Despite recent years of criticism from Jewish and other groups about whether Pope Pius XII did enough during World War II to combat Nazism, Pope Benedict XVI moved ahead his predecessor’s stalled beatification cause, officially declaring he had lived a life of heroic virtue.

The decision, published Dec. 19, comes some two years after the Vatican’s sainthood congregation ruled favorably for the late pontiff, and after a subsequent examination ordered by Pope Benedict of vast Vatican archival materials concerning Pope Pius’ diplomatic and humanitarian activity under Nazi-occupied Rome.

Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, one of the world’s leading authority on Pope Pius and among the most experienced Churchmen in the saint-making process, said the decision shows that the controversy is closed, from the Vatican’s point of view.

“The whole essence of the cause of beatification and canonization of a person is found in the decision on the virtues,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Last-minute decision

“It’s a judgment that he loved God and loved his neighbor to a degree that is above and beyond the way an ordinary Christian does this,” said the German priest, who has worked for more than 50 years in this field, and served for several decades as “ relator, ” or an independent investigating judge, at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

“The rest — that is, the miracles that are required before a person is beatified and canonized — are simply considered as divine confirmation of that decision,” he said.

The first to know about the pope’s decision was Archbishop Angelo Amato, the head of the sainthood congregation. He was informed when he met the pope in his private library on Dec. 19. He had come to give the pope the list of names of the 20 men and women — “servants of God” — for whom the pontiff would issue decrees, a few hours later, at a special ceremony in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall.

The German-born pope informed him that he wished to add Pope Pius’ name to that list. Immediately after his audience with the pope, the archbishop frantically telephoned back to the congregation to ask an official there to insert the late pope’s name in the list they were about to send to the Vatican press office for distribution to the international media.

Most people in Rome had expected the name of Pope John Paul II to be on the pope’s list — and he was — but nobody had expected Pope Pius’ name to be there, too.

“It was a happy coincidence,” Archbishop Amato told the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire after the ceremony. But, he added, the decision did not come as a total surprise because in May 2007, the congregation’s commission of cardinals and bishops “had voted unanimously” in favor of declaring that Eugenio Pacelli — Pius XII’s name before becoming pope — had lived the Christian virtues in a heroic way. 

Positive confirmation

In fact, Pope Benedict, under pressure from several Jewish leaders and organizations, put the cause on hold in 2007 and ordered a new and independent investigation in the archives of the Secretariat of State to make sure that nothing had been overlooked in the process up to that point, particularly in relation to what Pope Pius did or did not do during World War II (1939-45). He entrusted the investigation to Dominican Father Ambrosius Eszer, 77, a renowned scholar who served for many years as Relator General at the sainthood congregation.

In June 2009, Father Eszer completed his investigation and handed his report and conclusions to Pope Benedict.

He also sent a note to Father Gumpel informing him that, having completed his study, he had reached the conclusion that “every new research will confirm the present position of the Holy See on Pius XII.” He felt certain that there is no information in the Vatican archives that could lead to a different conclusion.

Indeed, as he told Avvenire on Dec. 22, when the Vatican archives are opened it will be shown even more clearly what tremendous efforts Pope Pius made “at times in silence and far from the spotlights, to stem the drama of the Shoah.”

Father Eszer’s report convinced Pope Benedict that there was no longer any reasonable justification for withholding the decree.

One miracle attributed to his intercession is now required before he can be beatified.

The pope’s decision came as unwelcome news to many. In Jerusalem, Rabbi David Rosen, a key figure in the interreligious dialogue with the Vatican, said “the decision does not show great sensitivity to the concerns of the Jewish community.”

In Italy, too, the reaction of the leadership of the 15,000-member Jewish community was particularly negative, coming as it did on the eve of the pope’s visit to the synagogue in Rome, scheduled for Jan. 17. Indeed, it seemed as if the visit could be at risk after Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, president of the Assembly of Italian Rabbis, told the Italian daily La Repubblica: “While I respect the decision of the Church in matters regarding sainthood, I don’t see how the pope could have taken such an untimely decision.”

Seeking to calm the rising storm and to ensure the pope’s visit would go ahead, the director of the Holy See’s Press Office, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, issued a statement in which he noted that the Pope Benedict’s decision “regards essentially the witness of a Christian life given by the person … and is not a valuation on the historical significance of all the operative choices he made.”

“The signing of the decree should not in any way be read as a hostile act against the Jewish people, and it is hoped that it will not be considered an obstacle on the path of dialogue between Judaism and the Catholic Church,” he said. 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.

Vatican Statement (Sidebar)

A sainthood evaluation “essentially concerns the witness of Christian life that the person showed (his intense relationship with God and continuous search for evangelical perfection) ... and not the historical impact of all his operative decisions.