Canonization of Pope Pius XII?
- Created: December 21, 2009
- Written by Richard Owen
An historic visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the Rome synagogue next month is understood to be "at risk" because of Jewish anger over moves to canonise Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff accused by critics of turning a blind eye to the Nazi Holocaust.
On Saturday Pope Benedict approved a decree recognising Pius XII's "heroic virtues", a move that gives him the title "Venerable" and is the step before beatification. Once beatified, Pius XII could be made a saint.
Benedict's move took observers by surprise, since Pius XII's "cause" for sainthood was thought to be on hold because of the controversy over his wartime record. Jewish groups have called on the Vatican to open up its archives on Pius XII and in the meantime to freeze the process that could make him a saint.
However the German-born Benedict has defended Pius, maintaining that he saved many Jews by hiding them in religious institutions, and that he only kept silent to avoid making their plight worse.
Pope John Paul II visited the Rome synagogue in 1986 as part of his commitment to inter-faith dialogue. Pope Benedict is due to follow in his predecessor's footsteps and visit the Rome synagogue on January 17 for a meeting with Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi.
A spokesman for the Rome Jewish community said that the visit was now "under review" pending "clarification" from the Vatican. Rabbi Di Segni declined to comment, saying it was an "extremely delicate" issue for Jews in Rome and around the world.
But Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, head of the Italian Assembly of Rabbis, said "I would not be surprised if after this decision on Pius XII, the papal visit to the synagogue was dropped". Rabbi Laras added: "I hope not, but at this point anything can happen."
He told La Repubblica that the Pope was at liberty to take any decision he wished on internal Church affairs, but "I do not understand the timing. The disappointment of the Jewish community is fully understandable, and the visit would not be taking place in the best of circumstances".
However Gianni Alemanno, the mayor of Rome, said the visit should go ahead because it would provide "a good opportunity to dispel misunderstandings and reinforce dialogue". Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, which includes Vatican relations with Jews, said he had expected "negative reactions", but to cancel the visit would be "absurd, against common sense".
Pius XII was one of 17 people approved by Benedict as having "heroic virtues" on a list that also included Pope John Paul II and Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest killed by Polish secret services in 1984.
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League in the US said: “We are saddened that the pontiff would feel compelled to fast-track Pope Pius at a point where the issue of the record — the history and the coming to a judgment — is still wide open.”
Rabbi David Rosen, a member of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and president of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, said "This papacy has excelled in diplomatic insensitivity. lack of consultation and lack of consideration for the ramifications of its actions."
However Father Peter Gumpel, the German Jesuit priest who has spent 20 years supporting Pius XII's cause, said he was "delighted" by the decision. “I’m glad that the truth has been professed,” he said. "The accusation that he was anti-Semitic or anti-Judaic is absolute nonsense.”
Both Jewish and Catholic scholars have complained that Vatican archives on Pius XII are only fully accessible for the years up to 1939. Vatican officials have indicated the 16 million files relating to Pius XII's reign from 1939-1958 will not be accessible until 2014 at the earliest.
In his annual end-of-year speech today to the Roman Curia, the Vatican hierarchy, Pope Benedict recalled his "disturbing" visit in May to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, an encounter with "human cruelty, hate and an ideology which sent millions of human beings to their deaths and which tried to chase God from the world, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God of Jesus Christ".