Michel d’Herbigny, the 007 of the Pope who challenged the Soviet Union

The Catholic Church has encountered and faced an endless list of rivals and existential enemies over the course of its two-thousand-year life, from the pre-Constantinian Caesars to the liberal revolutionaries of the nineteenth century, but only one has nearly succeeded in trying to turn it into a memory: the communism, and more specifically Soviet communism.

It was precisely in the context of the struggle against Soviet communism, and of the protection of Christians persecuted by the tsaricidal followers of Marx and Lenin, that Pio XI, in the second half of the 1920s – already demanding for the Church due to the concomitant Christian war in Mexico -, entrusted a suicide mission to one of the best secret agents of the Society of Jesus: the creation of a resistance that responds to the Pope in the impenetrable Soviet Union.

The genesis of the mission

Soviet Union, 1920s. The Tsarist order has been definitively buried by the Bolshevik revolutionaries and the Third Rome is being gradually dismantled. The picturesque golden domes fall one by one, replaced by a new type of architecture, while the population is introduced to a new faith: communism. And for Christians, in this new order, there is no room at all.

In the awareness of the tremendous situation in which the Churches find themselves in the newborn Soviet Union – not only the Orthodox one, but also the Catholic and Protestant one -, and in the impossibility of opening a channel for dialogue with the new political forces, then Pope Pius XI he would have turned to the powerful and semi-autonomous Society of Jesus, well-known connoisseur of Eastern Europe and the peripheries of the planet.

The Jesuits would have responded positively to the Pope’s appeal, glimpsing in their leading russologist, Michel d’Herbigny, the ideal man to carry out a mission on Soviet soil, whatever it was. And D’Herbigny, who since 1922 headed the Pontifical Oriental Institute, was officially introduced to the Bishop of Rome in 1926, accepting the position proposed to him.

The impossible mission of d’Herbigny

The Soviet Union of the second half of the 1920s could legitimately be considered the first forcefully decatholicized state reality on the planet. The official hierarchy had been wiped out, beheaded in its entirety, and all contact between Rome and Moscow had been lost. In short, the Pope no longer had clerics or spies at his disposal, and he was unaware of what was happening.

D’Herbigny should have carried out a mission on the ground, as risky as it is imperative, in the expectation of solving the riddle about the fate of Russian Catholics and in the hope of establishing a new hierarchy, ultra-secret and provisional, and of restoring the diocesan system according to the model of the tsarist era. The mission was renamed “mission Ilium” (Ilium is the Latin name of the city of Troy, ed) and to monitor its progress, albeit remotely, would have been the number two of the Catholic Church: Eugenio Pacelli, the future pope.

Having left for the Soviet capital towards the last days of March 1926, not before being secretly ordained to the priesthood by Pacelli himself, the Jesuit would have obtained permission to spend time in the city to confer with the local Catholic community. By the end of the year, by applying the Jesuit teachings on diplomacy, persuasion and espionage, d’Herbigny would be able to revitalize the apostolic administration in the Moscow region, creating clandestine structures in key areas such as Odessa (Ukraine) and Mahilëŭ (Belarus).

The sunset and the condemnation of memory

The web woven by d’Herbigny was reportedly discovered in 1932 and demolished as quickly as it was violently, annihilated by internment in the gulag and executions. D’Herbigny, as in the best stories, would have been betrayed by a friend: Alexander Deubner. The latter, who had behind him a list of conversions from Orthodoxy to Catholicism and vice versa, in 1932 was unmasked by the German authorities: not a priest, but a Soviet spy.

For d’Herbigny, starting with the Deubner scandal, it would have been the beginning of the end. Called up in Italy, here he was severely punished, being sentenced to the worst of penalties: theignominy. At first forced to renounce the rectorate of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and then deprived of any episcopal dignity, the secret agent would have moved to Belgium and subsequently in France, his native land, where he died, alone and forgotten, before Christmas 1957.

By the end of the 1930s, the clandestine Catholic Church established by d’Herbigny would follow the fate of its predecessor, disappearing from the sight and memory of Soviet Russians amidst arrests and murders. The failure of the mission Ilium he would have convinced the Caesars of the Catholic Church to abandon indefinitely any infiltration plan in the Soviet Union, having felt its impenetrability with their hands.

Such was the trauma imprinted on the minds of the Popes by the unhappy and bloody end of d’Herbigny’s daring undertaking, of which it is not known how many deaths he involuntarily generated, that more than fifty years would have been necessary for the fall of the untouchable taboo of war in the Kremlin. Taboo that, not surprisingly, would have been faced by a pontiff different from the others. A pontiff who had personally experienced communism and who, above all, came from that East which in Rome was more feared than understood: John Paul II.

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