History at the Crossroads: Evaluating Pope Pius XII’s Legacy

Once again the issue of Pope Pius XII’s potential beatification has come back into the news. Indeed, many people wonder: how could the Pope bequeath sainthood to a man who watched 1000 Jews in Rome being rounded up to the gas-chambers, without so much as uttering a protest? Questions like these are difficult to answer… however, it is easy for us to be critical after the fact; however, it is a huge leap to presume that Pope Pius XII did little or nothing to help Jews as they were being murdered by the Nazis.

The Vatican claims that Pope Pius XII did his best to operate, “from behind the scenes,” and did as much as he could to speak out against the evils of Nazism. While many Jewish leaders find this argument difficult to accept, it is still worth asking, “What if the Vatican is actually correct in making such an argument?”

Let me share with you a personal anecdote that occurred this past year.

When Father Patrick Desbois, the author of the best-selling book “Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews,” spoke at St. Ambrose University this past year, I had the opportunity to ask him his question about Pope Pius XII’s beatification. “Are you for it or against it?” I asked him. He replied, while rushing out the door with a clear but brief response: The Vatican must open its archives once and for all for everyone to see, once they do, then we shall know how to answer this question.

Well, the Vatican plans on doing exactly that and by 2015, and we will see the archival material made available covering Pope Pius XII’s leadership from 1939-1958. I am among a number of people who happen to think that the Pope will be vindicated for the most part. Along with enormous power comes enormous responsibility.  After Pope Pius XII died, many Jewish leaders from the Italian community felt a debt of gratitude toward the historical Pontiff.

On April 5, 1946, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities met for the first time after the War, and they sent an official message of thanks to Pope Pius XII, “The delegates of the Congress of the Italian Jewish Communities, held in Rome for the first time after the Liberation, feel that it is imperative to extend reverent homage to Your Holiness, and to express the most profound gratitude that animates all Jews for your fraternal humanity toward them during the years of persecution when their lives were endangered by Nazi-Fascist barbarism. Many times priests suffered imprisonment and were sent to concentration camps, and offered their lives to assist Jews in every way. This demonstration of goodness and charity that still animates the just, has served to lessen the shame and torture and sadness that afflicted millions of human beings.”

They weren’t the only ones to express gratitude to the Pontiff.

In 1955, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, which was composed of Jewish refugees from many nations, toured Italy. The Orchestra performed a concert at the Vatican on May 26, 1955. According to the Jerusalem Post (May 29, 1955), “Conductor Paul Klecki had requested that the Orchestra on its first visit to Italy play for the Pope as a gesture of gratitude for the help his Church had given to all those persecuted by Nazi Fascism.”

In 1957, the Pope received a delegation from the American Jewish Committee. The New York Times on June 29, 1957 reported that the Committee’s representatives described the Pope as a “great friend” in the battle against racism and anti-Semitism in the United States. The Pope also praised the Committee’s work, and issued a strong statement condemning anti-Semitism.

Pope Pius XII died on October 8, 1958. Many Jewish organizations and newspapers around the world mourned his passing, and recalled his wartime efforts in how he rescued Jews. At the United Nations, Golda Meir, Israel’s Foreign Minister, said, “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict.” The Zionist Record (October 17) in South Africa published Meir’s moving eulogy along with tributes from Jewish organizations to the late Pope.

“Adherents of all creeds and parties will recall how Pius XII faced the responsibilities of his exalted office with courage and devotion,” declared the Jewish Chronicle in London on October 10. “Before, during, and after the Second World War, he constantly preached the message of peace. Confronted by the monstrous cruelties of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism, he repeatedly proclaimed the virtues of humanity and compassion.”

In the Canadian Jewish Chronicle (October 17), Rabbi J. Stern recalled that Pius XII “made it possible for thousands of Jewish victims of Nazism and Fascism to be hidden away…” In the November 6 edition of the Jewish Post in Winnipeg, William Zukerman, the former American Hebrew columnist, wrote that no other leader “did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy, during the Nazi occupation of Europe, than the late Pope.”

Representatives of the World Jewish Congress, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, Synagogue Council of America, New York Board of Rabbis, the Anti-Defamation League, Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, Rabbinical Council of America, National Council of Jewish Women, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations also gracefully eulogized Pope Pius XII. The Chief Rabbis of London, Rome, Jerusalem, France, Egypt, Argentina and many other Jewish newspapers also paid tribute to the late Pope.

The political crosswinds of this important topic also color the way we read this story… Historically, most of Pius’s critics have traditionally been associated with critics from the political and religious Left. In one recent study, a new revelation was introduced in January 2007 by Lt.-Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the former head of the Romanian KGB. Pacepa writes that the allegations against Pius XII were really the brainchild of the KGB. In an article published in National Review, Pacepa recalls, “In my other life, when I was at the center of Moscow’s foreign-intelligence wars, I myself was caught up in a deliberate Kremlin effort to smear the Vatican, by portraying Pope Pius XII as a cold-hearted Nazi sympathizer.”[1] Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish historian, theologian and Israeli ambassador, stated that the actions and policies of Pius XII saved as many as 860,000 Jews.

One thing is for certain, 2015 shall prove to be a most important and revealing year …


[1] “Moscow’s Assault on the Vatican”, National Review Online, January 25, 2007.

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