Jewish Journal

He Was No Saint

Why Pope John Paul II must not canonize Pius XII

by Rabbi Marvin Hier

Posted on May. 20, 1999 at 8:00 pm

On Thursday, May 13, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, delivered an address at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. The speech, entitled "The State of the Jews," touched on many issues, including the need for Holocaust memorials, the lack of funding for Jewish education, the need for moral education in public and private schools, and the capacity of the Internet to spread hate. Hier also addressed the controversy that surrounds Pope John Paul II's stated intention to nominate for sainthood Pius XII, who was pope during the time of the Holocaust. Below is an excerpt of his remarks:

Early in the new millennium, the current pope, John Paul II, is scheduled to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. John Paul deserves to be enthusiastically welcomed there. He has done more than any other pope has to further Catholic-Jewish relations. He was the first pope to visit a concentration camp, and to speak at a synagogue. The first to issue a document against anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and the first to commemorate Yom HaShoah in the Vatican. He was also the first pope to cut through the bureaucracy and finally recognize the State of Israel. It can be said with near certainty that if he had occupied the throne of Saint Peter during the years of the Holocaust, our history would have been very different. But alas he did not.

Yet it is also this same pope who, many Vatican experts believe, will move forward the candidacy of his three predecessors to Sainthood in the Catholic Church, sometime after his visit to the Holy Land. Among the three is Pius XII, the Pope of the Holocaust.

Normally, it would not be the business of Jews to tell Catholics who their saints are. But Pius XII is surely an exception to that rule because elevating him to sainthood desecrates the memory of the Holocaust. For Pius XII sat on the throne of Saint Peter in stony silence, without ever lifting a finger, as, each day, thousands of Jews from all over Europe were sent to the gas chambers, with his full knowledge.

This was the same pope who refused to issue the unsigned encyclical that his predecessor, Pius XI, had ordered, which would have condemned racism and anti-Semitism. It was written by an American Jesuit Priest, Father John LaFarge, and was on Pius XI's desk, unsigned, when he died. It contained language never uttered before by a pope: "As a result of such persecution, millions of persons are deprived of the most elementary rights and privileges of citizens in the very land of their birth. Denied legal protection against violence and robbery, exposed to every kind of insult and degradation. Innocent persons are treated as criminals, though they have scrupulously obeyed the law of their native land. Even those who, in time of war, fought bravely for their country are treated as traitors."

But Pius XII refused to issue it. More than that, its existence became a Vatican secret until it was finally discovered and reported by the National Catholic Reporter in December 1972.

In fact, Mother Pascalina, who served with Pius XII as chief of his household since his days as papal nuncio in Munich, reported that the pope, following Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, said novenas for the swift victory of the Führer's armies. This, after he knew very well what Hitler had done to the Jews of Poland. When he understood that a victory against the Soviet Union would mean the instant murder of the millions of Jews living there, yet he still prayed for a Nazi victory.

Mother Pascalina can be regarded as a credible witness because she also extols the greatness of Pius XII as a statesman and diplomat. She should surely be believed when she recalls how one day a young man came knocking at Pius XII's door when he was Papal Nuncio Pacelli in Munich. The young man asked for money to curb the spread of communism. Pacelli asked Mother Pascalina to bring him a satchel of church money to aid the young man and said to him, "Go quell the devil's works. Help spread the love of Almighty G-d." The young man was Adolf Hitler.

Pius' defenders often point to the fact that Chief Rabbi Herzog and Golda Meir praised the pope's efforts regarding the Jews. But they did not see the many documents now available. In addition, they were thanking him for his efforts on behalf of the Jews of Rome, whom Pius had, in fact, helped in late 1943 and early '44. But, by then, the Vatican had surely concluded that Hitler would lose the war. But in the critical years, when millions could have been spared, he preferred silence. Even prominent churchmen, including the president of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Tisserant, criticized him.

Still, today, almost 60 years later, the Vatican adamantly refuses to open its files on this period. Files, I am certain, that would prove conclusively that Pius XII knew all about the "Final Solution." He knew it from the reports of his papal nuncios on the ground, from the Gerstein Report filed with the archbishop's office in Berlin by an SS officer who witnessed the gassings. In fact, Pius was better informed about the killings than any other world leader.

Tonight, I call on the Vatican to open its files and to let the world finally know the truth about those years. I call upon every person of conscience, Jew and non-Jew, to write to Pope John Paul II, asking him not to go forward with Pius' nomination; pointing out that such an act would rewrite history and cause great pain and suffering to the tens of thousands of survivors who heard no saintly words from Rome, only silence as the cattle cars crisscrossed Europe, taking them to the death camps. Such a nomination demeans the meaning of sainthood for countless others who are truly deserving of such a tribute.

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