“All kinds of things have been said about poor Pius XII,” observed Pope Francis in a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. Thus the present Pontiff recognizes that his predecessor, who served as Supreme Pastor of the Catholic Church during the turbulent years of World War II and of the Occupation of Rome, is the victim of a dubious historical judgment. What is the reason for this, has it slowed down the process of the beatification of the wartime Pope, and at what point is the process now? In the following interview, Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, who was once postulator of Pius XII’s beatification cause, answers these and other questions.
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ZENIT: Father Gumpel, according to common perception, Pius XII was a cold, solemn Pontiff detached from the faithful. What can you, who knew him in person, tell us about him?
–Father Gumpel: I knew and met Pius XII several times in private audience, when I was a very young teacher of Philosophy at the Pontifical Germanic College. The first meeting happened, because he called me, wishing to thank me in person for a small archive job I did at his request. I was received with absolute simplicity, without any of the formalities that today are attributed to that time of the Church – I was put at ease immediately. Moreover, the impression that Pius XII transmitted was that of a profoundly spiritual person. This is what I can say, appealing to my personal experience. But then there was a series of customs in the way Pius XII related to the faithful, which confirm my impression. For instance, he used to hold public audiences in the midst of the people, in some large rooms of the Apostolic Palace that contained close to one thousand people. He did not give long addresses, instead he preferred to mix with the crowd and speak with them; he received their requests and said he had need of them. How can one say of such a Pope that he was cold, solemn, detached? They are considerations construed artificially, on ideological bases far from the reality of the facts.
ZENIT: Those who have construed these considerations are, perhaps, the same ones who consider Pius XII an expression of an archaic Church, the last pre-conciliar Pope and, therefore, divergent from his Successors …
–Father Gumpel: Pius XII was, rather, a precursor of Vatican Council II. In this connection, I quote a document written for the University of Marseilles by Father Paolo Molinari (postulator of the Cause of Beatification of Pius XII, ndr): The Presence of Pius XII at Vatican Council II. Father Molinari was a member of the Council’s Theological Commission, so he could talk about this subject with great competence. Well, he rejects all the theses about the discontinuity between Pius XII and John XXIII. Father Molinari’s work evidences that in the documents of the Council there are 219 notes referring to the doctrine of Pius XII: no author was more quoted than him, not Saint Augustine, not Saint Thomas Aquinas, not other Fathers of the Church. And this is not all. Present in the minutes of the Council are 1,663 citations of Pius XII. What I ask myself is: have persons who hold that there was a doctrinal break between Pius XII and his Successors ever studied these documents? I don’t think so; perhaps they don’t have the knowledge of Latin and the theological competence to be able to do so …
ZENIT: Your work for Pius XII’s Cause of Beatification finished quite some time ago. In your opinion, how much longer must we wait before Pope Pacelli is inscribed in the roster of the Blessed?
–Father Gumpel: The Cause of Beatification for a “Confessor” (one who has witnessed his faith during his earthly life) follows a very meticulous procedure, to document that the candidate lived the Gospel in an exemplary and coherent way. A procedure carried out regularly in Pius XII’s case. We convoked and heard 98 witnesses who knew him in various periods of his life. After which I, who was the postulator of the Cause, gathered and examined all the documents present in the Vatican Archive. Subsequently, the same documents were subjected to a commission of historians which had to evaluate, in my presence, if the material was exhaustive, authentic, tested. And again, the question was then sent to nine theologians who documented that Pius XII exercised all the necessary virtues for beatification. At the end of the process, as a practice, a commission of 13, between cardinals and bishops of several nations, had to express itself, which also gave a positive opinion on the whole course of beatification. Not only that, it also gave a recommendation to the Pope, who was Benedict XVI, to sign immediately the decree of approval. A signature that is yet to happen, not because the Pope doubted the virtues of Pius XII, but rather – and this is understandable, in as much as he is German – not to have trouble s with the Jews.
ZENIT: Is it right, therefore, to attribute to the intervention of some sectors of the Jewish world the slowing down of the cause?
–Father Gumpel: First of all I stress that it is very appropriate to speak of some sectors and not of the totality of the Jews. As in all great groups, there are eminent persons, others who are very good, others who are mediocre and still others who are “rotten apples.” This is true of the Jews and of any other group. Having made this premise, I add that I understand that the Jews would have wanted the taking of an explicit position by Pius XII against the Nazi deportations. However, in this regard, I can recount a personal experience of mine. In 1942 I was in Holland, exiled from Germany for political reasons. Being a Catholic boy, on July 26, 1942 I went to Sunday Mass and to my great surprise I heard the Pastoral Letter of the only Dutch Archbishop, Monsignor De Jong, who attacked harshly the German Occupation of Holland. My spontaneous reaction was twofold: at first I appreciated the courage of this prelate but then, however, I understood that a similar gesture would have triggered a response from the Nazis. Well, a few days later, on August 2, Germany carried out an acceleration of the deportation of Jews of Holland, also inserting in the list baptized Jews, among whom were recorded Edith Stein and her sister. In the light of this experience, we can affirm that a similar protest did not save the life of a single Jew, instead, it had a counterproductive effect. Pius XII was aware of this and, therefore, decided to act prudently.
ZENIT: Prudence that many interpret as connivance between Pius XII and the Third Reich …
–Father Gumpel: Published in the United States years ago was a book that brings together contributions of great professors, edited by Joseph Bottum, a liberal person, who is not suspected of philo-Catholic sympathies. The volume, entitled The Pius War, affirms that Pius XII’s defenders have won every single battle, refuting every opposition, but have not yet won the war. And to win the war, I add, there is need of the media. One of the greatest German historians, Professor Konrad Repgen, wrote me on one occasion that the meticulous work of us historians has spread only among specialists, while the masses “drink” what is given to them by the media, where even the first idiot (as a quotation says which has stayed impressed on me) recounts the greatest stupidities, repeated many times and through channels of wide diffusion, which become credible to the ears of the people. In my opinion, public opinion today is totally in the hands of groups that are hostile to the Church and, therefore, also to Pius XII.
ZENIT: Published recently was a book on an alleged plan of Hitler to capture Pius XII and deport him to Germany. What do you know about this affair?
–Father Gumpel: I’m convinced it’s true. This rumour circulated, with a certain insistence, in the German environment in Rome during the Occupation. There is the testimony of Nikolaus Kunkel, young German lieutenant of the headquarters of the military governor of Rome, which reveals how the order was awaited from one moment to another to invade the Vatican. It’s not the only testimony from the German side. There is, then, that of General Karl Wolff, Supreme Commander of the SS in northern Italy, who revealed the order directly to me and to Father Molinari. Under oath, he affirmed that he received personally from Hitler the order to invade the Vatican but that, however, he succeeded in sabotaging. Many think that he said this to “wash” his conscience, however, in my opinion it was a reliable statement. On the basis of a personal experience of mine, I can affirm that Wolff was not a criminal and much less so a liar.
ZENIT: In the interview given to La Vanguardia, Pope Francis expressed himself specifically in favor of Pius XII, condemning the calumnies against his figure. How do you interpret this attitude?
–Father Gumpel: In another interview on the same topic the Pontiff affirmed that the miracle is lacking to be able to sign the decree for Pius XII. It is an affirmation that frankly leaves me somewhat perplexed, in as much as the present Pope has always had great devotion to the first priest of the Society of Jesus, Peter Favre, whose process of Beatification has followed an anomalous, that is, ‘equivalent’ procedure. This means, essentially, that he excludes the necessity of the miracle. Moreover, there are many beatifications that have happened without a miracle.
ZENIT: Do you think you will ever attend Pius XII’s Beatification?
–Father Gumpel: Frankly, I don’t know, because I’m not a prophet … Personally, however, I am convinced that sooner or later Pius XII’s beatification will happen. As an historian I can say that often, immediately after their death, eminent men arouse great negative reactions. It is only in the course of time, when spirits have cooled, that a gradual reassessment is carried out.