Pope Benedict XVI gave World War II pontiff Pius XII a push toward possible sainthood Thursday and defended his memory from accusations that he did little to spare Jews from the Holocaust.
Benedict vigorously defended Pius as he celebrated a solemn Mass in St. Peter's Basilica to mark the anniversary of the pontiff's death in 1958.
The Vatican has been using the 50th anniversary of the death to mount an aggressive campaign to rebut decades-old accusations that Pius did not sufficiently wield his moral weight against Adolf Hitler's regime to try to stop the extermination of 6 million Jews.
Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters that Benedict in his homily wanted to unite himself to the "widespread hope" of faithful who want Pius to be beatified, the last formal step before sainthood.
Lombardi stressed that Benedict was not setting any timetable for beatification and that the pontiff wanted to reflect on a voluminous church dossier about Pius, before signing a decree approving his "virtues."
Pius, an Italian, had been serving as Vatican secretary of state when he was elected pontiff in 1939, a few months before war broke out in Europe.
Benedict drew upon previous Vatican contentions that the pontiff used behind-the-scenes diplomacy to try to help the Jews.
Benedict cited the radio message Pius delivered for Christmas 1942 as evidence of determination to denounce the mass killings across much of Europe.
"In a voice breaking with emotion, he deplored the situation of 'hundreds of thousands of persons, who, for no fault of their own, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or a slow decline,' a clear reference to the deportation and extermination of the Jews," Benedict said, quoting from the 1942 radio address.
Pius "often acted in a secret and silent way because, in the light of the concrete situations of that complex historical moment, he saw that only in this way he could avoid the worst, and save the largest possible number possible of Jews," Benedict said.
Accusations that Pius did not do enough to save Jews have dogged his memory since German playwright Rolf Hochhuth's work, "The Deputy," first performed in Berlin in 1963, alleged that Pius failed to take action against the Holocaust.
Scholars and Jewish leaders also have criticized Pius, and the allegations have also been explored in widely read books including John Cornwall's "Hitler's Pope."
Benedict, 81, is a German who served in the Hitler Nazi Youth cadre while a young seminarian toward the end of the war.
In Benedict's homily, the pope did not take on specific critics, saying only, "unfortunately" the historical debate about Pius "has not always been the calmest."
Steps toward sainthood
Benedict gave no hint when Pius might be beatified, the last formal step before possible sainthood. But the pontiff said that he and other faithful "are praying so that the cause of the beatification of the Servant of God Pius XII may continue smoothly."
The Rev. Peter Gumpel, a German Jesuit who has spearheaded the drive for the late pontiff's beatification, said the process could take years.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Gumpel said that faithful have brought "plenty" of alleged miracles attributed to Pius' intercession to the attention of officials working on the beatification process.
A miracle is needed for beatification.
Another miracle is needed after beatification for Pius to become a saint.
Earlier this week, Israeli Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, who became the first Jew to address bishops' gatherings at the Vatican, pointedly omitted Pius when he spoke of the change in Catholic-Jewish relations from what was a "long, hard and painful history."
The rabbi said some religious leaders "did not raise a voice in the effort or save our brethren, but chose to keep silent and help secretly."
The Vatican archives section dealing with Pius' papacy has not yet been opened to historians.