VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI praised the World War II-era pope, Pius XII, as a great pontiff but stopped short of endorsing his case for beatification, according to a transcript released yesterday by the Vatican.
Benedict said that, as a German, he was particularly close to Pius because he ''really loved the German people; he defended them even during the great catastrophe after the war."
Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, was a Vatican diplomat in Germany and its secretary of state before that. He has been criticized for not doing enough to save Jews from the Holocaust, but his supporters say he made every effort to help Jews and other victims through diplomacy.
Benedict made the comments Thursday during a closed-door, question-and-answer session with Roman priests.
During the encounter, a parish priest identified as the Rev. Gennaro Perucatti praised Pius. Addressing Benedict, he said the late pope's supporters ''all truly hoped" Pius would be included among the list of beatified popes, including John XXIII.
If a pope eventually approves the case, Jewish groups will most likely protest, as they did when Pope John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX.
Pius IX maintained restrictions on Jews in Rome's ghetto and condoned the church's decision to have papal guards take a Jewish-born boy away from his family because he had been secretly baptized. The boy grew up in a Roman Catholic boarding school and eventually became a priest.
Benedict, a member of the Hitler Youth when he was a seminarian, has made a point of reaching out to Jews, following in the footsteps of John Paul. He has publicly condemned the Nazi regime and recalled the tragedy of the Holocaust on several occasions.
In his response Thursday, Benedict made no mention of Pius XII's cause for beatification, but praised him as being particularly dear to Germans.
Beatification, the last step before possible sainthood, officially sets the subjects as models for the faith.