The relationship between the Vatican and the Jews has improved greatly over the past 30 years, and confidants of Pope Francis I say he intends to take another step forward: opening up the Vatican archives to address accusations that the Holy See, led by then-pope Pius XXII, neglected the plight of Jews during the Holocaust.
“The pope is consistent with all he said as a cardinal, and as pope he will undoubtedly make happen what he said he would do when he was a cardinal,” Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a friend of the pope, told The (London) Sunday Times, based on conversations with Francis.
“What we said to each other was between us, but I believe that, yes, he will open the archives…. The issue is a very sensitive one and we must continue analyzing it,” he said.
Francis’s close ties to the Jews of Argentina is fairly well known. He and Skorka have been close friends since the days when Francis was known as cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires. In September 2013, in fact, Skorka spent a week at St. Martha’s House, the papal residence at the Vatican. The two have also coauthored a book, On Heaven and Earth, and have prayed from each other’s pulpits.
Earlier this month, the pope confirmed a much-anticipated first official visit to the Holy Land, scheduled for May 24-26, during which he will visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.
Relations between the Vatican and worldwide Jewry underwent a renaissance under Pope John Paul II, who oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993 and visited Yad Vashem and the Western Wall in 2000, but they became frayed during the papacy of his successor, Benedict VXI, who reinstated British bishop Richard Williamson, who had publicly denied the Holocaust.
The controversy surrounding the Vatican’s actions during the Holocaust has also been a hot-button issue in relations between the Vatican and the Jews as the church has moved Pius along the path to sainthood, most recently declaring him venerable in 2009. Many people have criticized Pius for failing to publicly condemn the Nazis and to warn the Jews of the Rome ghetto before they were rounded up for deportation. However, his defenders contend that he refrained from directly confronting Hitler in order to preserve the church’s ability to save Jews, by encouraging religious orders to hide them.
In 2007, the papal envoy in Israel, Antonio Franco, threatened to skip the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum to protest a panel that criticized Pius. He eventually relented, but the spat strained the delicate ties between the Vatican and Israel, as well as the Vatican’s image among Jews the world over, many of whom are similarly critical of Pius.
In 2012 Yad Vashem toned down the criticism, but insisted in a statement that “only when all material is available will a clearer picture emerge,” referring to Pius and the closed Vatican archives.
Based on his writings, Francis would appear to concur with that sentiment.
“Opening the archives of the Shoah [Holocaust] seems reasonable,” the pope wrote in On Heaven and Earth. “Let them be opened up and let everything be cleared up. Let it be seen if they could have done something [to help] and until what point they could have helped.
“If they made a mistake in any aspect of this, we would have to say: ‘We have erred.’ We don’t have to be scared of this — the truth has to be the goal.”