Pope Benedict XVI moved controversial wartime pontiff Pius XII closer to sainthood by declaring him “venerable” in a surprise announcement on Saturday, provoking the ire of Jewish leaders.
The pontiff simultaneously bestowed the same title on his beloved predecessor John Paul II and paved the way for the beatification of Jerzy Popieluszko, the activist priest who helped bring down Poland’s communist regime.
The triple announcement by the German-born pope “took everyone by surprise,” Vatican expert Bruno Bartoloni said, adding: “There will certainly be negative reactions” from the Jewish community.
The head of Germany’s Central Jewish Council, Stephan Kramer, said in Berlin that Benedict was “rewriting history.”
“This is a clear hijacking of historical facts concerning the Nazi era. Benedict XVI rewrites history without having allowed a serious scientific discussion. That’s what makes me furious,” he said.
Italian Jewish leaders said they were still awaiting access to the Vatican’s archives so that they could make an accurate historical assessment of Pius XII, who is accused of not having done enough to save Europe’s Jews from the Nazis.
“We do not forget the deportations of Jews from Italy and in particular the train that deported 1,021 people on Oct. 16, 1943, which left Rome’s Tiburtina station for Auschwitz to the silence of Pius XII,” a statement said.
Another veteran Vatican watcher, John Allen, said that announcing the decree on Pius XII simultaneously with the other two reflected “a kind of strategy of taking the sting out of it.”
The title of “venerable” is a necessary step on the way to beatification and eventual sainthood.
John Paul II’s former personal secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz hailed the decision, saying: “It is a great joy that all our work has led to success.”
Now archbishop of Krakow, he said: “John Paul II knew how to overcome every barrier, he brought people together. He built bridges between peoples and religions.”
The process for Pius XII has been a source of tension with Jewish groups, because of the view among many historians that he remained passive while Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews.
Benedict — who was himself at the center of controversy over his past membership of the Hitler Youth — has publicly defended Pius XII.
The Vatican has argued that Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, saved many Jews who were hidden away in religious institutions in Rome and abroad, and that his silence was born out of a wish to avoid aggravating their situation.
“The debate is not about what he did but what he should have done,” Allen said, adding: “There are some people who would still say he showed heroic fidelity and charity in difficult circumstances.”
While Bartolini said it was “not unlikely” that Pius XII and John Paul II would be beatified at the same time, Allen disagreed saying: “John Paul II’s beatification is more of a slam dunk.”
Still, the Polish pope’s sainthood dossier has been criticized as a “fast-track” campaign to answer the prayers of millions who adored the Polish pope, who headed the Roman Catholic Church for nearly three decades.
MIRACLES AND MARTYRS
Benedict launched the lengthy process — which can take decades if not centuries — just two months after the death in 2005 of John Paul II, whose funeral was marked by calls of “santo subito,” or immediate sainthood.