Pope Benedict XVI Oct. 9 backed the beatification of World War II-era pontiff Pius XII, defending his controversial legacy and asserting that he “often acted in secret and in silence” to defend Jews during the Holocaust. Celebrating a mass commemorating 50 years since Pius’ death, Benedict said: “In light of the concrete situations of that complex historical moment, he sensed that this was the only way to avoid the worst and save the greatest possible number of Jews.” Benedict said he prayed the process of beatification “can proceed happily.”
The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano devoted an editorial and two articles to the event, vowing to combat what it called a “black legend” portraying Pius XII as indifferent to the Holocaust or even “pro-Nazi.” The Vatican’s Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone wrote that Pius XII had been “neither silent nor anti-Semitic, but he had been prudent.”
The commemorative mass came just three days after Shear-Yashuv Cohen, the Grand Rabbi of Haifa in Israel, spoke out against beatification of the wartime pontiff. Cohen, who on Oct. 6 became the first Jew to address a synod of bishops at the Vatican, said Pius XII “should not be seen as a model and he should not be beatified because he did not raise his voice against the Holocaust.” Cohen added—in Benedict’s presence—that Jews cannot “forgive and forget” Pius’ public silence about the Nazi genocide.
The process of beatifying Pius XII—launched in 1967 and now approaching completion—would place him one step away from sainthood. Last year, the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints voted to approve a decree of “heroic virtue” for Pius XII, the first formal step in the process. That document is now awaiting Benedict’s signature. The next step is to establish a miracle attributable to Pius in order to declare him “blessed,” and another miracle to declare him a saint. The sainthood drive has sparked bitter debate and tension between Catholics and Jews.
Benedict himself fired back at Jewish critics Oct. 9, asserting that even when Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, served as a papal ambassador in Germany in the 1920s, he saw clearly “the danger constituted by the monstrous ideology of Nazism, with its dangerous anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic roots.”
Benedict said that during the war Pius XII engaged in “an intense campaign of charity in favor of the persecuted, without any distinction in terms of religion, ethnicity, nationality, or political affiliation.”* He cited Pius XII’s famous radio message in December 1942, in which the pope referred to the “hundreds of thousands who through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction.” Benedict called it a “clear reference to the deportation and extermination perpetrated against the Jews.”
Benedict also recalled that immediately after Pius’ death there were expressions of gratitude from Jewish leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who said, “We mourn the loss of a great servant of peace.”
Nonetheless, the Anti-Defamation League used the occasion of the anniversary of Pius XII’s death to re-issue its call for the Vatican to completely open its World War II-era archives. Up to this point, the Vatican has only published selected materials from the war period, citing the normal time lag in opening historical records. “Until the Vatican’s secret archives are declassified, Pius’ record vis-a-vis Jews will continue to be shrouded and a source of controversy and contention,” said ADL director Abraham Foxman. “We strongly urge the Vatican to make full and complete access to the archives of this period its highest priority and call on all interested parties to assist.”
On Oct. 12, the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the “new movements” in the church born in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), will lead an annual march in commemoration of the 1,000 Jews in Rome who were rounded up under German occupation in October 1943 and deported to concentration camps—of whom only sixteen survived. Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, us scheduled to take part in the march.
The round-up of Rome’s Jews is also a source of contention between partisans and critics of Pius XII. Defenders note that the deportations stopped after less than 24 hours, following complaints from Pius XII, and that of the roughly 7,000 Jews in Rome in 1943, most were saved. Critics say the pope let the round-up happen (in the words of scholar Susan Zuccotti) “under his very windows,” issuing no directive to Catholics or church institutions to protect Jews. (Middle East Online, National Catholic Reporter, Reuters’ FaithWorld blog, Oct. 9)
*“Charity” is National Catholic Reporter’s term, while Middle East Online—along with AFP and CathNews—uses the word “defense.” This is a pretty critical distinction. “Charity” isn’t exactly what victims of the Holocaust needed. Were Benedict’s original comments in Italian, German or Latin? Can anyone find the verbatim text for us?