VATICAN CITY -- Next Thursday (Oct. 9), Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate a special Mass in St. Peter's Basilica to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII.
The fact that Oct. 9 this year coincides with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is ironic, since debate over Pius' record is one of the most divisive issues in the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church.
As the Vatican's Secretary of State during Hitler's rise to power, and then as pope during World War II, Pius guided his church's response to the Nazis' persecution and genocide of the Jews.
Pius' critics say that he failed to do or say all he could to stop the atrocities. The late pope's defenders counter that he heroically condemned anti-Semitism throughout Hitler's reign, and both directly and indirectly saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust, especially during the 1943-44 German occupation of Rome.
Many students of the debate trace its origin to Rolf Hochhuth's play "The Deputy" (1963), which portrays the wartime pontiff as prompt to abandon the Jews for the sake of the Vatican's financial and geopolitical interests. The subject has since spawned a vast array of literature, including John Cornwell's controversial 1999 bestseller, "Hitler's Pope."
More recently, the debate has turned even more intense, as the church inches closer to making Pius a saint. Advocates for his canonization cite accomplishments that include major reforms of liturgy and canon law, as well as his help to the Jews.
The cardinals and archbishops who sit on the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted unanimously last May to recognize the late pope's "heroic virtue" and declare him "venerable," thus bringing him one step closer to sainthood.
However, instead of approving the congregation's decision, Benedict took the extraordinary step of appointing a commission to reconsider Pius' record, with special attention to Jewish concerns.
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the congregation's head, told reporters last February that evaluation of Pius' sanctity had "not been delayed, much less stalled," and that commemorative events linked to the 50th anniversary would contribute to the process.
Before Pius could be canonized, he would first need to be beatified and credited with a miracle due to his intercession. A second miracle would be needed in order for him to be named a saint.
Within the next few weeks, the Vatican will sponsor a photographic exhibition on Pius and an academic conference devoted to his contributions to Catholic doctrine.
A symposium in Rome last month, organized by the U.S.-based Pave the Way Foundation, was not held under Vatican auspices but received a high-level endorsement when Benedict received participants at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.
The "vast quantity of documented material" presented at the conference, Benedict said, showed that Pius had "spared no effort in intervening" on behalf of the Jews, though in many cases "secretly and silently, precisely because ... only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews."
According to Michael Phayer, a professor emeritus of history at Marquette University who has written about Pius and the Holocaust, a 200-page book of documentation published by the conference contains no new evidence. Phayer called for the Vatican to open its archives for the World War II period, which are still largely inaccessible to scholars.
That call was echoed by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who said that any new proof of Pius' behind-the-scenes assistance to Jews would help ease Catholic-Jewish tensions -- even though it would not satisfy those who have deemed Pius' public actions inadequate.
Foxman, who survived the Holocaust in German-occupied Lithuania thanks to his Catholic nanny and a sympathetic priest, said Pius' reputation would be especially enhanced by evidence that such individual Catholics came to the aid of Jews with the support and encouragement of their pope.
"It would be nice if I could stand up and say that I bear testimony not only to the compassion and love of my nanny and priest but to that of the church," Foxman said. "Then the Vatican could take credit."