VATICAN CITY (AP) — Declaring that the church "isn't afraid of history," Pope Francis said Monday he has decided to open up the Vatican archives on World War II-era Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized by Jews of staying silent on the Holocaust.
Francis told officials and personnel of the Vatican Secret Archives that the archive would be open to researchers starting March 2, 2020.
Pius was elected pontiff on March 2, 1939, six months before World War II erupted in Europe. Pius died on Oct. 9, 1958, at the Vatican summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.
The Vatican usually waits 70 years after the end of a pontificate to open up the relevant archives. But the Holy See has been under pressure to make the Pius XII documentation available sooner and while Holocaust survivors are still alive. The Catholic church has been widely criticized for not doing enough to stand up to the Nazi regime.
Vatican archivists had already started preparing the documentation for consultation back in 2006, at the behest of Francis' German-born predecessor, Benedict XVI.
The Vatican has defended Pius, saying he used behind-the-scenes diplomacy to try to save lives. Francis indicated he, too, embraced that interpretation.
Pius' actions will be scrutinized as part of efforts underway to decide if he should be declared a saint. Francis indicated that the church was confident that the papacy would withstand the findings by historians' studying the archives, saying Pius was "criticized, one can say, with some prejudice and exaggeration."
In Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial commended the decision and expressed the expectation that "researchers will be granted full access to all the documents stored in the archives."
It noted that it had for years called for the opening of the archives, saying that will "enable objective and open research as well as comprehensive discourse on issues related to the conduct of the Vatican in particular, and the Catholic church in general, during the Holocaust."
Israel's foreign ministry also expressed hopes that there would be "free access to all relevant archives."
Francis expressed confidence it was the right move.
"The church isn't afraid of history, on the contrary, it loves it, and would like to love it even more, like it loves God," Francis told staff at the archive.
"Thus, with the same trust of my predecessors, I open, and entrust to researchers, this patrimony of documentation."
Francis expressed certainty that historical research would properly evaluate Pius' legacy "with appropriate criticism."
He said the Pius papacy included "moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence." Instead, he said they could be seen as attempts "to keep lit, in the darkest and cruelest periods, the flame of humanitarian initiatives, of hidden but active diplomacy" aimed at possibly "opening hearts."
Monday's announcement followed decades of lobbying by Jewish advocates for access to the documentation to help answer the long-standing question of whether Pius did all he could to save lives during World War II.
In New York, Rabbi David Rosen, the international director for interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee called Francis' decision "enormously important to Catholic-Jewish relations."
He noted in a statement that he had raised the issue with Francis and his predecessors in meetings.
"It is particularly important that experts from the leading Holocaust memorial institutes in Israel and the United States objectively evaluate as best as possible the historical record of that most terrible of times — to acknowledge both the failures as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the systematic murder of six million Jews," Rosen said.
Later this week, it said a delegation of the Committee's leadership will be given an audience with the pope at the Vatican. The organization has lobbied for more than 30 years for full access to the archives.
Historians will also be keen on examining documents from Pius XII's papacy in the years after the war ended in 1945.
In 1983, the Vatican dismissed as "absolutely absurd" a claim in a Jewish magazine that the Vatican aided Klaus Barbie and other high-ranking Nazi war criminals in their escape from Europe, along with legitimate refugees, after the war.
Defenders of Pius' wartime actions have noted that some convents and other religious institutes in Italy helped hide Jews, including during the Nazi occupation of Rome.
David Rising contributed from Berlin