Anger as Pius moves closer to sainthood

One month before his first synagogue visit, Pope Benedict advances the case of his 'silent' predecessor
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A leading rabbi accused Pope Benedict XVI of "insensitivity" towards Jews yesterday after the head of the Catholic Church moved his controversial World War II-era predecessor Pope Pius XII a step closer to sainthood.

Pius XII, who served from 1939 to 1958, is regarded by conservative Catholics as one of the greatest of modern popes. But his papacy was also controversial because of his failure to make any protest as millions of Jews were taken to Nazi gas chambers. His supporters claim that silence was necessary for the protection of Catholics around Europe. But the Vatican has infuriated critics by failing to open secret archives relating to his papacy before moving him closer to canonisation.

"This papacy has excelled in diplomatic insensitivity," said Rabbi David Rosen, a member of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and president of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. "It has excelled at a lack of consultation and consideration for the ramifications of its actions."

On Saturday Benedict XVI officially declared Pius XII had displayed "heroic virtues" throughout his life and was thus a Christian worthy of imitation – the final hurdle before beatification, which immediately precedes canonisation.

Iris Rosenberg, a spokesman for the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, added her voice to the growing chorus of Jewish anger.

"Our understanding was that ... the Church was going to wait to take further steps until the relevant Vatican archives were opened, allowing scholars to clarify this controversial period in Church history and Pius's position during the Holocaust," she said. The head of archives, Bishop Sergio Pagano, told reporters last July that it was likely to take another five or six years before the materials could be made accessible to scholars.

"It is regrettable that the Vatican has chosen to act before all the relevant documents are available to researchers," Ms Rosenberg said.

Jewish leaders were also angered that the Vatican chose to announce the acceleration in the process to canonise Pius XII just a month before Benedict XVI is to make his first visit to Rome's major synagogue. So far, the announcement does not appear to have put the 17 January visit in jeopardy. But a source close to Rome's chief rabbi, Dr Riccardo Di Segni, said both the announcement and its timing had "hit a raw nerve".

Dr Di Segni declined to comment, saying that this was an "extremely delicate" issue for Jews in Rome and around the world.

Pius XII was one of 17 people whose canonisation processes moved forward on Saturday. Others included Benedict XVI's most recent predecessor, Pope John Paul II, whose canonisation cause he opened only weeks after his death in April 2005.

Benedict XVI bypassed the five-year waiting period to allow officials to begin the sainthood process for the long-serving Polish pontiff. Speculation among Vatican watchers was that John Paul II could be beatified on 16 October 2010, which would mark the 32nd anniversary of his election to the papacy in 1978.

Before that can happen, a Vatican commission has to verify that a miracle, several of which have been submitted for review, has occurred through the late Pope's intercession.

The issue of the decree recognising Pius XII's heroic virtues yesterday caught many people by surprise, given the sensitive debate surrounding his wartime activities. But Benedict XVI has on numerous occasions shown his desire to push his predecessor's cause forward despite the controversies. In October 2008 he provoked Jewish anger by holding a large public Mass on the 50th anniversary of Pius XII's death. The ceremony came during a Vatican Synod at which the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, She'ar Yashuv Cohen, was an invited guest. The rabbi said he might not have accepted the invitation to address the synod had he been informed that the gathering was to include such an honour for Pius XII.

But despite the strains, the two sides continue to maintain a dialogue, and the next meeting is scheduled to follow Pope Benedict's visit to Rome in January. Rabbi Rosen, who will be involved in that dialogue, said: "Obviously, as much as Pope Benedict is committed to Jewish-Catholic dialogue, we are not the number one priority on his agenda."

Saints in waiting The road to canonisation

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), whose papacy lasted 27 years, was the first non-Italian pope in 450 years. The Polish pope has been on a fast track to possible canonisation since his funeral, when crowds demanded he be made a saint at once with chants of " Santo subito!" A month after his death, Pope Benedict XVI waived the normal five-year waiting period to kick-start the canonisation process. Since then, more than 250 reports of miracles have poured in, including the claim that he cured a French nun of Parkinson's disease. If the miracle is approved, John Paul II will be beatified – the last step before possible sainthood.

Mother Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), who is in line to become the first-ever Australian saint, devoted her life to educating the poor, setting up schools in the Australian Outback. She co-founded a religious order, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, in 1866. It quickly spread across Australia and New Zealand, and later to Peru and Brazil. She eventually led 750 nuns and 117 schools, as well as orphanages and refuges. She was beatified in 1995.