The Vatican Apostolic Archives, left, will be getting more scholarly visits this year. After decades of anticipation, the Vatican is opening its archives on the World War II pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Robert Ventresca, right, a leading scholar on the Holocaust, will be one of the scholars from Canada making a visit. Left photo CNS photo/courtesy Vatican Apostolic Archives

Historian ready for long archive journey

By 
  • February 29, 2020

Getting an early look at the full archive of the wartime papacy of Pius XII is more than a passing interest for King’s University College historian Robert Ventresca.

“It’s a big deal,” Ventresca told The Catholic Register.

As promised last year, Pope Francis is opening up the full archive of Vatican records from 1939 to 1958. That includes 1.3 million documents already scanned and available online at the Vatican Apostolic Archives website.

Author of the definitive Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII and a leading scholar of the Holocaust,  Ventresca already has a book deal with Cambridge University Press for a new volume with the working title The Vatican and the Holocaust

The London, Ont.-based Ventresca has booked a ticket for Rome and reserved a seat in the Vatican Apostolic Archives for late June. (Last year Pope Francis changed the name of the archives, substituting the word “apostolic” for the old “secret.”)

The careful work of a historian takes time and just walking into the archive doesn’t produce a book, but Ventresca is excited to get the process underway.

“So much has been written and said about the Vatican and the Holocaust, the Church and the Holocaust, but we need those archives to give us the full story,” he said. “This is going to allow us to really come up with what I would describe as more of a definitive account.”

Ever the careful scholar, Ventresca then warns, “History is never definitive. It’s not as if it doesn’t keep going.”

Archivist Cardinal Jose Tolentino Calaca de Mendonca told reporters in Rome Feb. 20 they would have to wait for the “inevitably slow and complex” work of scholarship to really understand what the archives can tell us about nearly 20 years of history.

“The Church is not afraid of history and faces the assessment of historians and researchers with trusting certainty” that the meaning and spirit of what was done will be understood, de Mendonca said.

Cambridge University Press editor and publisher Beatrice Rehl believes signing Ventresca to write another book about the Church and the Holocaust is a no-brainer.

“The opening of these archives is of huge interest to many people around the world and promises to shed significant new light on events which have long been the subject of study, conjecture and controversy,” she said. “As a good historian, Robert wants to get to the heart of the matter.”

While his focus remains the Holocaust, Ventresca is aware that there’s a lot more than the wartime years and Vatican relations with fascist regimes to be found in the millions of documents.

“If one’s interested in the Cold War, if one’s interested in Pius XII’s teachings, if one is interested in the roots of Vatican II there’s a whole other range of things that these archives will help us to get at,” Ventresca said.

Ventresca doesn’t want to write a thick tome for eggheads.

“I believe that sound academic history is accessible to everyone,” he said. “It’s meant to be a serious, scholarly study. But it’s meant to have a wide audience.”

The range of material available for study will be extraordinary, Ventresca said. “There are different branches, different offices of the Curia involved,” he said.

While Ventresca’s main interest remains communications to and from the Vatican’s diplomats during and right after the Second World War, the full archive includes documents from every branch of the Vatican’s operations.

“I’ve got colleagues doing work on the papacy and the Church in Africa in the 1950s — the globalization of Catholicism,” he said. 

The archives are also likely to shed more light into the origins of the Second Vatican Council by uncovering “the seeds that were sown during that period,” said Ventresca.

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