Rome looks at Pius XII papacy as death anniversary nears

September 22, 2008

pdf_scantest.jpgOn October 9, Pope Benedict will lead the Roman Catholic Church in marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII. There is a lot of interest in what Benedict will say in his homily about his predecessor, arguably the most controversial pontiff of the 20th century because of what he did or did not do to save Jews during the Holocaust. On October 21, the Vatican will open a photographic exhibition on his papacy and on Nov 6-8, two pontifical universities in Rome, the Lateran and the Gregorian, will jointly sponsor a conference on his papacy.

An indication of what Benedict might say on October 9 can be found in his address on September 18 to the Pave the Way Foundation, a mixed Jewish-Catholic group based in the United States and headed by Gary Krupp, a Jew who is also a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great.  Pave the Way held a unique three-day symposium in Rome in the days leading up to their audience with the pope at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.

New York Times article in Pave The Way dossierThe title of the symposium was “Examining the Papacy of Pope Pius XII”. It was attended by, among others, panalists such as Sister Magherita  Marchione, an American nun who is feisty despite her 86 years and who has written extensively in defence of Pius, Fr. Peter Gumpel, the Jesuit who is the relator of the cause for Pius’ sainthood, Eugene J. Fisher, who was in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) from 1997 to 2007, and Andrea Tornielli, an Italian journalist who has  has written extensively on Pius XII and whose most recent biography on the pontiff was released last year.

One interesting aspect of the symposium was the 200-page dossier that it produced. It is a very useful, user-friendly compendium in defence of Pius. While much of the material was already known to scholars, seeing it all between two covers could potentially sway some of Pius’s detractors.

New York Times articles in Pave The Way dossierFor example,  it contains a confidential 1939 State Department memo from a U.S. diplomat who knew Pius when he was Vatican nuncio in Berlin before the war and before he became pope. He said that, in a meeting with the then Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future pontiff described Hitler as “not only as an untrustworthy scoundrel but as a fundamentally wicked person.” The diplomat said Pius had told him he “opposed unalterably every compromise with National Socialism”.

The dossier also includes many other entries from individuals and scholars aimed at debunking the concept made popular first in 1963 with the publication of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, which accused Pius of being an anti-Semite and a Hitler collaborator, and later in 1999 following John Cornwell’s highly controversial book calling Pius Hitler’s Pope. The symposium’s dossier also includes copies of of newspaper clippings from The New York Times, Reuters, The Associated Press, Palestine Post (later Jerusalem Post) and other news organisations in the period before, during and after the war reporting on Pius efforts to help the Jews and his speeches on their behalf.

While the dossier, much of which is available on-line, may  not convince the most hardened of Pius’ detractors, it certainly is a very useful addition to the ongoing debate in what may prove to be a pivitol year.

New York Times articles in Pave The Way dossierRome isn’t the only place where Pius is under review. In Germany, Hubert Wolf, a Catholic priest and church history professor at Münster University, has just published Papst und Teufel (Pope and Devil), a study of Vatican relations with Germany in the turbulent period from 1917 to 1939. Based on documents from the Vatican archive, whose files have been opened up until Pius’s election as pope in 1939, Wolf recounts the internal Vatican debates on how to deal with the Nazis, whether to put Hitler’s Mein Kampf on the Index of Prohibited Books (they didn’t) and how to speak out against growing anti-Semitism in Germany (through the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge).

What do you think about Pius? Has he been maligned? Is the tide of opinion turning in his favour?

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Pope Pius XII is a central character in my historical novel A Man Before God. I researched this wonderful human being and found him unique in character and dedication to the principals of his faith. He believed that men of religion should aid each other whenever the opportunity arose, regardless of their faith. It is a basic tenet of faith that is rare in todays world. Eugenio Pacelli supported the Jewish people in a time of darkness the world little recalls. I have learned much in the course of my research and communicated a sense of the man who led the Church through a time of momentous change and peril.

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