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Vatican's Nazi Past

DW staff (dfm)
November 4, 2008

Radio transcripts in which the Nazi-era Pope Pius XII purportedly denounced totalitarian rule have gone on show in a new Vatican exhibition.

His Holiness Pope Pius XII, robed in white with a scarlet cloak, is shown in Vatican City on Feb. 5, 1946.
Pius XII was pope until his death in 1958Image: AP

Some historians and Jewish groups have charged that Pius XII failed to speak out against the Nazi massacre of Jews.

But the exhibition sets out to paint Pius in a different light.

"The purpose is to allow the general public to get to know the full life of Pope Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XII)," Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences President Walter Brandmueller, told reporters, Monday.

"In part it serves to counter some of the malignant interpretations that try to cast a shadow on the figure of Pope Pacelli," he added.

Life and times of a pope

Photographs, items of clothing, gifts and documents on display at the exhibition venue -- the Braccio Carlo Magno wing of St Peter's colonnade -- chart Pius's life from his 1876 birth in Rome into an aristocratic family.

It follows his years as a Vatican diplomat, including stints in Munich and Berlin as a Papal Nuncio, or ambassador.

An unidentified prelate studies Inquisition documents in the Vatican Archive
Vatican archives pertaining to Pius XII can't be opened until 2014Image: AP

In one letter to his brother Francesco, the future pope recounts the 1919 occupation by communist revolutionaries of the Nuncio offices in Munich.

"On that occasion, Pius was threatened with a pistol pointed to his head," Pius biographer Andrea Tornielli said.

The violence and anti-clericalism that surrounded the establishment of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919, is said to have influenced Pius' strong anti-communism leaning -- a feature of his papacy which lasted from 1939 to his 1958 death.

Exhibition paints Pius as a Nazi opponent

But the exhibition also touches on what the Roman Catholic Church and other supporters of Pius say is his opposition to Nazism and his efforts to safeguard Jews.

These include documents highlighting the then Cardinal Pacelli's contribution as Vatican Secretary of State to the "With burning Concern," the 1937 encyclical issued by his predecessor Pius XI in which totalitarianism and anti-Semitism are condemned.

Transcripts on exhibition include part of Pius XII's papal Christmas radio message of 1942. Current pontiff Benedict XVI referred to it when he defended his predecessor's record in an October mass commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pius's death.

In that "emotional" broadcast, Pius made apparent his concern for the mass deportation and murder of the Jews, Pope Benedict said.

The exhibition does not contain Vatican archival material on Pius' war-time years that historians say may help clear once and for all the lingering ambiguity surrounding his actions during this period.

Last week the Vatican said such records would only be made available, at the earliest, by 2014.

Canonization on hold

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI is in no hurry to canonize Pius XIIImage: AP

German-born Pope Benedict has taken time for "reflection" on whether to authorize Pius's beatification -- an important step towards Roman Catholic sainthood -- the Vatican said last month.

Pius XII's beatification has been a topic of heated debate between Catholics and Jews since 1967 when the process was initiated.

Last month, Shear-Yushuv Cohen, the Grand Rabbi of Haifa, Israel, opposed such an honor for the Italian pope, saying Pius XII "should not be seen as a model and he should not be beatified because he did not raise his voice against the Holocaust."

Last month, the priest in charge of Pius's case for canonization, Father Peter Gumpel, said Benedict was hesitating over the beatification dossier out of concern to maintain "good relations" with Jews.

For Pius to be canonized, Father Gumpel must prove the former pope performed a miracle -- usually a medical cure with no scientific explanation.

The exhibition, which begins Tuesday and runs until Jan. 6 at the Vatican, will later travel to Germany and the US.

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