A full-court press from Benedict XVI in defense of Pius XII

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Pope Benedict XVI today issued a ringing defense of his controversial predecessor, Pope Pius XII, the wartime pope whose alleged silence during the Holocaust has long been a sticking point in Jewish/Catholic relations.

Among other things, Benedict prayed aloud that the cause to declare Pius XII a saint “may move forward happily.”

Benedict XVI’s comments came in a homily for a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Pius XII in October 1958. A reminder of the controversy surrounding Pius came earlier in the week, when the first rabbi ever invited to address the Synod of Bishops, Shear-Yashuv Cohen, said in Benedict’s presence that Jews cannot “forgive and forget” what they regard as Pius’ public silence about the Nazi genocide.

In effect, Benedict today fired back, 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.”

During the war itself, Benedict said, 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.”

Benedict also recalled 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 many Jewish leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who said: “We mourn the loss of a great servant of peace.”

Pius XII, Benedict said, “often acted in a secret and silent way, because, in the light of the concrete situations in that complex historical moment, he understood that only in this way could he avoid the worst and save the greatest possible number of Jews.”

Later in the Mass, Benedict read a prayer that Pius XII might “enter with all the saints into the full possession of the truth, in which, with apostolic courage, he confirmed his brothers.”

Taken in tandem with a lengthy article in defense of Pius XII by Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, published earlier this week by L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, Benedict’s remarks this morning seem the clearest possible indication that the cause to declare Pius a saint is on track.

Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, this morning released a brief statement to journalists on this point: “With the words he pronounced in his homily with regard to the cause for the beatification of the Servant of God Pope Pius XII, which is currently underway, the pope meant to explicitly express his spiritual union with a widespread desire among the People of God,” Lombardi said.

“However, the pope did not express himself on the successive steps in the process or their timing, such as the signature of the degree recognizing heroic virtue, or, in its turn, the successive process for the recognition of a miracle,” Lombardi said.

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 a signature from Benedict XVI. The next phase would be to established a miracle due to Pius’ intervention in order to declare him “blessed,” and another miracle to declare him a saint.

Fr. Peter Gumpel, a German Jesuit who has long been involved with the sainthood cause of Pius XII, said during a conference in mid-September that there are several “strong cases” of possible miracles attributed to Pius XII which are awaiting formal review.

In one indication that the wider debate is unlikely to diminish anytime soon, the Anti-Defamation League earlier this week 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 that period, citing the normal time lag in opening historical records and the difficulties of cataloguing delicate materials in multiple languages.

“Until the Vatican's secret archives are declassified, Pius’ record vis-à-vis Jews will continue to be shrouded and a source of controversy and contention,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “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.”

This Sunday, 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.

Like so many other chapters of history during the war, the round-up of Roman Jews has also formed part of the debates over Pius XII. Critics charge he should have done more to prevent it, while 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 October 1943, most were saved.

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