VATICAN (CWN) -- In a press conference held aboard the airplane as he traveled to Nigeria Friday, Pope John Paul II, responded to questions about the record of Pope Pius XII by characterizing his predecessor as "a great pope."

      In further response to the question-- prompted by the recent renewal of controversy over the role played by Pius XII in opposition to the Nazi persecution of Jews -- said that all such questions have already been adequately answered. "One must read Father Blet," the Pontiff said.

      Father Pierre Blet is a French Jesuit, the only survivor among the four historians commissioned by Pope Paul VI to study the archives and provide an exhaustive evaluation of Vatican actions during the Holocaust. The Jesuit team produced a 13-volume study. Last week Father Blet wrote a new article in the Italian Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, defending Pius XII against his accusers.

      The Pope appeared healthy and relaxed throughout his meeting with the press, bantering with reporters in Italian and joking about the last such in-flight press session, which had occurred during his January trip to Cuba.

      In a related story from the Vatican, Father Pierre Blet, SJ, one of the authors of the definitive study of Vatican activities during World War II, has indicated that the recent resurgence of criticism regarding the alleged "silence" of Pope Pius XII in the face of the Holocaust is completely refuted by the facts. Father Blet said that "every piece" of evidence in the Vatican Archives proclaims the "pure and simple" fact that Pope Pius did his best to protect Jews from Nazi persecution.

      In a new article published in the Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica, Father Blet says that the "legend" of a weak Church reaction cannot withstand the evidence. "A calm consultation of the documents makes clear" that Pius XII was forthright in opposing the Nazi regime and heroic in his efforts to save Jewish lives. The record, the French Jesuit added, shows "the inanity of the attacks directed against his memory."

      "Every possible item [in the historical record] is opposed to the myth, and the historical reality is established on incontestable evidence," Father Blet continued. He even said that there is "no evidence" to support the widespread perception that Pius XII-- who had once served as papal nuncio to Germany-- was particularly fond of German culture.

      Father Blet sharply criticized writers who today criticize Pope Pius XII without having studied the historical record. He pointed out that several self-proclaimed experts have ignored clear evidence which was produced in the 13-volume Vatican compilation of archives from the World War II era.

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March 24, 1998 volume 9, no. 59         DAILY CATHOLIC