Decades of doubt over the role played by “Hitler’s Pope” under the Fascist regimes in Italy and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s may be answered if Pope Francis, as a close friend has suggested, opens the Vatican archives.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who has known the Argentine former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio for 20 years, said he had discussed the role of Pius XII – the man long dubbed as “Hitler’s Pope” – at length with the new pontiff.
The Rabbi, who recently co-authored On Heaven and Earth, a book of interviews with his friend, said he had made clear that he thought Pius’s legacy ought to be “investigated thoroughly”.
“It’s a terribly sensitive issue, but he says that it must be investigated thoroughly,” he said. “I have no doubt that he will move to open the archives.”
In an interview with The Tablet, Rabbi Skorka said he was convinced his friend – who he predicted would be a “revolutionary” Pope – favoured opening the archives to clarify once and for all Pius’s role.
It follows decades of speculation about the extent to which Pius cooperated with the Fascist regime in Italy and Nazi Germany during his reign which began in 1939.
Critics have accused him of remaining silent over the holocaust – a suspicion which has only been strengthened by the Vatican’s refusal so far to give scholars access to the archives from his reign.
But there is also evidence that Pius may have helped arranged the exodus of 200,000 Jews from Germany in the 1930s.
Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, as he was known before his election as Pope, is said to have written to archbishops around the world urging them to secure visas for “non-Aryan Catholics” and Jewish converts to Christianity to travel to their countries from Germany.
Moves towards canonising Pius XII have been under way in Rome for decades but two years ago a group of prominent Roman Catholic scholars publicly urged Pope Emeritus Benedict to halt the process until more was known about his wartime role by opening the archives.
Benedict had attracted criticism only months before when he approved a decree recognising Pius’s “heroic virtues”, a statement which moved him a step closer to sainthood.
Rabbi Skorka, who is now the rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Argentina, built a close friendship with Cardinal Bergoglio during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The two leaders attended each other’s services and their friendship paved the way for a closer relationship between Catholics and Jews in Argentina, which has the largest Jewish population in Latin America.
The two leaders discuss Pius’s attitudes to the war in their book but conclude that it is impossible to draw firm conclusions.
Rabbi Skorka, told The Tablet that Francis was a staunch opponent of anti-Semitism or “any kind of fanaticism” and added: “What is certain is that the Jews now have a very good partner in the Vatican.”
He disclosed that the Pope had twice telephoned him in Buenos Aires since his election as Pope last month and they had privately discussed his hopes for his pontificate.
“I think he’s going to change everything that he believes needs to be changed,” he said.
“He is not a person to take on this role in a passive way.
“He’s not a person who stays quiet when he knows that there is work to be done.” He predicted that the Pope was unlikely to change Church doctrines but would revolutionise it in other aspects.
“On matters of customs, protocol, flamboyance, luxury, as well as in his approach to the poor, he is a revolutionary,” he said.
He said that the first time the Pope had called from Rome he had picked up the telephone to hear a voice telling him jokily: “Hello it’s Bergoglio.
“They trapped me here in Rome and they won’t let me come home.”