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Holy Silence — A new documentary

Holy Silence, a fine film by Emmy-nominated documentarian Steven Pressman, will air on PBS stations around the United States in November.

I’m featured in the film. Steve Pressman, I and Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming, Director, International Academic Programs, at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, have done a series of talks pre-COVID (in person) and after (online) about the film. Here’s a panel discussion we had earlier this year about the film.

PBS has a description of the film online. Check your local listings and the film will also be available for streaming on

My participation in the film is based on my book, The Pope’s Last Crusade, which is available in print, as an ebook and audio book from your favorite booksellers.

Here’s some background on the book, which may be of interest when you see the film. Let me know what you think, and spread the word!

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Dorothy Day and the Pope

The Halls of Congress well could have shuddered when Pope Francis stood before a joint session of Congress and listed Dorothy Day as one of four great people who represent the best of America. Dorothy Day is considered by many Catholics and others to be an American Mother Teresa. Yet when I met her in 1974, she was virtually banned by the Roman Catholic Church and the priests around her celebrated mass at risk of excommunication.

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had a classified file that described her as a communist dupe and “a very erratic and irresponsible person.” Not from what I could see.

Pope Francis’s mention of Dorothy Day offers insight about who he is and what the Catholic Church is and whence it has come.

I was a very young reporter at the Hudson Register Star in upstate New York in the late fall of 1974 when a dispute arose in Tivoli, a bucolic Hudson River village of about 1,000 people, adjacent to Bard College.

Local burghers were concerned about the streams of hapless men who came to the village in search of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Workers retreat house established in a dilapidated old mansion there. The village council was looking at plumbing, electrical and health violations in the 19th Century building and its outlying shacks.dorothy-day

I remember driving up the rutted driveway to the old mansion one day that fall and that one or two men wearing thread-bare clothes were shuffling up the hill on the side of the road as I got there.

The building, it was true, was in bad repair, but something else was going on. I recall being brought in to meet Dorothy Day, who was just about to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday. She was seated in a broken down easy chair, slightly reclined and wore simple clothing, a shawl or a sweater. Sharp, thin features, a bright, warm gaze under glasses that needed repair;  she spoke easily and calmly about what she was doing.

She said she split her time between a Catholic Workers’ site in Brooklyn and this place in Tivoli. The problem was that every time they opened a soup kitchen or a retreat it was immediately filled and overcrowded. The need was great.

She told me that people were always afraid of having poor folks in their midst, and that was probably the trouble the organization was feeling from the village fathers of Tivoli. But helping these poor men was her vocation — some of them winos, homeless, mentally ill, or just too poor and alone to have any place to go. The goal was to offer these men safety, mercy and forgiveness. No drinking, no carousing, a place of meditation.

She invited me to stay for a Mass, the only Mass I have ever attended. It was celebrated by a priest who wore a work shirt and jeans, broke bread and gave communion — probably not with real wine — and then joined in with a communal lunch. I remember beans and rice and garden vegetables grown on the property.

The rest of the memory is fogged by time, except that I did write a feature about Dorothy Day, impressed as I was by these Catholic Workers who saw that their simple mission in life was to serve the poorest of the poor, and to live among them as they did.

After publication, I received a phone call from a local nun who asked — virtually demanded — that I meet her and a friend for a cup of coffee in nearby Rhinebeck. I didn’t know what to expect.

The two nuns showed up nervously, hoping no one was watching. For the next hour, they grilled me for every detail of my visit with Dorothy Day, tearfully confessing that their mother superior had banned all contact with Dorothy and the Catholic Workers, even though they lived less than ten minutes away. Was she healthy? Was she eating well? What did she say exactly? They wanted to hold the hand that had held the hand of Dorothy Day. They wanted every detail. They were devoted to Dorothy Day, who was the embodiment of why they had entered their vocations.

As I moved on from upstate New York, I reported from Brazil and Argentina and Central America, where I met other renegade Catholic Church workers who took, as Liberation Theology put it, “the option for the poor.” Now, for the first time in a long time, the renegades — who saw their humble purpose as central to the meaning of their faith — are seated at the center of their church with a bishop, now pope, who agrees and breaks bread with them.

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Estreno de La última Cruzada del Papa (Español)

Tengo el placer de informarles que hoy se publica la versión en español de mi libro “La última Cruzada del Papa,” disponible en tapa blanda, ebook y audio. Se lo puede comprar en,, etc.

(Delighted to announce the publication of my book, The Pope’s Last Crusade, available in Spanish paperback, ebook and audio. Here’s the blurb in Spanish. And of course also [In English])


Ultima Cruzada

Delighted to announce the publication of my book, The Pope’s Last Crusade, available in Spanish paperback, ebook and audio. Here’s the blurb in Spanish. And of course also [In English]

Información de la editorial:

  Basándose en recursos sin explotar, entrevistas exclusivas y nueva investigación de archivos, La última cruzada del Papa por Peter Eisner es un emocionante relato que trae a la luz el valiente esfuerzo del Papa Pío XI para condenar el nazismo y la política del Tercer Reich —una cruzada que podría haber cambiado el curso de la segunda guerra mundial.

Un escandaloso relato de intriga y suspenso, ilustrado con dieciséis páginas de fotos de archivos, La última cruzada del Papa: cómo un jesuita estadounidense ayudó a la campaña del Papa Pío XI para detener a Hitler ilumina la atrevida pero poco conocida campaña de este líder religioso, una batalla espiritual y política que se descarriló por la muerte de Pío XI tan sólo unos meses más tarde. Peter Eisner revela cómo Pío XI tuvo la intención de rechazar inequívocamente el nazismo en uno de los pronunciamientos sin precedentes y progresistas jamás emitidos por el Vaticano, y cómo un grupo de clérigos conservadores conspiró para prevenirlo.
Durante años, se han conocido sólo partes de esta historia. Eisner ofrece una nueva interpretación de este acontecimiento histórico y las figuras poderosas en su centro en una obra esencial que proporciona una visión seria y plantea cuestiones controversiales que afectan nuestra época actual.

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Radio Interview

PopeCrusade_desk (2)


August 13, 2013

On March 19th, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio was elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, taking the name Pope Francis. He is the first Jesuit to ascend to the papacy, and his election has refocused world attention on the Vatican and its role in world.

Peter Eisner is a journalist and author who lives in Bethesda, and in his new book, he examines the role of another, much lesser known Jesuit, during the transition between Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII at the start of the second World War. The book is called The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler, published by William Morrow.

Tom Hall talks to Peter Eisner about popes Pius XI and XII, and the Jesuit who went from serving the poor southern Maryland to helping the Vatican (almost) condemn the Nazis in an official encyclical. LISTEN

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Review and Commentary: Pope’s Last Crusade


‘The Pope’s Last Crusade’ and Its Meaning – to Catholics, to Jews, to Moralists, to a Brooklyn Boy Educated by the Jesuits

This is off the cuff, but I just tonight finished The Pope’s Last Crusade and would like to do it better justice someday; but my first thought was to at least throw something up on the blog.

I do recommend the book to anyone who went to a Jesuit school, or to any Catholic, or any Jew, or anyone concerned about the breadth of racism and about inner moral conflicts.

I’m from a West Indian Episcopal/Catholic family, but I went to a Jesuit High School in the early-mid 1960s during the very time that John LaFarge was coming to grips with his lost opportunity in the run-up to World War II, when he failed to deliver to Pope Pius XI the encyclical that would have criticized Nazi racism and maybe changed the course of world history, had the criticism effectively stolen Hitler’s thunder. [read more]

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Huffington Post: The Pope’s Last Crusade

PopeCrusade_desk (2) (More on the Book)

When people think of the Vatican and World War II, they think immediately of Pius XII, the controversial pontiff between 1939 and 1958. But before him, there was a little-remembered pope, Pope Pius XI, who was loudly outspoken against the Nazis and was determined to call the world’s attention to their atrocities. “The Pope’s Last Crusade” tells that story, along with that of the pope’s partnership with an American Jesuit, which breaks new ground about war-time conspiracies within the Vatican. (MORE)

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World War II and The Pope — Today’s Overtones

PopeCrusade_desk (2)My latest book, The Pope’s Last Crusade, just out from William Morrow, is more timely than I could have imagined.

It is the story of the 20th Century’s least-remembered pope, Pius XI, and his attempt at the end of his life to issue a condemnation of Hitler, Mussolini and Anti-Semitism. The setting is Europe just before the start of World War II.

How strongly should a pope or a priest speak out on issues of politics and violence? Can church leaders influence world affairs? Echoes of today’s news.

People at first confuse this pope — Pius XI — with his controversial successor, Pope Pius XII. Pius XII does figure in my story, but at the time he was the pope’s deputy, as Vatican secretary of state.

The other main character is a New York Jesuit journalist, John LaFarge, sent by his editor to Europe in 1938 to assess the prospects for peace. LaFarge had just written a book, Interracial Justice, that called on Catholics to fight for an end to racism in the United States.

Arriving in Rome, LaFarge is summoned by the pope, who asks him to write an encyclical that condemns Nazi Antisemitism. LaFarge is thrown into Vatican politics, with many prelates hoping to block the pope’s daring attack on Hitler.

Two men — a lowly priest and the pope — set out to change history.

The book reads almost as a mystery novel, though it is rigorously researched and annotated nonfiction. I’m attracted to such topics, people who face moral choices in crisis.

Let me know what you think.

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New and Noteworthy: From USA TODAY

Books: New and noteworthy
Jocelyn McClurg, USA TODAY6a.m. EDT March 17, 2013

New history examines Pope Pius XI’s crusade against Nazis

3. The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler by Peter Eisner (William Morrow, non-fiction, on sale March 19)

What it’s about: Tells the story of American Jesuit John LaFarge, enlisted by Pius XI (who died in 1939) to draft a declaration condemning Nazism and anti-Semitism.

The buzz: Popes – and Jesuits, for that matter – are very much in the news these days.

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Questions About Argentina and the Catholic Church

World Desk


The Catholic Church and Argentina

In Buenos Aires, joy over Pope Francis’ election is tempered by questions about the ‘dirty war.’

Pope Francis
Peter Eisner  March 17, 2013

Very few Argentines were on hand for the proceedings, for the white smoke followed by the traditional proclamation, Habemus papam — “We have a pope.” But on the other side of the world, the people of Buenos Aires erupted with jubilation when they learned that the new pontiff, Pope Francis, was Argentine.

The celebration was more about national pride than religious pride, however. At the moment that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has become the face of Catholicism in the Southern Hemisphere and the world, his own country is becoming far less religious. Only about 25% of Argentines regularly attend church — far below the 44% attendance rate in the United States — and evangelical Protestantism is growing in popularity. Even churchgoing…

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Will An American Be The Pope?

By Peter Eisner
Published March 12, 2013 |

As 115 Roman Catholic cardinals from 48 countries begin their conclave Tuesday to choose a new pope, don’t place your bets on the final choice being one of eleven potential candidates from the United States or three from Canada. Logic and the odds are against it.

Give favorable consideration, instead, to an Italian.

Much attention has been given to three possible American candidates: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Each, however, has individual points against him.

Dolan, Catholic clergy say, doesn’t speak the requisite Italian as well as any pope must and also may irritate some European cardinals because of his high-profile media presence.

O’Malley, who does speak Italian, is considered aloof by some and may be a bit too progressive to attract the church’s conservative core leadership.

Wuerl, the third possible North American candidate, was an early proponent of full disclosure on child abuse scandals in the church but, at 73, is older than O’Malley, who is 68, and Dolan, who’s 63.

That may be a problem for a church that is seeking a vibrant new leader.

But the main stumbling block is that these and the other eight Americans have a basic problem: They are Americans.

European bishops, especially those at the Vatican, are still influenced by a centuries-old suspicion of all things American, expecting their American brethren to be too modern, too liberal and too willing to do away with tradition.

Even conservative priests, bishops and cardinals in the United States have been painted by the same brush of liberalism even as they protested they were not liberal at all.

One hundred years ago, Pope Pius X even threatened Catholic clergy with excommunication on charges of “Americanism.” That pope, who served from 1903 to 1914, issued charges of heresy against priests who were suspected of not following church teachings. Americanism also was seen to have spread to Western Europe, where it became known as “modernism,” a term that brought along negative connotations at the Vatican.

Under Pius X, the Vatican actually organized a spy operation within the church to track down wayward priests who might be too secular, who questioned whether the Bible was the literal word of God, who might be willing to change religious rituals to adapt to modern times, and, in some cases, whether priests rode bicycles or accepted modern technology and science.

Until 35 years ago, there had not been a non-Italian pope since Pope Adrian VI, who was Dutch, died in 1523. In 1978, 455 years later, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I, both Italians, died within months of one another. Then Cardinal Karol Wojtyła took the name John Paul II, the first Polish pope. When he died in 2005, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, a German, became Benedict XVI. With his resignation, there is every reason to think that after 35 years, Italians, the largest bloc in the conclave with 28 voting cardinals, will insist on one of their own.

Even if the Italian cardinals cannot attain the needed 77 of 115 votes for their potential choice, the odds would still be against a cardinal from the United States.

The cardinals voting for a new pontiff are by and large a conservative group with an average age of 72. All have been appointed either by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Many of the U.S. cardinals – who are the second largest voting bloc after the Italians — also would oppose modernism or “Americanism” and would consider themselves as traditionalists in the mold of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But an American cardinal will not likely have the chance to show just how conservative he is by being elevated to the papacy.

Cardinal O’Malley as much acknowledged that on Sunday at his assigned church in Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria. When the church pastor, Rev. Stefano Guernelli, told parishioners that O’Malley was a papal contender, O’Malley said he disagreed.

I promise you I’ll return to this church after the conclave,” he said, adding he would not be returning as the pope, but as a cardinal, one of many.

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