I respect Peter Quinn’s work, but along with Dimitri Cavalli (Letters, May 7), I must object to his treatment of the proposed canonization of Pius XII (“Why the Rush?” March 12). Although Quinn makes clear that Pius XII was certainly not Hitler’s pope, he nonetheless believes that Pius was “defined (compromised?) to one degree or another by his career as a diplomat and church official with commonly held values and views, including a low opinion of Jews and Judaism.” This is patently flawed reasoning. John XXIII had an even longer career as a diplomat and church official, and yet was not tainted by the “low opinion of Jews” that according to Quinn resulted from the church’s “long history of contempt.” The latter phrase alludes to a now classic work, The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism by the Jewish scholar Jules Isaac—who, of course, did not suggest that either Pius XII or John XXIII had “a low opinion of Jews.” In fact, after a private meeting in 1949 with Pius XII, Isaac said he had been received “with goodwill and understanding sympathy.”

I don’t have space here to even skim the surface of the issue of Pius XII and his alleged silence during the Holocaust. Of course, every sane person wishes the pope would have spoken out; the only real question here is whether his “silence” was motivated by anti-Semitism. The more important historical factor is a statement by Pius which addresses precisely that issue. The statement, recently discovered by a dedicated researcher, William Doino Jr., should have put the quietus to any notion of racial bias on the part of the pope. Most Catholics today know about the declaration made in private to three leaders of a Belgian pilgrimage to Rome in 1938 by Pius XI: “Anti-Semitism is a hostile movement, a movement to which we are not able, we Christians, to belong.... Spiritually, we are all Semites.” But almost no one knows of Pius XII’s public declaration—reproduced below—plainly affirming the nobility of Jews and Judaism. The words of Pius XII were uttered in public at a general audience with the full panoply of papal attendants present—“cardinals, bishops, and other high dignitaries, officials of the Vatican government, secretaries and diplomats.” His statement was reported in the Palestine Post—now the Jerusalem Post—in an article signed “Refugee” on April 28, 1944. After describing the circumstances of the papal audience and some of the people present, including a group of more than thirty German soldiers, the author reports what took place:

At last it is my turn. I step forward, feeling very uneasy and shy. Then I kneel down on a velvet cushion, bow over the papal hand, and breathe a kiss on the ring.

Then I look up and address him, stammering some Italian phrases.

But the pope interrupts me; “My son, you can speak your own language with me; you are German, too, aren’t you?”

“No, your Holiness, I was only born in Germany. But I am not a German any longer, I am a Jew.”

“So you are a Jew, what can I do for you? Tell me, my son.”

I begin to explain why I have come. I report about the shipwrecked Jewish refugees, saved by Italian warships in the Aegean Sea and now starving in a prisoner of war camp on one of the islands. The pope listens carefully to my explanations of how to help these poor people either by taking them to Palestine or by bringing them back to Italy to avoid epidemics and further starvation. Then Pius XII says:

“You have done well to come to me and tell me this. I have heard about it before. Come back tomorrow with a written report and give it to the secretary of state, who is dealing with the question. But now for you, my son. You are a young Jew. I know what that means and I hope you will always be proud to be a Jew!” And the pope raises his voice so that everybody in the hall can hear it clearly, “My son, whether you are worthier than others only the Lord knows, but believe me, you are at least as worthy as every other human being that lives on our earth! And now, my Jewish friend, go with the protection of the Lord, and never forget, you must always be proud to be a Jew!”

After having pronounced these words in his pleasant voice, the pope lifts his hands to give the usual benediction. But he stops, smiles and his wonderful fingers only touch my head. Then he lifts me from my kneeling position....

I join the others by the wall, not caring for the expression on their faces. Have they heard it too?

We will never learn the answer to that question. But anyone hearing this, whether then or now, will find it impossible to believe that this pope had “a low opinion of Jews and Judaism.” Whether that should have something to do with canonizations can be left to those concerned with such honors. What is significant is that for the first time in at least a millennium and a half a pope had publicly referred to Jews as his fellow human beings, and had not made even the faintest allusion to their “theological” status as the witness people whose role in the economy of salvation was merely to testify to the triumph of Christianity.

Inevitably, many readers of the “Refugee” story will question its accuracy. As of this writing, there are three other independent sources proving the authenticity of the narrative, and in my judgment the Doino account is undeniably authentic.


Related: Canonizing Pius XII, by Michael Phayer
John Connelly's review of Pius XII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War, by Michael Phayer
Prisoners of Their Office? and The Missing, by Michael Marrus

Published in the 2010-11-05 issue: 

Justus George Lawler is author of Popes and Politics: Reform, Resentment, and the Holocaust (Continuum).

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