Appointed during the Second World War as rector of the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, he was confessor to successive popes, hearing personal secrets the pontiffs vouchsafed to few others. It was this loyalty to the Holy See that made him the ideal Jesuit candidate to be parachuted in by Pope John Paul II in 1981 to bring the Society of Jesus back to what he considered the straight and narrow.
Pope Paul VI had become increasingly concerned in the late 1970s by what he believed was the Jesuits' preoccupation with left-wing politics and social justice - especially in Latin America - to the apparent exclusion of more strictly religious concerns. But he had failed to move.
John Paul II was not so hesitant. When the Jesuit General, Father Pedro Arrupe, suffered a stroke in August 1981, the Pope pounced. Two months later John Paul summarily appointed Dezza as the "personal delegate of the Supreme Pontiff to the Society of Jesus", a previously unknown post, charged with setting the Jesuit house in order.
Although nearly blind and approaching his 80th birthday, Dezza accepted the difficult task of persuading the more rebellious Jesuits to cool it, while persuading the Pope that the society had realised the dangers of its stand and was renewing its loyalty to the Holy See.
Resented at first as a papal stooge, Dezza travelled extensively around the world to visit Jesuit communities. Urging them, "Think what you are doing", Dezza repeatedly asked: "Is this really Ignatian spirituality in the tradition of Ignatius of Loyola, our founder? Is this really the mission of the Society? Do we as Jesuits really do today what we should do?"
When John Paul later declared that the Jesuits had "passed the test", Dezza could breathe more easily. In the wake of the long-delayed Jesuit General Congregation in September and October 1983 - at which Peter-Hans Kolvenbach was elected the new General - Dezza stepped down.
However, his tenure as stand-in head of the society had done less to change the Jesuits than to change the attitude of the Pope and the Curia towards it.
He completed his task with the respect of the Jesuits. One provincial who visited Dezza was astonished by his knowledgeable questioning, ranging not only over Jesuit work in the provincial's country but over the state of modern philosophy. This was all the more impressive as Dezza conducted the meeting at an empty desk with no notes.
As a belated reward for his services, the Pope appointed Dezza a cardinal during the Consistory of June 1991, an honour Dezza accepted, on the condition that he could decline consecration as a bishop.
Born in the northern Italian city of Parma in 1901, Dezza joined the Jesuits in 1918. He was ordained a priest in Naples in March 1928. Upon completing his theological studies, he taught Metaphysics at the Gregorian University from 1929 to 1932. In 1936 he helped found a centre for Scholastic Philosophy at Gallarate called the Aloisianium, and was made Professor of Metaphysics and Rector of this centre in 1939.
Called to Rome once again, in August 1941 he was named Rector of the Gregorian University, a post he held for the next decade. Here he resumed his teaching of metaphysics (he penned a textbook on the subject). Remembered as a clear and profound teacher, he had among his students Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II).
He was a strong supporter of the Paris-based International Federation of Catholic Universities, of which he was secretary-general 1952-63. Dezza was elected Assistant General of the Jesuits at the 31st General Congregation in 1965. He then moved to the Jesuit headquarters, a stone's-throw from the Vatican, at Borgo Santo Spirito, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Measured, balanced and unflappable, Dezza proved an able and well-informed administrator with a phenomenal memory. He inspired trust in others, whoever he was talking to, a quality that made him a suitable papal confessor.
It was during the Second World War that Dezza became confessor to Pope Pius XII and ever after defended his record against those who accused the Pope of failing to do all he could have done to help prevent the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.
In an interview with the Italian Catholic magazine La Civilta Cattolica in 1998, Dezza recounted Pius XII's anguish. "The Pope was suffering, because he was ready to intervene publicly with a solemn condemnation of Hitler's actions. But he had me read a letter from the German bishops and cardinals, who begged him not to speak, because, if the Pope spoke out publicly against Hitler, he would treat Catholics even more violently than Jews."
Dezza was also confessor to Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I (the pope who reigned for 33 days in 1978). In an interview with Vatican Radio in 1997, Dezza revealed that late in his life, as age and infirmity overtook him, Pope Paul VI had seriously considered resigning, but decided against it because he believed it would be traumatic for the Church.
Dezza was also present when Paul VI died, as he later recounted. "At the moment of death, the alarm clock went off. It was a little alarm clock he had had for years and it was a bit damaged. That morning the secretary had fixed it and, without realising it, set the alarm precisely for the time the Pope died. I gave him the last absolution and saw how he expired serenely."
Once, when the newly elected John Paul I sent word that he wished Dezza to hear his confession, Dezza telephoned the Pope's secretary to arrange the appointment. The man who answered the phone regretted that the secretary was unavailable but asked if he could help. Dezza - who was long familiar with Vatican protocol - was astonished to learn that the Pope himself had answered the telephone.
Paolo Dezza, priest: born Parma, Italy 13 December 1901; entered Society of Jesus 1918; ordained priest 1928; Rector, Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome 1941-51; Pontifical Delegate for the Society of Jesus 1981-83; named a Cardinal 1991; died Rome 17 December 1999.Reuse content