Saturday, March 3, 2012

Lux in Arcana - The Vatican Archives Exhibition

Lux in Arcana is one exhibition I would dearly love to see, but Australia is not called “Down Under” for nothing!  On Wednesday 29 February, a six month exhibition of a selection of texts from Archivio Segreto Vaticano went on display in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. Amongst documents which include the Bull of Excommunication of Martin Luther, the appeal from the English Parliament for the Annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon, a letter from St Teresa of Jesus and the transcripts of the interrogations of the Knights Templar, there are several documents from the archives of Pius XII.  It is these that are of particular interest to me.

Reading the news reports on the exhibition several things stand out. 

Firstly, there is the general level of ignorance in the mainstream media about the archives.  They are not “secret” in the sense of hidden or deliberately withheld.  The Italian word “segreto” can be translated to mean “private”, which is what in fact, they are.  The ASV is the private or personal archive of the pope.  The terminology is understandably confusing, but a simple question seeking clarification would remedy the confusion, a point made by one of the exhibition organisers, archivist, Pier Paolo Piergentili, author of TheVatican Secret Archives (2009).

Secondly, there is the oft repeated assertion that the Vatican has been engaged in “covering up” unpalatable aspects of its past – ancient and modern – and this exhibition is an example of greater transparency!  Journalist, Charlie Angela, needs to do some research.  After making the "revelation" that the Catholic Church put Galileo to death (he died in his bed in Florence at the age of 77) because he “discovered that the earth revolved around the sun” (with no apology to either Aristotle or Copernicus), she appears to go on to assert that the exhibition is in part a response to the child abuse scandals and that the Church is doing all this to appease public opinion “who want the Church to reveal all its secrets”.  This is not journalism worthy of the name and the Daily Mail were Ms Angela’s report was published should be ashamed. 

Thirdly, the customary positions taken on Pius XII remain alive and kicking.  The media, it seems, has little or no interest in acknowledging the realms of gray about the war-time pope.  The old chestnut of “wait until the archives are opened and all shall be revealed” still attracts attention.  No acknowledgement was made of the work that has been done so far, or to at least recognise that the exhibition makes new assertions regarding Pius XII.

Fortunately the European Jewish Press has a more nuanced approach.  I have copied the relevant section and made notes throughout the text.

The documents are part of an unprecedented exhibition in Rome of rare Vatican archives spanning centuries of history and include a report from a papal envoy on the conditions inside seven internment camps in southern Italy.   
There are many documents found in ADSS that record visits made by the Italian nuncio, Francesco Borgongini Duca to internment camps throughout southern Italy.  The internment camp at Ferramonti Tarsia in Cosenza operated between June 1940 and September 1943.  The nuncio visited the camp on 31 August 1941 (ADSS 8.142) and maintained contact throughout the rest of the war. (See ADSS 8.294, 329, 335, 371, 471; 9.55).  The nuncio was also involved in interventions on behalf of converted and stateless Jews throughout Italy at times, in order to prevent their possible deportation into German hands. (See ADSS 6.13,18, 22, 32, 246, 247; 8.473; 9.57, 122, 146, 228)
Another document is a letter from a formerly interned rabbi in 1942 who thanks the then head of the Roman Catholic Church for sending aid to the camp including clothes and linen. 
Letters of thanks are found throughout ADSS.  They came from individuals, families and communities across Europe, the UK (ADSS 9.346) and even Uruguay (ADSS 9.364).  The Church, in the person of the pope, was thanked for efforts made on behalf of the Jews of Europe.  Most come from after the summer of 1941 when news of the mass murder began to reach to the world at large. (This is a sample: ADSS 8.495 – Rabbi Freiberger, Zagreb, 30.09.1942; ADSS 9.52 – Rabbi Alexander Safran, Bucharest, 15.02.1943; ADSS 10.226 – the Jews of Rome, 10.06.1944, 10.288 – Jewish families in Rome, 05.08.1944. The archives of the internment camp in Campagna also contain a number of letters of thanks from internees expressing their thanks to the pope for material help.
A third document is from former Jewish detainees who met with the pope for an audience in 1944 and expressed their gratitude for his support. 
They said the pope had sent "substantial and generous gifts and demonstrated his keen and paternal interest in our physicial, spiritual and moral wellbeing" and said he had saved them from the threat of deportation to Poland in 1942.   
The Vatican's second in command, Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, visited the opening of the exhibition on Wednesday and said he had been most struck by the documents relating to the papacy of Pius XII.   
Bertone said the documents were part of efforts for "historical truth", adding: "The research on the period of Pius XII has so far generated more than two million files and information about prisoners of war". 
The head of the Vatican archives, Sergio Pagano, also said the full archive from Pius XII would be made available "within one or two years".   
"The final decision however depends on the pope," he told reporters.   
Another document included in the exhibition is a letter from the nuncio to the Netherlands, Paolo Giobbe, dated 18(?) September 1945 informing Rome of the death of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and her sister, Rosa.  The video on Rome Reports was too faint for me to read the text in its entirety.

While the selection of documents is interesting, it breaks no new ground, but reinforces what has been known from the available material that Pius XII was not inactive in working to provide help where he could.  It is also imperative to remember that the Secretariat of State, the nuncios and other Vatican diplomats acted in the pope’s name, so many of the letters of thanks are expressed to the pope because people may not have known who was directly responsible for getting the relief to the camps.  Thanking the pope was a natural thing to do, and Pius should be credited for this basic “work of mercy”.  It is also important to recall that the most work of this kind was done in Italy where Pius had greater ability to act.

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