During the Second World War, the Roman Catholic Church was asked to help ease the plight of Jewish families terrorized by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party.
The ‘Wartime Pope’ known as the “Saint of God” by his admirers, Pius XII has often been criticized for his alleged “public silence” against the Jewish genocide during World War Two. Pius XII was born on 2nd March 1876 in Rome and remained the Head of the Roman Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958.
Approximately 2,700 cases detailing families who reached out to the church during those war have recently been made public, on Pope Francis’s order. Although scholars have been accessing the works since the spring of 2020, only now can those outside academia read the files.
In March of that year, Pope Francis said the church “was not afraid of history.” He hoped that releasing the documents to scholars and researchers would put to bed criticisms levelled at the church during the war years.
It was Pope Pius XII who was in charge back then. Many said he turned his back on the suffering of Jews facing Nazi persecution.
Will it rehabilitate Pope Pius’s reputation as a leader who “failed to intervene” to help Jews during those dark days? That remains to be seen.
One persistent criticism of the wartime Pope is that he favoured Jews who had converted to Catholicism, or children of interfaith marriages (between Jews and Catholics) or others who had a direct link to the Catholic Church. Those who were practising Jews were less of a concern to him his detractors say.
“The Pope At War” is a recent book by author and historian David Kertzer. In it, the writer says that Pope Pius XII hesitated to denounce Hitler and the Nazis because he feared drawing the ire of Italy’s own fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. When requests for help arrived at the Vatican, he writes, the pleas were essentially filed away and not acted upon, at least not publicly.
Many officials of the church and defenders of Pope Pius XII insist he worked discreetly to help many families targeted by the Third Reich. Others say he did little or nothing to help, and derisively refer to him as “Hitler’s pope.”
In the face of the global criticism, the Vatican has long held the view that Pope Pius XII used ‘quiet diplomacy’ to save lives during World War Two.
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Whether this recent move proves restorative to those whose families received no help and went on to perish in concentration camps can’t be assessed just yet. At least the now-public records allow descendants to discover clues about the fate of their families who lived – and perhaps died – under Nazi rule.
In June 2022, Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, made a public statement, “They (Vatican) are gathering the requests for help sent to Pope Pius XII … after the beginning of Nazi and fascist persecution.”
Gallagher stated in L’Osservatore Romano that the archives do contain requests from Jews but with little information about the outcomes. “Each of these requests constituted a case which, once processed, was destined for storage in a documentary series entitled ‘Jews’.”
Pope Francis, it can be argued, is determined to make right many of the real and perceived wrongs committed by the church and its leaders before his tenure. And not just sins of omission, like the apparent refusal of Pope Pius XII to denounce the Nazis and offer concrete aid to those Jews facing peril who reached out to the Vatican for assistance.
He recently completed a tour of several locations in Canada, meeting with indigenous leaders whose communities were devastated by the church during the 20th century era of residential schools.
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He apologized for the church’s role in the decimation of their culture, and the physical and sexual abuse that was pervasive in those schools, perpetrated by priests, nuns and other church officials. Some elders in the communities who are survivors of the system said the move went a long way toward reconciliation. Others said it was too little, too late.
Whether Jewish families, whose records total 170 volumes of archives, conclude the move is healing can’t be known just yet.
Only time, and reaching out to read those records and discovering what happened to family members will determine whether Pope Francis is accomplishing his goal of healing. But it is unlikely that the reputation of Pope Pius XII will ever be fully restored.