The Shift in the Vatican Secret Archives

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The Shift within the Vatican Secret Archives
It is not every day that one is presented with news that could significantly enhance the course of one’s research. But when that does happen, one is invited to reimagine possibilities or redraw the scope of one’s research. As a historian who researches on twentieth-century Christianity in South Asia – and more specifically on post-restoration Jesuit history in South Asia – there was much to look forward to last week’s announcement by Pope Francis regarding the opening of the archives of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII (2 March 1939 – 9 October 1958)1 within the Vatican Secret Archives2 – along with the Historical Archives of the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State, and the Historical Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Incidentally, just a month back, I was invited to join a meeting of Jesuit archivists and historians at the Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu (ARSI), the central archives of the Society of Jesus in Rome. While the buzzwords of this meeting remained discernment, collaboration and networking, a more African and South Asian response to these principles was the accessibility of the Jesuit archives and the writing of our indigenous histories. It was also during these meetings that we were fortunate to be granted a prearranged tour of the Vatican Archives. In the course of the tour, I happened to ask the Vatican archivist guiding us as to when would access to the pontificate of Pope Pius XII open. His response was, “Anytime soon!”

  While this opening was celebratory news for many historians, it was particularly welcomed by Israel and the Yad Vashem,3 the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. Israel had in the past criticised the Holy See for its lack of cooperation in the investigation of the role of Pope Pius XII with regard to the Holocaust, and had sought the opening of these archives.4 The press was quick in exploiting these reactions and highlighting the politics surrounding it as it rallied to define Pope Pius XII and his papacy: Holocaust-Era Pope,5 Hitler’s Pope,6 controversial WWII pope,7 and the like. That the early opening of the Pope Pius XII era archives – considering that the Vatican Archives remain inaccessible until 70 years after the death of a Pope – was as much a response to pressure from Jewish groups representing holocaust victims explains the polarised nature of these headlines. What is unsettling about such headlines is how journalism – when not backed by historical research and scholarship – manages to shape popular opinion. Moreover, they position a narrow reading of the archives that are yet to be opened, while also trying to indicate how they need to be now investigated. While Jewish groups have tended to accuse Pope Pius XII for maintaining silence and not speaking out against the excesses of Nazism during World War II, such voices were amplified with the production of Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play, Der Stellvertreter. Ein christliches Trauerspiel (The Deputy. A Christian Tragedy) that dramatized Pope Pius XII’s inaction during the Holocaust. As the play attained success in Europe and the United States, and having generated controversy in the process, it contributed to these strictures on Pope Pius XII.8 John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (1999), Susan Zuccotti’s Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (2000), Michael Phayer’s Pius XII, The Holocaust and the Cold War (2000) and a slew of other titles raised new questions surrounding the inaction of Pope Pius XII and thus added to the debate. And while there is substantial evidence to this perceived silence of Pope Pius XII, sustained historical research should shed light on the veracity of such claims. Pope Francis in his Audience with the Officials of the Vatican Secret Archives alludes to the need of such historical research:
“… serious and objective historical research will be able to evaluate, in the proper light and with appropriate criticism, the praiseworthy moments of the Pontiff and, without any doubt, also moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence, which to some might have seemed to be reticence, and which instead were attempts, humanly also very hard-fought, to keep the flame of humanitarian initiatives lit during periods of more intense darkness and cruelty, of hidden but active diplomacy, of hope in possible good openings of hearts. … The Church is not afraid of history; rather, she loves it, and would like to love it more and better, as God does! So, with the same trust of my predecessors, I open and entrust to researchers this documentary heritage.”
With a documentary patrimony that spans twelve centuries – with over 85 linear kilometres of shelving arranged within over 600 archival fonds – the Vatican Archives are a veritable treasure for historical research. For all the debate that surrounds the opening of these archives, one ought to realise that there’s more to these Archives – more specifically to the pontificate of Pope Pius XII – than just the Holocaust or World War II that had come to overshadow this period.
Pope Pius XII with the participants of the conference on "The cooperation of the lay people of Asia and Africa with the missionary apostolate" in September 1958.
Pope Pius XII with the participants of the conference on “The cooperation of the lay people of Asia and Africa with the missionary apostolate” in September 1958.
In an article detailing the long and patient preparatory work that has gone towards the opening of the Archives, Bishop Sergio Pagano, the Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, reviews some of the sources that will now be available to researchers. These include (a) documentation concerning papal government within the Secretariat of State, (b) archives of pontifical representations (nunciatures) around the world, (c) fonds partially accessible and now open until 1958 and (d) new special fonds created during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. However, with the focus on the Vatican Archives, what is often missed is the opening of archival holdings within the Historical Archives of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Historical Archives of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, the Archives of the Fabbrica of St Peter’s as well as the Historical Archives of Congregations, Dicasteries, Offices and Tribunals within the Roman jurisdiction. These archives normally follow the Vatican moratorium on the opening of their holdings. Together with the Vatican Archives, these holdings present a humongous historical resource. Consider, for example, the archives of just one of such religious orders, the Jesuits, whose central archives in Rome span some two kilometres of shelf space. What is again missed is that the pontificate of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) – apart from the Holocaust, the World War II and the emerging Cold War – was also a period of rapid decolonisation where empires gave way to newly independent nations. As European presence within these countries receded, the concept of Christian missions within these territories also changed. European missionaries gradually gave way to native leadership within missions as indigenisation became the norm. Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Evangelii Praecones (1951), is notable for its stress on indigenisation. The encyclical highlighted the training of native clergy, the changing nature of foreign missions as well as the shifting political contexts within which Christianity was now prevalent. While political decolonisation was by no means the sole reason for indigenisation within missions, it did accelerate this process as newly independent governments underlined their newfound nationalism by restricting the presence of foreign missionaries. Such trends were easily visible in Christian missions within India that had won its independence from the British in 1947. In the 1950s, the Jesuit missions of Madurai (1952), Ranchi (1956) and Bombay (1956) were raised to the status of independent Jesuit provinces. Similarly, Ahmedabad, Belgaum-Poona, Calcutta, Jamshedpur and Patna were established as vice-provinces in 1956. In the same year, Darjeeling and the Santal Mission were constituted as separate regions of the Calcutta vice-province, while Hazaribagh was made a dependent region of Ranchi. As Jesuit provinces had by now begun to reflect a growth in local Indian vocations to the Jesuit order, there was a gradual transition to in leadership. This is clearly reflected in the Ranchi province that eventually had its first indigenous provincial, Fr. Philip Ekka SJ, in 1972. While there had been 701 European missionaries (553 of these from Belgium) that had arrived from the Belgian province to the Calcutta-Ranchi mission between 1859-1969, their numbers had significantly reduced over time. As of 2019, there are only four Belgian Jesuits within the Ranchi province who constitute just one percent of the total membership of the province. These demographic shifts within what were until the mid-twentieth century designated as mission territories, were emblematic of the ongoing process of indigenisation within these regions. But they were illustrative of an even broader process – the shifting of global Christianity from its centre in the European West to the global South.9 According to the 2011 Pew Research Center study on Global Christianity, this shift was not only becoming more widespread but also more diverse.
Regional Distribution of Christians
Regional Distribution of Christians
While the proportion of the Christian population across the globe remained relatively steady between 1910 (600 million of 1.8 billion: 35 percent) and 2010 (2 billion of 6.9 billion: 32 percent), this relative stability needs to be differentiated. Thus, while in 1910, Europe accounted for about two-thirds of the Christian population, by 2010 the demographics had altered to Europe (26 percent), Americas (37 percent), sub-Saharan Africa (24 percent), and Asia and the Pacific (13 percent). Though there is a marginal decline of the Christian population in the Americas (96 percent in 1910 to 86 percent in 2010), its growth in sub-Saharan Africa – 9 percent (9 million) in 1910 to 63 percent (516 million) in 2010 has been phenomenal. In the Asia-Pacific region, the growth has been from 3 percent (28 million) in 1910 to 7 percent (285 million) in 2010.10
Christian Population by Global North / Global South
With political decolonisation of the missions and the shifting of global Christianity across the twentieth century, how would we account for our reading of the mid-twentieth century Vatican Archives, as well as a host of other related Roman archives? While the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) would later articulate these shifts through its documents, the aggiornamento that it heralded was a result of these changes that gained momentum during the papacy of Pope Pius XII. The Holocaust or World War II notwithstanding, the shift within global Christianity point to much larger narratives. Decolonisation is only part of this narrative; indigenisation is another. But if we still fail to see the shifts, we probably need to begin with decolonising our reading of the archives.      

  1. Pope Francis, “Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Officials of the Vatican Secret Archive”, 4 March 2019, Vatican City, (accessed on 10 March 2019) 
  2. Officially known as Archivum Secretum Vaticanum (latin) or Archivum Secretum Vaticanum (Italian), the Vatican Secret Archives (henceforth, Vatican Archives) concern documents related to the governance of the Universal Church that date back to the eighth century. The Vatican Archives constitute the pope’s private (hence, secretum) over which he exercises his jurisdiction. 
  3. Yad Vashem, “Yad Vashem’s Response to the Vatican’s Announcement to Open its Pius XII Archives” 4 March 2019, Jerusalem, Israel, (accessed on 10 March 2019) 
  4. Rabbi Michael Melchior, “Deputy FM Melchior: Lack of Vatican cooperation in Pius XII investigation”, 25 July 2001, (accessed on 10 March 2019) 
  5. Billy Perrigo, “Pope Francis Says Secret Archives On Holocaust-Era Pope Pius XII Will Be Opened Early”, Time, 4 March 2019, (accessed on 10 March 2019) 
  6. Nick Squires, “Pope Francis announces opening of Secret Archives on ‘Hitler’s Pope’”, The Telegraph, 4 March 2019, (accessed on 10 March 2019) 
  7. Harriet Sherwood, “Vatican to unseal archives on controversial WWII pope”, The Guardian, 4 March 2019, (accessed on 10 March 2019) 
  8. “‘THE DEPUTY’ IS HERE; Rolf Hochhuth’s Controversial Play Has Had an Embattled History”, The New York Times, New York edition, 23 February 1964, p. X1 
  9. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population, Washington DC: Pew Research Center, 2011 
  10. Ibid, pp.9-16 

Rinald D'Souza

Rinald D'Souza is a historian of religion and society in modern South Asia. He specialises on twentieth-century Christianity and the history of the Jesuits in India. He is presently pursuing a PhD in history at the Department of History at KU Leuven, Belgium. His current research explores the self-fashioning of Adivasi Jesuits through the missionary periodical press. Read more.

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