COVID-19 Series: Archives on Lockdown

Archives on Lockdown: The Pius XII Papers at the Covid-19 Age by Maria Chiara Rioli

When he announced the opening of the Pius XII Archives on March 4, 2019, Pope Francis could not have known that the date scheduled for this event a full year later – March 2, 2020 – would coincide with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe.

The Vatican Apostolic Archives, formerly Vatican Secret Archives, Sala dei indici (Index Room)

Historians welcomed with great interest Francis’s speech about access to the Vatican archives related to the Eugenio Pacelli’s pontificate (1939–58), which have not been accessible until now. The opening of these archives inaugurates unprecedented possibilities of enquiry for scholars.[1] The full scope of what the archives reveal – both about Pius’s wartime role as well as much else – will only fully emerge after years of study. This documentation will open up new questions, reframe hypotheses, and challenge former interpretations.

At midnight sharp in the Vatican City – 6pm at my New York desk – on October 1st, 2019, I reserved my place in the reading room in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, as dozens of other scholars in the world did as well. In the following months I contacted other Vatican archives – in particular the Archives of the Secretariat of State and the Archives of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches – to ensure the possibility that I would get access to this newly released documentation, essential to my Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral project on the history of a community of Jewish converts to Catholicism within the Latin diocese of Jerusalem in the early 1950s.

In the weeks before the opening of the Pius archives, the spread of the Covid-19 in Europe, with its epicenter in Northern Italy, made many scholars doubtful about the possibility of opening the archives in those conditions. Some historians preemptively cancelled their research journeys. The archives opened as scheduled, immediately accompanied by some polemical jabs between Johan Ickx, the director of the historical archives relating to the Vatican’s Section for Relations with States, and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, about Pius’ role during the Shoah and the risks of an apologetic use of the documents.[2]

In the first week of March, the spread of Covid-19 accelerated. On Friday, March 6, the first case was registered in Vatican City. Around 10am that morning, scholars were informed that the reading room of the Secretariat of State archives was closing that day. The other Vatican archives shut down too. On Sunday March 8, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the lockdown of the whole country. The critical situation in Italy means that any provision for reopening for libraries and archives, including in the Vatican City, is still uncertain.

In those first days after the opening of the archives, historians had just confronted a small part of this new documentation: in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, scholars can request a maximum of 5 boxes per day, while in the Archives of the Secretariat of State, whose digitization could allow quicker and more efficient research, the access is limited by the closure of a part of the documentation, particularly from the years 1949–58. Now, much of their research is on hold or much delayed. The first conference, scheduled for June 2020 at the French School in Rome, that was aimed at revisiting the Pius pontificate in light of the newly-released documentation, has been postponed to Spring 2021.

For my research, however, these days have been indeed precious and fruitful. I am able to consult documents on the premises of the establishment of the Association of Saint James, the correspondence between the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Oriental Church, the Apostolic Delegation of Jerusalem and Palestine, and the Church of Jerusalem. These records allow the historian to reconstruct a much more complex narrative of the relations between the Rome, the Jerusalem Church, the State of Israel, and the Jewish world, often represented only in terms of “conflict,” “opposition,” and “absence of contacts.” I made use of this archives in my book Tribulationis Tempore: The Latin Church of Jerusalem in the Palestine War and Its Aftermath, 1946–56, forthcoming with Brill.

At the reopening of the archives, an attentive examination of the documents contained in the section “Ebrei” at the archives of the Secretariat of State, the correspondence of the Berlin and Paris Apostolic Nunciatures deposited in the Vatican Apostolic Archive and other collections will certainly contribute to a more accurate appraisal of the role of the Holy See during the Shoah. At the eventual end of the lockdown, unlocking the archives will allow new narratives to be constructed and to circulate.

Maria Chiara Rioli is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow at the universities of Ca’ Foscari in Venice and Fordham in New York within the REL-NET project: “Entangled Interfaith Identities and Relations from the Mediterranean to the United States: The St James Association and Its Transnational Christian-Jewish Network in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”


[1] David I. Kertzer, “What the Vatican’s Secret Archives Are About to Reveal,” The Atlantic, March 2, 2020 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/what-vaticans-secret-archives-are-about-reveal/607261/

[2] See Rossella Tercatin, “Is the Vatican trying to distort how Pius XII behaved towards Jews?”, Jerusalem Post, March 4, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/is-the-vatican-trying-to-distort-how-pius-xii-behaved-towards-jews-619644