In his sermon on June 5, 2017, during his daily Santa Marta Mass, the Holy Father offered an unexpected defense of Pope Pius XII’s role during World War II.
It all began with a reading from the book of Tobias. The Jews had been deported and made captive by the Assyrians, in Nineveh. At the risk of his life, Tobias, a just man, helped his poor brothers in religion and secretly buried those who had been massacred.
It was forbidden for the Hebrews in exile to bury their dead, and the punishment for doing so was death. Tobias took that risk, a risk goes along with sharing and compassion, Francis explained.
The Holy Father then made an unexpected reference to recent history: “Think about here in Rome in the midst of war. How many, beginning with Pius XII, took risks to hide Jews so that they wouldn’t be killed, so that they wouldn’t be deported! They risked their skin! But it was a work of mercy to save the lives of those people! To take the risk!”
It was a weighty reference, for Pope Pacelli's role during World War II continues to be unjustly contested. Some historians believe that he should have condemned the massacre of the Jews more firmly – which he supposedly chose not to do, partly out of diplomatic prudence, and partly to avoid endangering Catholics living in German-occupied Europe.
In response to this accusation, many historians quote Pius XII’s famous Christmas message in 1942, in which he spoke of the “hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline,” a message that was very clearly understood at the time, especially by the supporters of the Hitler regime.
The Catholic Church has always maintained that Pius XII had helped Jews by hiding them in religious institutions, and that if he held his tongue, it was above all to protect them. Thus, during a congress held in Rome on March 2, 2017, historical documents proved that the pope had recourse to 48 monasteries to help save many Jews. Pius XII also called on other monasteries to open their doors to the persecuted Jews. These documents show at least 198 direct interventions from the Pope involving the liberation or assistance of Jews. Just during the wave of arrests made in Rome on October 16, 1943, 60 persons were saved.
The controversy came back in full force in December 2009, when Benedict XVI signed the decree opening Pius XII’s beatification process. But the process is at a halt for the time being, until a miracle obtained through his intercession is recognized, but also because of the political consequences of such a beatification, especially as regards relations with Israel.
Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, Cardinal Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, declared in an interview on Vatican Radio that “the true face of Eugenio Pacelli is entirely different from the black legend that has been spread about him.” The prelate recalled that this black legend about Pius XII and his supposed silence, propagated shortly before his death in 1958 and strengthened by Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, in 1963, was created by Communist propaganda from the Soviet Union.
For more on this subject, see the remarkable works by Fr. Pierre Blet, SJ, especially his Pius XII and the Second World War, According to the Archives of the Vatican (Paulist Press International, 1999), that has been published in 13 different languages.