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Pope moves pair closer to sainthood

Jewish groups raise outcry over Pius XII

POPULAR CHOICE In contrast to Pius, John Paul is greatly admired by Jews. During his 27-year pontificate he forged diplomatic ties with Israel. POPULAR CHOICE
In contrast to Pius, John Paul is greatly admired by Jews. During his 27-year pontificate he forged diplomatic ties with Israel.
By Nicole Winfield
Associated Press / December 20, 2009

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI moved two of his predecessors closer to possible sainthood yesterday, signing decrees on the virtues of the beloved Pope John Paul II and controversial Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust.

The decrees mean that both men can be beatified once the Vatican certifies that a miracle attributed to their intercession has occurred. Beatification is the first major step before possible sainthood.

Some Jews and historians have argued Pius should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. As a result, the German-born Benedict’s surprise decision to recognize Pius’s “heroic virtues’’ sparked immediate outcry from Jewish groups.

The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee said the move was premature given the Vatican still hasn’t opened up to outside historians its secret archives from Pius’s 1939-1958 pontificate. The Vatican says the 16 million files won’t be ready until 2014 at the earliest.

“While it is obviously up to the Vatican to determine who its saints are, the church’s repeated insistence that it seeks mutually respectful ties with the Jewish community ought to mean taking our sensitivities into account on this most crucial historical era,’’ said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said he was disappointed that the pope had taken the decision while the historical jury is still out on Pius’s record.

“I can’t understand the rush, especially while there are still survivors who are alive who feel the issue very, very deeply and are being told the files need time to be processed. What’s the imperative?’’ Foxman told the Associated Press.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry concurred, saying Pius’s actions are worthy of a “thorough historical examination. History will be the judge of this matter,’’ the ministry said in a statement.

The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews.

Pius, a Vatican diplomat in Germany and the Vatican’s secretary of state before being elected pope, did denounce in general terms the extermination of people based on race and opened Vatican City up to war refugees, including Jews, after Hitler occupied Rome in 1943.

But he didn’t issue scathing public indictments of Jewish deportations, and some historians say he cared more about bilateral relations with Nazi Germany regarding the rights of the Catholic Church there, than saving Jewish lives.

The Vatican argues that Pius, who officially maintained neutrality during the war, couldn’t publicly denounce the Holocaust because he believed public outcry would only enrage the Nazis and result in more deaths.

The Rev. Peter Gumpel, who has worked for two decades shepherding through Pius’s cause and has long championed him as a great defender of the Jews, said he was “delighted’’ with the pope’s decision.

“I’m glad that the truth has been professed,’’ Gumpel told the Associated Press.

He said he had read “every scrap’’ on Pius that is in the Vatican archives and said “the accusation that he was anti-Semitic or anti-Judaic is absolute nonsense.’’

Last year, Jewish leaders asked the pope to speed up the opening of the archives on Pius’s papacy to settle the issue of what he did or didn’t do to save Jews.

According to participants in the October 2008 meeting, Benedict had said he would give “serious consideration’’ to their request to freeze the sainthood process until the archives were opened.

As a result, yesterday’s announcement about Pius came as a surprise, whereas the decree on John Paul was expected.

In contrast to Pius, John Paul is greatly admired by Jews. During his 27-year pontificate he forged diplomatic ties with Israel; prayed at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site; and was the first pope in history to visit a synagogue.

No dates for the beatification ceremonies were announced, but Italian and Polish media widely reported that John Paul could be beatified as early as October.

Benedict put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood weeks after his April 2, 2005, death, heeding the calls of “Santo Subito!’’ or “Sainthood Immediately!’’ that erupted in St. Peter’s Square during the funeral of the much-loved pontiff.

Benedict waived the customary five-year waiting period and allowed the investigation into John Paul’s life and virtues to begin immediately.