VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict said on Thursday he hoped his Nazi-era predecessor Pius XII, who some Jews have accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, can proceed on the road to Roman Catholic sainthood.
In a homily at a Mass commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pius' death in 1958, Benedict defended Pius, saying he worked "secretly and silently" during World War Two to "avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews possible".
Some Jews say Pius did not do enough to save Jews. The Vatican and his Jewish defenders say he worked behind the scenes to help because more direct intervention would have worsened the situation.
Benedict said he prayed the process leading to Pius' beatification, the last step before sainthood, "can proceed happily".
On Monday, the chief rabbi of Haifa, Israel, Shear-Yashuv Cohen, told Pope Benedict during a synod that Jews "cannot forgive and forget" that some major religious leaders during World War Two did not speak out against the Holocaust.
Cohen separately told reporters Pius "should not be seen as a model and he should not be beatified".
The papacy of Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, is one of the most difficult issues in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Many books have been written about it, with most defenders saying the situation would have been worse for Jews if he had spoken out forcefully, prompting retaliations by Hitler. "He often acted in a secret and silent way precisely because, given the real situations of that complex moment in history, he realised that only in this manner could the worst be avoided and greatest number of Jews be saved," Benedict said.
JEWS HIDDEN IN CONVENTS
Defenders of Pius says he ordered churches and convents throughout Italy to hide Jews and that Vatican diplomats in Europe also helped give many Jews false passports.
Some have estimated that Pius' interventions may have helped save several hundred thousand Jews.
In his homily, Benedict quoted a tribute from then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir when Pius died saying: "When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for the victims".
Last year, the Vatican's saint-making department voted in favour of a decree recognising Pius' "heroic virtues", a major step in a long process toward possible sainthood that began in 1967.
But Pope Benedict, who prayed at Pius' tomb after the Mass, has so far not approved the decree and has opted for what the Vatican has called "a period of reflection".
Asked about the part of the homily where Benedict speaks of Pius' beatification, chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the pope wanted to show his support for a desire among many Catholics to see Pius move towards sainthood.
But he added that Benedict was not pronouncing himself on how long the sainthood procedure could take.
Urged by historians to open up all its archives from World War Two, the Vatican says some are closed for organisational reasons but that most of the significant documentation regarding Pius is already open to scholars.
Some Jewish groups say the Vatican should freeze the process of beatification until more research can be done but others say it is an internal Church matt