In a historic visit to Rome’s main synagogue on Sunday, the Pope said the Vatican “provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way” to Jews at the time.
He apologised, however, for the Church’s role in anti-Semitism and expressed regret that many had remained “indifferent”.
“The Church has not failed to deplore the failings of her sons and daughters, begging forgiveness for all that could in any way have contributed to the scourge of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism … May these wounds be healed forever.”
He added later: "The extermination of the people of the Covenant of Moses, at first announced, then systematically programmed and put into practice in Europe under the Nazi regime, on that day tragically reached as far as Rome.
“Unfortunately, many remained indifferent, but many, including Italian Catholics, sustained by their faith and by Christian teaching, reacted with courage, often at risk of their lives, opening their arms to assist the Jewish fugitives who were being hunted down, and earning perennial gratitude. The Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way."
Earlier in the visit, the president of Rome’s Jewish community, Riccardo Pacifici, had remarked that “the silence of Pius XII before the Shoah [Holocaust] still hurts because something should have been done”.
Pacifici said: “Maybe it would not have stopped the death trains, but it would have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity, towards those brothers of ours transported to the ovens of Auschwitz.”
Pope Benedict appealed to Christians and Jews to “come together to strengthen the bonds which unite us and to continue to travel together along the path of reconciliation and fraternity”.
He referred to the 1986 visit to the synagogue by John Paul II who had wanted to make a “decisive contribution” to good relations between the two communities “so as to overcome every misconception and prejudice”.
He noted: “My visit forms a part of the journey already begun, to confirm and deepen it.”