Pope Pius XII gives a blessing at the end of a radio message Sept. 1, 1943. The COVID-19 pandemic came at the worst time for scholars and historians who had been waiting for the March 2 opening of the Vatican’s archives on Pope Pius XII. (CNS photo)

OXFORD, England (CNS) — A top Polish historian has questioned claims by German researchers that newly opened Vatican archives contain information damning the role played by Pope Pius XII during World War II.

“This team has the advantage of having been to these archives, and we must face the truth calmly if some major new discovery is made,” said Jan Zaryn, one of Poland’s foremost Church historians.

Pope Pius XII, who led the Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958, is pictured in this undated photo at the Vatican. (CNS, courtesy of Vatican Media)

“But I’ve never personally encountered a situation in which 11 volumes of material, published over two decades, are suddenly countermanded by a single document, found after a few days’ research.”

Fr. Hubert Wolf, a professor at the University of Münster, Germany, said that, after an early March visit to the Vatican Apostolic Archives, his team had found proof that the Vatican knew of the Nazi mass killing of Jews but denied it to diplomats.

In a May 1 interview with Catholic News Service, Zaryn said diplomatic sources had long confirmed that the pope, with Allied governments, had learned of the Holocaust by late 1942, adding that St. Paul VI had agreed to publish wartime letters and documents from the archives early in order to “end the campaigns” against his predecessor.

“In his 1942 Christmas message, Pius XII condemned the mass murders; although he did this in his own language and didn’t mention Germans and Jews by name, the message was censored by the Third Reich, since it was obvious what the pope was referring to,” said Zaryn, a former senator and expert with Poland’s National Remembrance Institute.

“When the Germans entered Italy and occupied Rome, it was clear that words of public condemnation would merely heighten dangers that the Vatican itself would be seized, compromising the rescue of Jews. This is confirmed by numerous documents,” Zaryn said.

Pope Pius XII is pictured at the Vatican in a file photo dated March 15, 1949. (CNS file photo)

The director of the German Historical Institute in Rome, Martin Baumeister, also warned against “sensational reports,” telling Germany’s Catholic news agency, KNA, that any material would have to be “compared, checked and weighed to ensure the new knowledge is useful.”

Fr. Wolf headed a team of seven from the University of Münster’s theology faculty to the Vatican, after its Pius XII archive, containing at least 200,000 boxes with over 2 million documents, was opened to historians March 2 after nine years’ preparation.

The archive was closed a few days later due to Italy’s coronavirus pandemic, forcing the team to return home.

However, in an interview originally published online April 22 by Germany’s Die Zeit weekly, Fr. Wolf said he had found evidence that Pope Pius read a U.S. diplomat’s report in September 1942, detailing the mass killing of Jews in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and Lviv, then in German-occupied Poland. The information was corroborated by other letters.

Fr. Wolf added that the Vatican denied knowledge of the atrocities after a Secretariat of State staffer, Msgr. Angelo Dell’Acqua, warned against believing reports from Jews and “Orientals,” referring to Eastern Catholics, but said Msgr. Dell’Acqua’s memo had not been included in the 11 volumes later published to defend Pope Pius’ reputation.

Pope Pius XII, who led the Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958, is pictured in this undated photo at the Vatican. (CNS, courtesy of Vatican Media)

In an April 28 report, Religious News Service, based in Washington, D.C., described Fr. Wolf as “an objective researcher and outspoken analyst,” adding that his finding that the Vatican had hidden “these and other sensitive documents presumably to protect Pius’ image” would embarrass the Church when it was “still struggling with its cover-up of clerical sexual abuse.”

The agency said the details were “a bit complicated,” but added that Fr. Wolf’s conclusions were “quite clear” and did not “look good for Pius or the Catholic Church.”

Meanwhile, the Times of Israel said April 30 that defenders of Pope Pius had noted he was “a former diplomat trained in prudence, anxious to remain neutral in time of war,” whose Church had hidden around 4,000 Jews in its Roman institutions during the war.

However, the daily added that Jewish groups had long argued the Vatican had “no business moving forward with Pius’ beatification cause,” launched in 1965, until the Vatican’s archives were fully opened and Holocaust survivors had died.

The actions of Pope Pius, who served from March 1939 until his death in October 1958, have long been a source of controversy and are believed the reason for an order by Pope Benedict XVI to open the archive, which would otherwise have remained closed until October 2027.

— By Jonathan Luxmoore, Catholic News Service.