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‘The Silent Pope’: St. Louis University Grapples With Pope Pius XII’s Legacy

Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
The blessing of St. Louis University’s statue of Pope Pius XII occurred 61 years ago this month, one year after the pontiff’s death. It sits outside SLU’s Pius XII Memorial Library, which a group of alumni are hoping to see renamed.

Twenty years ago, when Tim Bagwell was a student at St. Louis University, he frequently passed by the Pope Pius XII statue outside the main library. Even then, he was already aware of deep questions and concerns about the late pontiff’s legacy. After all, Pius became the leader of the Roman Catholic Church amid the Holocaust, in 1939, and at key points remained publicly silent about German aggression and Nazi atrocities that occured during the awful period following his coronation.

That’s why Bagwell and others are now asking the university to take the former pontiff’s name off its library.

The controversy is “not whether [Pope Pius] did or encouraged others to do anything, but rather his silence and not speaking out explicitly and forcefully about what he knew what was going on to European Jews at the time,” Bagwell explained on St. Louis on the Air. “If he would have spoken out explicitly, would more Catholics in Europe have been hesitant to participate in the genocide against the Jews?”

Current events and new revelations from Vatican archives have Bagwell convinced that the time to act is now. Earlier this month he and a handful of other SLU alumni sent a letter to SLU President Fred Pestello asking the university to “open a process to rename the Pius XII Memorial Library.”

“We call only for the renaming of the Library, not the removal of the statue of Pope Pius XII,” the letter explains.

Bagwell and his co-authors suggested “two martyrs of the faith” to consider memorializing instead: Sister Sára Salkaházi, a Hungarian Catholic who helped save the lives of more than 100 Jews during World War II, and Odoardo Focherini, an Italian Roman Catholic journalist who forged documents to help Jews escape.

A St. Louis University spokesman said Friday that the university is aware of the push to rename the library. But, beyond that, she said it does not have a comment at this time.

Tim Bagwell & David Oughton
Tim Bagwell, left, and David Oughton both see value in a closer look at the legacy of Pope Pius XII.

On Monday’s talk show, Bagwell joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss why he is pushing his alma mater to change the library’s name — even while leaving the statue in place.

Also participating in the discussion was retired SLU theologian David Oughton, president of the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis. Oughton’s textbook “Jewish-Christian Relations in Light of the Holocaust” includes a chapter focused on Pius, his top advisers and the wide range of Catholic responses to the Holocaust.

Oughton has been interested in the topic ever since studying at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, in 1986. While he hasn’t taken a stance on the library ordeal, he is opposed to canonizing Pope Pius XII.

“I think that pushing the canonization of Pope Pius XII would be detrimental to Jewish-Christian relations, in light of the controversy,” he said.

Oughton provided an analysis of the complicated situation the so-called “Silent Pope” was facing during World War II, and acknowledged that he had been hopeful diplomacy would better serve Catholics in Europe.

Still, in assessing Pius XII’s legacy, Oughton said one question should be paramount.

“One question that everyone every Christian needs to ask himself is, ‘What would Jesus have done?’ And I can't imagine Jesus not speaking forcefully when he would know that there were millions of people who are being systematically murdered.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

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