VATICAN CITY – Declaring that the church "isn't afraid of history," Pope Francis said Monday he will open the Vatican archives on World War II-era Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized by Jews for staying silent on the Holocaust.
Monday's announcement followed decades of lobbying by Jewish advocates for access to the documentation to help answer the long-standing question of whether Pius did all he could to save lives.
Francis told officials of the Vatican Secret Archives that the archive would be open to researchers starting March 2, 2020. Pius, who was elected pope on March 2, 1939, six months before World War II erupted in Europe, died on Oct. 9, 1958, at the Vatican summer residence near Rome.
The Vatican usually waits 70 years after the end of a pontificate to open up the relevant archives. Vatican archivists had already started preparing the documentation for consultation back in 2006, at the behest of Francis' German-born predecessor, Benedict XVI.
The Vatican has defended Pius, saying he used behind-the-scenes diplomacy to try to save lives. Pius' actions will be scrutinized as part of efforts to decide if he should be declared a saint. Francis indicated that the church was confident that the papacy would withstand the findings by historians' studying the archives, saying Pius was "criticized, one can say, with some prejudice and exaggeration."
In Jerusalem, officials of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial commended the decision and expressed the expectation that "researchers will be granted full access to all the documents stored in the archives."
They noted that they had for years called for the opening of the archives, saying it will "enable objective and open research as well as comprehensive discourse on issues related to the conduct of the Vatican in particular, and the Catholic Church in general, during the Holocaust."
Francis expressed confidence it was the right move. "The church isn't afraid of history, on the contrary, it loves it, and would like to love it even more, like it loves God," he told archive staff.
In New York, Rabbi David Rosen, the international director for interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee called Francis' decision "enormously important to Catholic-Jewish relations," noting that he had raised the issue with Francis and his predecessors in meetings.
"It is particularly important that experts from the leading Holocaust memorial institutes in Israel and the United States objectively evaluate as best as possible the historical record of that most terrible of times — to acknowledge both the failures, as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the systematic murder of six million Jews," Rosen said.
In 1983, the Vatican dismissed as "absolutely absurd" a claim in a Jewish magazine that the Vatican aided Klaus Barbie and other high-ranking Nazi war criminals in their escape from Europe, along with legitimate refugees, after the war.