for the work he had done on behalf of the persecuted Jews. "More than any other people," said Rome's Chief Rabbi Elia Toaff, "the Italian Jews had experienced the great pity and supreme generosity of the pontiff during the unfortunate years of persecution and terror, when it seemed they had no open way of escape", he went on to refer to "the papal ruling to open the doors of convents and parish houses" to the persecuted Jews.
The debate as to whether Pius XII pursued the right course may never end. But the course he did follow undoubtedly saved many thousands of lives; the other course might have come across as courageous but would most likely have cost lives.
Hugh O'Flaherty is a former judge of the Supreme Court