Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to proclaim Pope Pius XII as “venerable” surprised and delighted many who have been campaigning to clear the wartime Pope’s name, but provoked predictable protests from some Jewish leaders.
Although an increasing number of Jewish and Catholic historians say there is plenty of well-documented evidence to suggest Pius was one of the Second World War’s greatest heroes, critics still accuse him of being “silent” and doing nothing to save Jews during the war.
Benedict XVI issued a decree Dec. 19 attesting to the “heroic virtue” of Eugenio Pacelli, pope from 1939 to 1958, giving him the title of “Venerable.” Now a panel of medical experts and Vatican theologians can proceed with investigations into alleged miracles attributed to the late Pontiff’s intercession. Once a miracle is approved, Pius XII can be beatified.
There are said to be several miracles under investigation. Sister Margherita Marchione, a Religious Teachers Filippini nun who has written more than 60 books on the late Pope, records some of them in a new book soon to be published. They include testimonies of a boy cured of leukemia and parents who were able to have a child after praying to Pope Pacelli.
Following the Dec. 19 announcement, the World Jewish Congress called the move “inopportune and premature,” while Yad Vashem in Jerusalem described the move as “regrettable.” The Jewish community of Rome confirmed Jan. 4 that Pope Benedict XVI would visit the city’s synagogue as scheduled on Jan. 17. Most of the critics complained that Benedict XVI issued the decree before Vatican Archives documents on Pius’ pontificate had been made available to historians.
The Vatican argues that the document volume is vast — 16 million files in total, all of which need to be catalogued. The process is not likely to be completed until 2014 at the earliest, according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.
By issuing the decree now, the process can move forward, even if beatification may be years ahead. Father Lombardi stressed “there is nothing hidden or to hide” and that the archives are unlikely to reveal anything historians don’t already know. The Vatican also points out that some archives, for example those relating to Pius’ life just before his election as pope, are already open to scrutiny by the general public, but are hardly ever examined.
Recently uncovered evidence has led to a growing consensus among respected historians and some prominent Jews that Pius XII acted heroically in saving and protecting Jewish lives. It’s widely believed that he was the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated after his death by the Soviet Union, which saw the Church as a threat. Pius was also a fervent anti-communist.
Although unwilling to comment on the beatification process because he is a non-Catholic, Gary Krupp, the Jewish president of Pave the Way, a foundation promoting interreligious dialogue, says Pius should be honored as Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem — the sort of equivalent, he says, of a Jewish canonization.
Over a four-year period, Krupp said his organization has uncovered “a ton of information” supporting the case that Pius XII acted heroically to save thousands of Jews, possibly as many as 860,000 in total. “Through our research of documented proof, we have discovered that secretly he saved more Jews than all of the world’s religious and political leaders combined,” he added.
Krupp stressed that many of Pius’ heroic acts were carried out anonymously and undercover. He and historians also argue that Pius was sometimes silent in condemning the persecution because it had been proven that the louder the Church spoke out, the more the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
What Krupp finds difficult to fathom is why Jewish leaders today, most of whom were born after the war, refuse to acknowledge these facts, while those who were alive during the war, or knew the Pope personally, had nothing but words of tribute for Pius when he was alive.
“It’s the most absurd thing,” he said. “I challenge any writers to go to the archives of The New York Times or The Palestine Post and look up every single article written about Pius XII and the Jews. You’ll see hundreds of articles, and not one is negative.”
One criticism leveled by Italy’s Jewish leaders after Benedict XVI’s announcement was that 1,021 Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz on Oct. 16, 1943, “amidst the silence of Pius XII.” But the accusation was denied by Sister Margherita.
“What the Jewish leaders neglect to state is that as soon as Pius XII learned about the deportation of 1,021 Jews to Auschwitz, he ordered his secretary of state, Cardinal Maglione, to protest,” she said. “The Nazi commander immediately stopped the deportation of the remaining 5,000 Jews. They were saved because Pius XII sent word to the 155 convents and monasteries in Rome to open their doors and hide the Jews.”
Adding to Sister Margherita’s research, Krupp’s foundation recently discovered a telegram showing an order from Berlin to take those Jews as hostages to Mauthausen rather than send them to Auschwitz.
“There is every reason to believe that the Vatican thought, based on the orders from Berlin and probably through their contacts, that they would be able to negotiate the release of the 1,021 Jews,” Krupp said. “No one knows who sent them to Auschwitz.”
Earlier this year, Krupp’s foundation unearthed further evidence, already provided by a former German general, that Hitler planned to kidnap Pius and loot the Vatican.
“We’ve proven without any question that this man was the greatest hero of World War II,” said Krupp. “It’s time Pius XII is recognized for his life-saving efforts even while his very life was in danger during this terrible period in history.”
In her new book on Pius, Sister Margherita said these attacks are as much “political and ideological attacks on Christianity” as they are against Pius XII. Such attacks, she insisted, “can be refuted by anyone who carefully examines the evidence.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.