For decades, Jewish leaders have wondered whether Pope Pius XII, who was elected six months before the outbreak of World War II, truly did everything he could to save lives during the Holocaust.
Now historians will be able to dig through Vatican archives to determine for themselves whether the former pontiff did enough to resist the Nazis’ persecution of Jewish people.
Pope Francis announced Monday that he will open up the Vatican’s secret archives on Pius starting March 2, 2020 ― the 81st anniversary of Pius’ election. Francis said he’s opening the records “with a serene and confident mind,” The New York Times reports.
“The church is not afraid of history,” Francis told archive personnel during the announcement.
The Vatican previously defended Pius’ legacy, saying the Italian pontiff worked hard behind the scenes to try to save people, The Associated Press reports.
Francis appeared to align himself with that interpretation, telling archive staff that Pius was at times criticized “with some prejudice and exaggeration.”
The World War II–era papacy included “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence,” Francis said, according to AP. But they could also be seen as attempts “to keep lit, in the darkest and cruelest periods, the flame of humanitarian initiatives, of hidden but active diplomacy” aimed at possibly “opening hearts.”
Pius became pope on March 2, 1939, and remained in that role until his death on Oct. 9, 1958. During World War II, the Vatican tried to remain neutral and did not officially denounce Nazism, The Washington Post reports.
Bishop Sergio Pagano, the official currently in charge of the archives, wrote in the Vatican’s official newspaper Monday that Pius has often been “too superficially judged and criticized.”
Pagano said he hopes the former pontiff’s archives will show researchers “an almost superhuman work of Christian ‘humanism’ that was active in the stormy disorder of those events that in the mid-twentieth century seemed determined to annihilate the very notion of human civilization.”
Francis’ announcement means Pius’ archives will be opened about eight years ahead of schedule. The Vatican typically waits 70 years after the end of a papacy to open a pope’s records to researchers, the AP reports.
But Jewish groups have long been pushing the Vatican to release its archives on Pius while Holocaust survivors are still alive. Criticism of his legacy ramped up when the Vatican put Pius on the path toward sainthood.
Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial praised the decision to open the Pius archives. In a statement, the museum said it expects researchers will be granted “full access.”
“For years, Yad Vashem has called for the opening of these archives, which will enable objective and open research as well as comprehensive discourse on issues related to the conduct of the Vatican in particular, and the Catholic Church in general, during the Holocaust,” the museum stated.
The Vatican’s secret archives contain records of the Roman Catholic Church that date back to the eighth century, according to its website. The Holy See first opened its archives to scholars in 1881.
It’s possible that the questions about Pius’ legacy have slowed down his canonization process, The Washington Post reports. Three of the four pontiffs who succeeded Pius have already become saints.
Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, welcomed news that Pius’ archives will be open to historians for research.
“Since the end of World War II, scholars, Holocaust survivors, and others have asked important questions about the role of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust,” she said in a statement. “It is long overdue for speculation to be replaced by rigorous scholarship, which is only possible once scholars have full access to all of these records. This is important for the sake of historical truth, but there is moral urgency too: we owe this to the survivor generation, which is rapidly diminishing.”