As scholars learn increasingly more about Pope Pius XII and his leadership of the church during World War II, a more impartial and favorable portrait of the man has emerged, despite negative caricatures that persist in public opinion, including the myth that he was “Hitler’s Pope.”
An international conference organized by the Guglielmo Marconi University in Rome Thursday sought to pull together what is actually known about the activity of Pius XII during World War II and how the facts have been interpreted–and sometimes twisted.
The conference was organized on the eve of the opening of Vatican Secret Archives and the Archives of Relations with States from the World War II era, the most important event for historians in decades for understanding the role of the Church in the war period.
In introducing the work of the conference, Professor Édouard Husson, former vice-chancellor of the Sorbonne, observed that Pius XII was “one of only a few at the time who understood the centrality of anti-Jewish persecution in Nazism.”
Historian Andrea Riccardi spoke of the importance of encrypted messages contained in the public speeches of the Pope, conveying clear instructions for local priests and the religious in assisting the Jews. In Pius’s 1943 Christmas radio message, for instance, when he spoke of the urgent need to provide help to those in need, he employed the word “strays” to speak of those persecuted, a code word for Jews.
Under the Pope’s aegis, the Church also began using the cover of diplomatic activity to smuggle clandestine aid and relief to those areas under Nazi persecution.
But questions still remain, and the scholars eagerly await documentation that the Vatican will make available within a few months.
Historian Anna Foa pointed out that the opening of the archives to scholars will provide answers to many questions, such as the role played by the Pope and the Vatican secretary of state in the dramatic days of the Nazi raid of Rome’s Jewish ghetto in October 1943.