Tisserant’s service at the Vatican included the period of the Second World War, when Jews suffered persecution under the Nazis and their allies across Europe.
In 1939, racial laws enacted in Italy resulted in the firing of Guido Mendes, the head of a Jewish hospital in Rome. In response, Tisserant award Mendes a Medal of Honor from the Congregation of Eastern Churches, “in clear defiance of the government,” Yad Vashem said. The cardinal then worked to secure immigration certificates for Mendes and his family.
The cardinal sought to secure a Brazilian visa for Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, and to this end he corresponded with Cardinal Luigi Maglione, Venerable Pius XII’s first Secretary of State.
He helped the Jewish linguist and outspoken anti-fascist Giorgio Levi Della Vida move to the U.S., where spent the war as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
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While visiting the U.S. in the 1930s, Tisserant had met Cesare Verona, a Remington typewriter salesman from Northern Italy on a business trip. Verona sought help from the cardinal during the Second World War, and the cardinal hid him in his private residence with another Jewish family. Verona’s wife, Eugénie Crémieux, was hidden in a monastery at Tisserant’s initiative.
In a letter to the cardinal after the war, Verona told him his assistance “came from heaven.”
Tisserant continued to serve the Church long after the war. For many years he was one of the few non-Italians in the Roman Curia.
From 1957 to 1971, Tisserant served as Librarian of the Vatican Library and Archivist of the Vatican Secret Archive. He was credited with modernizing library practices there.
He was voted a member of the French Academy in 1961 and received honorary degrees from many universities, including Princeton University, Fordham University, and Duquesne University.
In 1960, St. John XXIII named him Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. During the Second Vatican Council, Tisserant was chairman of the Council of the Presidency, a key leadership body.
The cardinal served as Dean of the College of Cardinals from 1951 to his death more than thirty years later.
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Tisserant died in Rome Feb. 22, 1972, at the age of 87.
Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services’ Egan Journalism Fellowship.