Pope Francis announced today that the Vatican archives regarding the pontificate of Pope Pius XII will be opened for consultation by researchers on March 2, 2020.
He said the archival documentation “that goes up to his death at Castel Gandolfo on October 9, 1958,” will be available for research purposes. He said this will happen on the 81st anniversary of the election of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli as pope.
The documentation will clarify the role played by Pius XII during the Second World War and afterward. Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, has been strongly attacked for not speaking out publicly against the Holocaust but defended by some for the hidden work he did to help many victims of the Nazis, fascists and communists.
Pope Benedict XVI recalled in a homily marking the 50th anniversary of Pius’s death that a letter from the former Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir to the Vatican in 1958 praised him because “when fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for the victims.” Public opinion about Pius XII, however, was strongly influenced by the 1963 play “The Deputy,” by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, which fiercely attacked the pope, though was not based on serious historical research.
The documentation will clarify the role played by Pius XII during the Second World War and afterward.
In his talk today, Pope Francis revealed that he had made the decision to open the archives after consultation with his closest collaborators. Alluding to the various criticisms against Pius XII and the enormous difficulties he had to face, Francis said he did so “with a serene and trusting soul, certain that the serious and objective historical research will know how to evaluate in the right light, with appropriate critique, the exalted moments of that pontiff and, without doubt also the moments of great difficulty, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence, which to some may appear as reticence, and which were instead efforts, human but also much contested (“combattuti”).”
Francis said Pius XII sought “to keep alive, in the darkest and most cruel periods, the flame of humanitarian initiatives, of hidden but active diplomacy, of hope in a possible good opening of hearts.”
“The church is not afraid of history,” Pope Francis said. “On the contrary, it loves it and wishes to love it even more and better, as God loves it.” For this reason, he said, “I open and entrust to researchers this documentary patrimony.”
Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to Holocaust victims, has issued a statement commending the pope’s decision. It said: “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. Yad Vashem expects that researchers will be granted full access to all documents stored in the archives.”
Francis said Pius XII sought “to keep alive, in the darkest and most cruel periods, the flame of humanitarian initiatives, of hidden but active diplomacy.
With this decision, the pope is making available records covering the entire period of the Second World War. Great Britain and the United States have not yet made public all the information they had at their disposal about the Nazi persecution of the Jews during the war. Pope Francis alluded to this in an interview in 2014 and noted that while Pius XII was targeted by attacks, little was said the records of Allied countries. Indeed, though he did not say so, scholars still do not have access to all the correspondence between Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt on this subject.
Pope Francis broke the news when he addressed the staff of the Vatican Secret Archives and its prefect, Archbishop José Tolentino Calaça de Mendonça. He recalled that the 80th anniversary of the election of Pope Pius XII fell on March 2 and said that on that date in 1939 the pope was called “to guide the barque of Peter at one of the saddest and darkest moments of the 20th century, agitated and smashed by the last world war,” which was followed by “the reordering of nations and the post-war reconstruction.”
He noted that the figure of Pius XII “was investigated and studied in many of its aspects, at times discussed and even criticized—one could say with some prejudice or exaggeration.” But today, he said, “it has been opportunely re-evaluated and indeed situated in the right light for his multi-faced [“polyhedral”] qualities: pastoral, above all, but then theological, ascetic, diplomatic.”
Pope Francis recalled that since 2006, at the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, the staff of the secret archives as well as those of the historical archives of the Holy See and of the Vatican City State “have been working together in a common project” to catalog and prepare the vast amount of documentation from that almost 20-year pontificate, with the aim of making them available for consultation.
Part of that documentation had already been published at the instruction of Sts. Paul VI and John Paul II, he said. In 1965 St. Paul VI ordered scholars to search the archives for evidence to rebut claims about his predecessor’s allegedly negligent conduct during the war. The scholars, working from 1965 to 1981, gathered documents that were published in 12 volumes under the title “Acts and Documents of the Holy See Relating to the Second World War.”
In 2002 and 2004, Pope John Paul II, under pressure from Jewish groups and others, decided to respond to the criticism by putting aside the usual 70-year time limit for the opening of papal archives and ordering work on the documentation on the pontificate of Pope Pius XI (1922–39), which included the period when Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII) was the Holy See’s secretary of state. It also included documentation from the Vatican office regarding prisoners of war. Benedict XVI gave clearance in June 2006 for the publication of all that documentation and asked for the cataloging and eventual publication of the rest of the documentation regarding the pontificate of Pius XII, paving the way for Pope Francis’ decision today.
Pius XII is currently on the path to sainthood. On Dec. 9, 2009, Benedict XVI issued a decree recognizing that he had lived the Christian life and virtues to a heroic degree and declared him “a servant of God,” thereby allowing him to be called “venerable.”