Tragedy and Hope

In Haiti, a January 12 earthquake kills thousands. In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI prepares to visit the city’s Jewish synagogue on January 17. Will the visit spark controversy?

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from America


Tragedy in Haiti

We begin with sorrow.

We mourn the dead and injured in the terrible Haitian earthquake of Tuesday afternoon, January 12, and try to grasp the full dimensions of the tragedy which has left so many thousands dead and injured.

In coming days, we will be publishing Pope Benedict XVI’s and the Vatican’s reactions to the shocking suffering and loss of life in Haiti, and news of what the Church is doing in that country.

Meanwhile, we have for some time been reflecting on the issues surrounding the significant visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Jewish synagogue of Rome coming this Sunday, January 17.

We had been preparing to publish those reflections this week, prior to the visit, and do so below, even as the Haitian earthquake seems to set all other matters in a rather different and less important light.

Regarding Haiti, in response to those who ask — as we ourselves ask — how the tragedy and loss of innocent life can be reconciled with the goodness of God, we draw on a phrase we found on the First Things website: “Some will say ‘where is God in all of this?’ The answer, of course, is that God is in the response.”

Here is a link to reports about the Haitian tragedy, and Catholic relief efforts in Haiti, including some reliable addresses where readers can send donations to help: News of tragedy in Haiti, and Catholic relief efforts.The Editor


Storm Clouds Over Benedict

Increasing clouds have been gathering for days over Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome on January 17th, casting a shadow on what was planned as a meeting to improve Catholic-Jewish understanding.

John Paul II (1978-2005) had initiated this gesture of reconciliation in 1986, being the first pontiff to visit a synagogue since the time of the apostles.

When Benedict was invited by Rome’s rabbis to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps, he clearly accepted in hopes of raising the often tense relationship to a higher level of discourse.

But since December 19th, when Benedict signed a decree advancing Pope Pius XII’s cause for beatification, and ultimately canonization, there has been a carefully programmed media campaign against him.

Sadly, this campaign is based largely upon myth, historical amnesia, and anti-papal propaganda, as can be seen by a brief review of the period in question. We have gone over this material many times in recent years, but since the same charges keep being raised against Pope Pius, despite the evidence, we feel it necessary to present the evidence yet again.

Petition and Response

On January 11th, Reuters reported that a group of American Jews attending a “Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants” planned this week to petition Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, to use the opportunity of Benedict’s January 17 visit to Rome’s synagogue to decry Benedict’s December 19 decision to declare Pope Pius XII “Venerable” and set him on the road to canonization as a Catholic saint.

(Here is the complete Reuters story as it appeared in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

The group wishes to have Di Segni, or one of his representatives, convey their concerns to Pope Benedict during the visit. The petition reads in part: “The group appeals to you to convey our pain and emotion to Pope Benedict when he is received by you at the main synagogue on Sunday… Truth and memory must be vigorously affirmed. The historical record of Pius’s silence during the period of Nazi barbarism against the Jewish people is a signal of moral failure. Our repeated pleas that Vatican assertions that Pius acted to save Jewish lives be documented through the opening of relevant archives have been met with silence.”

At this time, it is unclear whether Rabbi Di Segni will mention this petition.

But we feel the petitioners, even if in good faith, hold inaccurate and distorted views both on the Holy See’s statements about Pius and his pontificate, and on the historical truth about Pius’ response to the tragedy of the Holocaust. Hence, this brief report to clarify the facts.

The petitioning organization, which does not claim to represent all Holocaust survivors, misrepresents Pius XII’s actual record of constant help for the victims of the Third Reich’s murderous racial policies.

And this was well known at the time, and not just by Catholics, but by many Jews and their representatives.

On November 29, 1945, a large group of Jewish survivors came to the Vatican, specifically “to thank His Holiness personally for the extraordinary generosity which he had shown them when they were persecuted during the frightful period of Nazi-Fascism.”

Pius XII embraced them, saying: “The Holy See, faithful to the eternal principles, never has agreed, not even in the most hazardous moments, with concepts which the history of civilization will range among the most deplorable and ignominious aberrations of human thinking and feeling. Your presence here is meant to be an expression of gratitude from men and women who have experienced that in the exercise of charity, the Catholic Church and her real children know how to rise above the narrow and arbitrary limits drawn by human selfishness and race hatred.” (Angelic Shepherd: the Life of Pope Pius XII, by Jan Olav Smit, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1950, p. 154)

The claim that Pius XII was “silent” during the Holocaust is contradicted by his own wartime statements, and those who praised them after the war. When he died in 1958, the Jewish community hailed his wartime leadership, above all because he did “speak out.”

Golda Meir, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, reacted with this tribute: “We share in the grief of humanity at the passing away of His Holiness, Pope Pius XII. In a generation afflicted by wars and discords, he upheld the highest ideals of peace and compassion. When fearful martydom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised in compassion for the victims.”(Reuters, October 10,1958)

In his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (October, 1939), in his Christmas addresses, in his radio appeals, in his allocution to the College of Cardinals on June 2, 1943, Pius XII condemned race-based murder, and thus came to the clear, public defense of European Jews — a fact recognized at the time, even if it is generally ignored or denied today.

On October 1, 1942, the Times of London editorialized: “A study of the words which Pope Pius XII has addressed since his accession in encyclicals and allocutions to the Catholics of various nations leaves no room for doubt. He condemns the worship of force and its concrete manifestation in the suppression of national liberties and in the persecution of the Jewish race.”

Charles Pichon, a leading wartime correspondent, described Pius XII’s wartime addresses succinctly: “The pontifical texts condemned most strongly the anti-Semitic persecutions, the oppression of invaded lands, the inhuman conduct of the war, and also the deification of the Race, the State and the Class.” (The Vatican and its Role in World Affairs, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950, p. 167)

In reaction to his 1942 Christmas address, the Nazis themselves, furious about Pius XII’s public stand, railed: “That this speech is directed exclusively against the New Order in Europe as seen in National Socialism is clear in the Papal statement that mankind owes a debt to ‘all who during the war have lost their Fatherland and who, although personally blameless have, simply on account of their nationality and origin, been killed or reduced to utter destitution.’ Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice towards the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.” (The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators, 1922-1945, by Anthony Rhodes, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973, p.273).

Similar examples of Pius’s anti-Nazi, pro-Jewish statements are found in the wartime issues of the Palestine Post, the New York Times, the Tablet of London and the Jewish press of various countries.

How is it possible, then, that anyone could say Pius XII was “silent” in the face of Nazi mass murder? There must be a reason — but perhaps the reason is not based on fact and truth. And this could be due to disinformation.

One source of what seems to be slander against Pope Pius is the Soviet propaganda machine which directed some of its efforts against Pius after the Second World War.

The Soviets had good reason to wish to weaken the moral authority of the Popes and of the Church: the Church was opposed to them in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere around the world.

The Communists employed the techniques of “misinformation” and “disinformation” with considerable skill — although in retrospect, the efforts sometimes seem clumsy enough, once the truth is made clear.

In the case of Pope Pius XII, this campaign climaxed in the now-discredited propaganda play, The Deputy, by Rolf Hochhuth (1963), which had a powerful impact on a world trying to understand the horror of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

Suddenly, public opinion was mesmermized by Hochhuth’s grotesque allegations that Pius was in a sense “Hitler’s deputy,” despite the actual historical record.

Among the first to refute the allegations against Pius was Robert M. W. Kempner, the Deputy Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg and a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s genocide. Having mastered the “relevant archives,” he exposed the false allegation that Pius XII was silent, and that he failed to protest Hitler’s unspeakable crimes, and that that is how they came to reach the proportions they did: “Both the premise and the conclusion drawn from it are equally untenable. The archives of the Vatican, of the diocesan authorities and of Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry contain a whole series of protests — direct and indirect, diplomatic and public, secret and open.” (Hungarian Jewry and the Papacy: Pius XII was Not Silent, by Jeno Levai, London: Sands and Company, p. X).

As for the claim that the Vatican is holding back key documents regarding Pius’s actions, thousands of relevant documents have already been made public, and thousands more are being prepared for release. The process is slow because of the number of documents and necessity that each be carefully handled. From 1965-1981, the Holy See published 12 thick volumes of wartime documents (Actes et Documents), four of which deal with the Holy See’s humanitarian assistance alone. It’s clear that many of Pius’s most inveterate critics have never even consulted them, much less fully acknowledged what they contain. Father Robert Graham, one of the 12-volume collection’s editors, describes their importance: “They embrace every imaginable form of activity to help stricken mankind without discrimination.”

With regard to the Pope’s impassioned response to the Holocaust, Graham continued: “It is impossible to portray in a few words the extensive correspondence of the Vatican in reference to the deportation of the European Jews, particularly for the years 1942 to 1944. Nearly every world Jewish rescue organization at work in the field is represented. Appearing in the list of organizations whose appeals to the Holy See were readily acted on are: the World Jewish Congress (both the London and Geneva centers), the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Agudas Israel, the Emergency Committee to save the Jews of Europe, the American Jewish Committee, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada.

Prominent Jewish leaders in view included Rabbi Isaac Herzog of Jerusalem, and Chief Rabbi Hertz of England.” (“The Good Samaritan in World War II,” Catholic League Newsletter, May 15, 1989)

As Dimitri Cavalli showed, in his article, “The Good Samaritan: Jewish Praise for Pope Pius XII,” originally published in Inside the Vatican (October, 2000), Actes and Documents, as well as the Jewish wartime press, chronicle and record Pius XII’s extraordinary efforts on behalf of persecuted Jews, and the Jewish community’s extremely high praise of him. (Here is a link to the story:

The War Refugee Board, created by President Roosevelt to aid Europe’s persecuted Jews, was keenly aware of the key role the Vatican played. In his final Summary Report (September 15, 1945), Executive Director John H. Pehle wrote: “The Holy See and the Vatican hierarchy throughout Europe were solicited time and again for special assistance both as a channel of communication to the leaders and people of enemy territory, and as a means of rendering direct aid to suffering victims of Hitler. The Catholic clergy saved and protected many thousands and the Vatican rendered invaluable assistance to the Board and to the persecuted in Nazi hands.” (Cited in “Relations of Pius XII and the Catholic Community and Jewish Organizations,” by Father Robert A. Graham, S.J., in The Italian Refuge: Rescue of Jews During the Holocaust, edited by Ivo Herzer, Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1989, p. 232)

Among Pius XII’s impressive (but least known) achievements are the establishment of the Pontifical Relief Commission, and the Vatican Information Office. The first distributed massive amounts of food, medicine and clothing to people of all creeds and nationalities, throughout war-torn Europe; the second fielded millions of wartime inquiries, on prisoners of war and other missing or displaced people, helping re-unite countless desperate families. In 2004, the Vatican, adding to the abundance of material in Actes et Documents, released over 1,500 pages of new documentation on this extraordinary agency, showing the depth and breath of Pius XII’s creation. Some of Pius XII’s interventions for Jews was so great that it actually stirred complaints from others who believed Pius had a “preference” for them (“Pius XII’s Aid to Jews was so Great that it Stirred Protests,” Zenit News Agency, July 4, 2004; Link:

In a sense, that was true: those most at risk garnered Pius’s most immediate attention, though everyone suffering came under his loving concern.

A prime example of the Pope’s concerted efforts on behalf of Jews occurred during the German Occupation of Rome (Sept. 1943-June, 1944, as both Michael Tagliacozzo and Sr. Grazia Loparco have documented. Tagliacozzo, a Roman Jew who was himself a survivor of the Nazi roundup of Rome’s Jews in 1943, and the outstanding authority on that event, has testified that Pius XII “was the only one who intervened to impede the deportation of Jews on October 16, 1943, and he did very much to hide and save thousands of us. It was no small matter that he ordered the opening of cloistered convents. Without him, many of our own would not be alive.” (“Jewish Historian Praises Pius XII’s Wartime Conduct,” Zenit News Agency, October 26, 2000; link:

Sr. Loparco, also a top scholar of the period, adds: “From the documentation and testimonies emerges evidence of the full support and instruction of Pius XII…. Many concrete events, such as the opening of cloistered monasteries and convents, prove the fact that many Jews were lodged because of the direct concern of the Vatican, which also provided food and assistance.” (“When Rome’s Religious Houses Saved Jews,” Zenit News Agency, January 21, 2005; link:

The Underlying Meaning

Pope Benedict will visit Rome’s synagogue to promote Catholic-Jewish understanding.

The half-truths and propaganda concerning Pius XII should not cloud the occasion.

Anyone inclined to confront Benedict with historical myths and inaccuracies would do well to recall the message of gratitude Isaac Herzog, the chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, sent to Pius for his efforts to confront the Nazi terror in 1944: “The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion which form the very foundations of true civilization, are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in this most tragic hour of history, which is living proof of divine providence in this world.” (February 28, 1944, Actes et Documents, volume X, pp. 291-292).

In addition, Pius’s detractors might want recall what Rome’s former chief rabbi, Dr. Elio Toaff, said at the time of Pius XII’s death in 1958: “More than any other people, the Italian Jews had experienced the great pity and supreme generosity of the Pontiff during the unhappy years of persecution and terror, when it seemed to them they had no way of escape. His Jewish compatriots will everlastingly remember with gratitude the papal ruling to open the doors of convents and parish houses to them. The Jewish community is in mourning for the death of Pius XII and with sincere sentiments it raises its prayers to the Lord that he may grant his generous and chosen soul every beatitude.” (The Tablet of London, October 25, 1958).


Schedule for the Pope’s January 17 Visit to the Synagogue

The following post contains the schedule for the Pope’s visit:

Vatican City, Jan 12, 2010 / 08:03 pm (CNA) — As the day of the papal visit to the Synagogue of Rome approaches, another religious leader has decided to join the Pope for what looks to be a full itinerary. On Jan. 17, Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem will accompany the Holy Father on his historic stop.

According to Vatican Radio, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, the archbishop of the Latin Rite Catholic churches of Israel, Palestine and Jordan, will be with the Holy Father on his Sunday visit to the synagogue.

The Pope, the Patriarch and other officials from the Holy See will be met a short distance from the synagogue just before 4:30 p.m. by the Presidents of the Jewish communities of Rome and of Italy. The two Jewish leaders will lead them past two monuments where all will pay their respects to those deported from the Jewish ghetto of Rome on Oct. 16, 1943 and remember a small child that was killed in an attack outside of the synagogue in 1982.

The Pope and his retinue will then be met by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, on the central staircase leading into the synagogue. Once they are inside, the Catholic visitors will be welcomed by choral music. Speeches and prayers will follow.

At the conclusion of these addresses, the Holy Father and the Head Rabbi will meet privately. After the meeting, Benedict XVI will visit the synagogue’s gardens, where an olive tree will be planted in commemoration of his visit.

The afternoon visit will conclude with the opening of an exhibit in the Jewish Museum of Rome and a meeting with representatives of the Jewish community.

The visit will make Benedict XVI the second Pope to officially enter the Synagogue of Rome after Pope John Paul II first did so in 1986.

“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)


Note: Gift ideas for any season:

(1) a very special Russian Christmas Concert DVD;

(2) a discussion of the issues surrounding the Pope’s decision to restore the old Mass;

(3) third, subscriptions to our magazine, the gift which brings Rome and the Vatican into your home month by month.

(1) Christmas Oratorio (Russian Concert) on DVD

The music tells the Christmas story in the deep, rich tradition of Russian ecclesial music, using the Russian language and English subtitles.

On December 17, 2007, a leading Russian orchestra performed an exceptional “world premiere” concert of Russian Christmas music at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Now you can order your copy of the concert on DVD, which includes English sub-titles.

The music is a completely new composition by a young Russian Orthodox Bishop, Hilarion Alfeyev, 43, who, at the time, was the Russian Orthodox bishop for all of central Europe, based in Vienna, Austria and now is the head of the External Relations Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Makes a wonderful Christmas gift. Order one for yourself, one for a loved one and one for a friend… at three copies, the price is less! Click here to order


(2) A Talk by Dr. Robert Moynihan on CD

“The Motu Proprio: Why the Latin Mass? Why Now?”

To understand the motu proprio, one must know the history of the Mass. Dr. Moynihan gives a 2000-year history of the Mass in 60 minutes which is clear and easy to understand. Dr. Moynihan’s explanation covers questions,like:

– How does the motu proprio overcome some of the confusion since Vatican II?
– Is this the start of the Benedictine Reform?
– The mind of Pope Benedict: How can the Church restore the sense of the presence of God in the liturgy?

Click here to order

Facebook Comments