Marcus Pfeiffer was born on October 18, 1872, in the town of Brunnen, located in the Bavarian section of the German Empire. When he was 17, he entered the Society of the Divine Savior, more commonly known as the
Salvatorians. He took the religious name Pankratius. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 30, 1896. His first assignment as a priest was as the personal secretary to the superior general and founder of the order, Francis Mary Jordan. He was stationed at the Salvatorian motherhouse in Rome.
In 1902 the Salvatorians’ first general chapter was convened. Father Pfeiffer was elected the procurator general. This position placed him as a consultor to the founder, Father Jordan. When World War I broke out, the Salvatorian generalate decided to leave Rome and move to Fribourg, Switzerland.
Elected Superior General
The third general chapter of the order took place in 1915. Father Pankratius had held the position of procurator general for the previous 13 years. During this time, he had made many connections with people in the Curia at the Vatican and was a consultant to Father Jordan. But Father Jordan was getting older. The responsibilities, workload, and long hours were wearing him down, and it showed. Rather than jeopardize the Order he loved and founded, he resigned. It followed that Father Pfeiffer was elected the new Superior General of the Salvatorians. Most members of the Order had great confidence in him.
Father Pankratius would lead the Society for the next 30 years. He loved Father Francis and had an abiding respect for him. He used him as his role model. He believed that Father Jordan’s virtuous way and saintliness were the foundation for governing as a religious superior. After Father Francis Jordan passed on, Father Pankratius referenced the Bible scene of Elijah and Elisha, “Let, I pray you, your spirit be two-fold in me.”
Liaison with Pope Pius XII
During World War II, Father Pfeiffer became an informal liaison between Pope Pius XII and the German leadership during the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1943 and 1944. Father Pfeiffer would travel every two days to the Secretariat of State of the Vatican, where he would inform the pope’s staff of the Jews who were arrested and receive requests from the Vatican for their release, which he would bring to the Nazis. There were countless Jews saved this way from certain death.
The Angel of Rome
It is unknown how many Jews were saved by Father Pfeiffer’s efforts. On one occasion, Father Pfeiffer had 249 Jews released who were scheduled for execution by firing squad. On another occasion, he went directly to General Reiner Stahel, the commander of Nazi forces in Rome. He even went to Heinrich Himmler to seek the release of Jews. Every day he would visit Regina Coeli prison and another prison in Via Tasso. He would usually return with a freed prisoner he had saved from certain death. Once, he even persuaded the Nazis to release 400 prisoners who were about to be transported into the forest for execution by firing squad.
Father Pankratius Pfieffer tried to help all people, regardless of their religion, their color, or their politics. He even managed to use his influence to save several Italian towns from being bombed. His reputation spread, and before long, he was known as the Angel of Rome.
Sadly, Father Pfeiffer died in a street accident on May 12, 1945. He was 73 years old. The Italians named a street in Rome in honor of the German priest.