THE POPE’S visit to a Rome synagogue this week was yet another sign of warming relations between Jews and Catholics. Unlike some of his predecessors, whose visits felt first and foremost like photo opportunities, few doubt that Francis is genuine in his conviction and empathy, or that he truly wants to reach out.
Most popes are men of conviction but, crucially, Francis is also a leader. His papacy has been immediate and inspiring. For the first time in a long time, the Church feels alive, active and interested.
It is engaging other faiths and affecting change in new and ever more important areas of social policy. It is even playing a role in international relations, such as mediating a thaw between Cuba and the U.S.
This is the Francis Effect.
At last, the cardinals have the right man in the right place at the right time. They know this pope can lead the Church out of the past and into the future. As Jews and Catholics, we will walk there together, but before we set off, there is one gremlin of the relatively recent past that cannot be ignored, consigned or forgotten.
Few doubt that Pope Pius – aka “Hitler’s Pope” – knew what was going on and failed to condemn either the Nazis or the Holocaust. Church sources suggest Pius worked slavishly behind-the-scenes to help Jews. But how? What did Pius do to stop the attempted extermination, if anything, and/or what could he have done?
The only way to know is to open the Vatican Archives and let researchers pore over the thousands of documents from the 1930s and 1940s. Francis has previously suggested doing so. “Opening the archives of the Shoah seems reasonable,” he wrote in his 2010 book On Heaven and Earth, which he co-authored with one of his best friends, a rabbi. “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.”
It is both important and urgent. In 2009, Pius was declared “venerable” – the second of four stages on one’s way to sainthood. This will only add to Vatican resistance.
Imagine the headlines:
“Archives: would-be pope let millions of Jews die.”
Yet Francis has already overcome institutional inertia and seems to know that while wounds still fester, a full recovery cannot be made.
He is making huge strides in the right direction. Last month, for instance, he ordered Catholics not to seek to convert Jews and to stand firm against anti-Semitism.
On Sunday he remembered not just the two-year-old boy killed in Rome by Palestinian terrorists, but also the hundreds of Roman Jews deported to the camps.
A penny for his thoughts, as he laid the wreath.
On a visit to Israel in 2000, one of Francis’s better predecessors, Pope John-Paul, prayed at Yad Vashem and asked for forgiveness.
Now Jews need to know from what.