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VATICAN LETTER Oct-10-2008 (810 words) Backgrounder. With photos posted Oct. 9. xxxi

No promises: Pope praises Pius XII, but sainthood cause still on hold

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Among the thousands who crammed into St. Peter's Basilica for a Mass commemorating Pope Pius XII, many were hoping for an announcement about his beatification, a step toward sainthood.

That didn't happen. Pope Benedict XVI strongly praised Pope Pius and prayed that his sainthood cause would make progress, but he made no promises and set no dates.

He did not declare Pope Pius "venerable," the step that would have advanced the cause and, no doubt, would have prompted much applause in the basilica.

To make sure that no one got the wrong idea, the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters not to expect the pope to go off and sign such a decree immediately after the Mass.

The pope was demonstrating his "spiritual union" with those hoping for canonization, but gave no indication about future steps, Father Lombardi said.

The words of the pope and his spokesman were significant because the decision on whether Pope Pius' cause will be moved forward -- or kept waiting -- lies squarely with Pope Benedict.

Last year, the Congregation for Saints' Causes unanimously recommended that the pope declare Pope Pius venerable, meaning that he heroically had lived the Christian virtues. Once such a declaration is made, a miracle may be attributed to the late pope's intercession, the final step before beatification.

But instead of approving the congregation's recommendation, in late 2007 the pope appointed a commission to study new archival information about Pope Pius and how his beatification would affect Catholic-Jewish and Vatican-Israeli relations.

Sources said that commission has finished its work. But no formal report has been made public, and the waiting -- which Father Lombardi said the pope wants as "a time of reflection" -- continues.

There is strong church sentiment inside and outside the Vatican for beatification, especially among those who feel Pope Pius has been wrongly accused of not doing enough to save Jewish lives during World War II.

In the days leading up to the Oct. 9 liturgy, which marked the 50th anniversary of Pope Pius' death, Vatican media were filled with tributes to the pontiff. The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, wrote that Pope Pius "was neither silent nor anti-Semitic" during the war, but worked prudently so as not to cause additional harm to Jewish communities.

Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, who has collected evidence in support of the cause, said that while he would never second-guess the pope, "there are millions of Catholics who want the beatification of Pius XII, and they are a little bit surprised and in a certain sense baffled that so far the pope hasn't signed the decree."

"The pope may have his good reasons, of course, for example the constant attack from some Jewish parties. The church wants to live in peace with the Jews," Father Gumpel told Catholic News Service.

Father Gumpel said it should be underlined, however, that Jewish opinion is divided about Pope Pius' wartime role. The late pope has drawn praise from some Jewish scholars, most recently at a Rome symposium in September -- an event that some thought had opened the door a bit wider for beatification.

Pope Benedict appears to agree wholeheartedly with Pope Pius' supporters when it comes to his wartime record. He repeated at the commemorative Mass what he told the Rome symposium participants three weeks earlier: that Pope Pius had worked quietly but courageously, doing all that was in his power to save the greatest number of Jews.

But from the pope's perspective, the problem for canonization may be a different one: that the elevation of a saint should not be a cause of division or discontent.

To some, Pope Benedict's wording at the memorial Mass signaled just such a concern. He said the church was "praying that the beatification cause may proceed happily" -- emphasizing the word "happily."

Some Jewish groups have said documents relating to Pope Pius' pontificate should be made available to scholars before beatification occurs.

Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican archives, recently told the Jerusalem Post that the Vatican's five archivists would need another five or six years to catalogue documents from the 1939-58 pontificate.

"Regarding Pius XII's beatification, as a historian, I would think it prudent to wait a few years after the opening of the archives," Bishop Pagano said.

"Allowing further research and waiting can only strengthen his case. Certainly nothing negative will be found," he said.

The idea that it might be good to wait a few more years is probably a minority opinion at the Vatican.

Two years ago, addressing a standing-room-only symposium in Rome, Italian Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, a retired Vatican official, summed up local church sentiment when he declared in front of Vatican officials: "Pius XII must be declared a saint! Admiration isn't enough -- people need to get moving!

"Too much time has already passed," he added.


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