By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Archbishop Antonio Franco, the Vatican’s nuncio in Israel, has announced that he will attend the annual Holocaust Memorial day event at Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust museum, after the museum indicated it is willing to reconsider a caption of Pope Pius XII that Franco found offensive.
Avner Shalev, President of Yad Vashem, sent a letter to Franco late in the week stating that the museum will “reconsider the way in which Pius XII is presented.” In response, Franco indicated that he will be present for the events Sunday evening.
“Because my action was not intended to disassociate myself from the celebrations, but to call attention to the way in which the pope was presented … my goal has been reached,” Franco said. “I don’t have any reason to keep this tension open” and therefore “I will take part in the ceremonies.”
Earlier this week, news broke in Israel that Franco had told Yad Vashem he would not participate in the annual commemoration of the Shoah due to a caption of Pope Pius XII which catalogs various alleged silences and omissions of the wartime pope with regard to Nazi attacks on Jews. Both the previous nuncio in Israel, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and Franco had complained about the caption to Yad Vashem.
Had Franco not attended the Yad Vashem ceremony, it would have marked the first time a senior Vatican official had refused to take part in a Holocaust memorial due to controversies over Pius XII.
Franco’s announced intention not to attend the ceremony drew mixed reviews. Some veterans of Catholic-Jewish relations lamented it as another sign of a “chill” in the dialogue, while others applauded the nuncio’s willingness to defend Pius XII’s reputation. Many experts on both sides, however, said that the dispute should have been resolved quietly by responsible scholars, rather than festering into a public show-down.
Among the statements in the caption, which has been on display at Yad Vashem since 2005, are the following:
Pius XII’s reaction toward the killing of Jews during the period of the Holocaust is controversial. In 1933, as the Vatican Secretary of State, in order to maintain the rights of the Church in Germany, he signed a Concordat with the Nazi regime even at the price of recognizing the racist Nazi regime. When he was elected Pope in 1939, he put aside an encyclical against racism and anti-Semitism prepared by his predecessor.... Although reports about the assassination of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either by speaking out or in writing. ... In December of 1942, he did not participate in the condemnation by members of the Allies regarding the killing of Jews. Even when the Jews were being deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene. ... He maintained a neutral position except toward the end of the war when he appealed on behalf of the government of Hungary and of Slovakia. His silence and the absence of directives obliged the clergy in Europe to decide independently how they should behave toward the persecuted Jews.
Even some Jewish leaders critical of Franco’s boycott acknowledged that the caption may be one-sided.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told NCR that the caption is "too judgmental, too conclusory" based on what is presently known, calling it "inappropriate" and saying, "I can understand the nuncio's displeasure." He insisted, however, that this does not justify refusing to attend the memorial, calling Franco's planned absence "an insult to the victims."
Earlier, Yad Vashem officials had said that they would reconsider the caption if the Vatican was willing to open its archives from the war years to their researchers. The Vatican typically unseals archives by pontificate, and at present records through the papacy of Pius XI, which ended in 1939, are available. The Vatican has also published an 11-volume set of records from the era of Pius XII, though some scholars have said those documents are insufficient to settle the controversies.