The Rome Lectures: Father Marie-Benoît and the Path to Jewish-Christian Rapprochement
Contemporary Church History Quarterly
Volume 29, Number 1/2 (Summer 2023)
Article: The Rome Lectures: Father Marie-Benoît and the Path to Jewish-Christian Rapprochement
Suzanne Brown-Fleming, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Georgetown University
This essay was originally published in Holocaust Education Today: Confronting Extremism, Hate, and Mass Atrocity Crimes. The Ethel Lefrak Holocaust Education Conference Proceedings. Carol Rittner, ed. (Greensburg, PA: Seton Hill University, 2023), pp. 137-145. We are grateful for the permission of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education to reprint it here.
In November 1944, with deportations to Auschwitz only having ceased the month prior, Father Marie-Benoît gave a series of lectures at the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion in Rome. In the lectures, he tried to bring together Jews and Christians by discussing topics such as the creation of the universe, man formed in the image of God, monogamy, the sanctity of marriage, the unity of the human family, and other topics common to both Christianity and Judaism. His lectures came to the attention of the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, the office within the Roman Curia that ruled on matters of faith and morals. This essay describes the tug-of-war between various authority figures, congregations within the Curia, and religious Orders that ensued, ultimately foreshadowing the sea changes of the Second Vatican Council.
On November 29, 1944, His Eminence Cardinal Francesco Marchetti Selvaggiani (1871-1951), Secretary of the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, wrote to Father Donatus von Welle, Minister General of the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor (Capuchin Franciscans/O.F.M. Cap). Cardinal Selvaggiani was puzzled by an announcement he read in L’Osservatore Romano: “on Sunday, November 5, at the Sisters of [our Lady of] Sion (Via Garibaldi 28) at 3:00 p.m., Fr. Benedict of Bourg d’Iré, O.M. Cap., will give the second lecture on Christian-Jewish friendship,” stated the small and inconspicuous passage.
“As has been announced in the newspapers,” Cardinal Selvaggiani wrote to Father von Welle, “Father Benedict of Bourg d’Ire [Père Marie-Benoît/Father Mary Benedict/Padre Maria Benedetto; hereafter Father Benoît], of this Religious Order, is holding a course of conferences ‘to maintain and spiritually consolidate the rapprochement between Israelites and Christians during the period of the recent persecution.’”
This, wrote Cardinal Selvaggiani, was not in keeping with the Acta Apostolique Sedis, and the cardinal wished for an explanation from the minister general of the Capuchin Franciscans. “May Your Reverend Fatherhood provide this Supreme Congregation with detailed information concerning the above-mentioned initiative, bearing in mind the dispositions given by this Supreme with the Decree of March 25, 1928, published in the Acta Ap. Sedis, edition of April 2, 1928, page 103, regarding the Amici Israel,’” the cardinal wrote.
Opus sacerdotale Amici Israel, or the Clerical Association of Friends of Israel, was a controversial and short-lived international organization founded in February 1926. Conceived of as both a bridge between Jews and Catholics and a tool for conversion, it briefly enjoyed broad support. By the end of 1926, its membership included 18 cardinals, 200 bishops and about 2,000 priests. The association’s proposal to amend the Good Friday Prayer that used the word “perfidis” (perfidious) to describe Jews surfaced internal power struggles and sharp disagreements between the Congregation of Rites, the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, and Pope Pius XI (1922-1939). The Holy Office did not approve the change, and Pope Pius XI ordered that Amici Israel be dissolved in 1928. This was the controversy and resulting ruling that Cardinal Selvaggiani referenced in his 1944 letter, one he likely remembered well.
Few new more intimately the “recent persecutions” of the “Israelites” than did Father Benoît, the organizer of the conferences in question. The French Capuchin was one of the few Roman Catholic priests to be named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in April 1966. He was atypical in his herculean efforts on behalf of Jews trying to survive under Nazi and Axis onslaught. In 1940, he left the Capuchin monastery on the Via Boncompagni 71 in Rome to return to France, specifically to the Capuchin monastery in Marseilles, where he was active in rescue activities that included false baptismal certificates for Jews. Forced to return to Rome in 1943, he was elected acting president of Delasem (Delegazione Assistenza Emigranti Ebrei), an Italian and Jewish resistance organization that worked in Italy between 1939 and 1947.
In November 1944, Rome was only six months into recovering from Nazi occupation (September 1943 – June 1944). World War II still raged. Deportations to the Nazi death Camp Auschwitz in Poland had only ceased in late October 1944. Father von Welle replied quickly to Cardinal Selvaggiani’s letter. On December 5, 1944, he wrote a long explanatory letter emphasizing that Father Benoît could be relied on to carry out what the Holy Office would consider an appropriate approach to Jews, explaining:
Father Maria Benedetto of Bourg d’ Iré, from 1940 to 1943, was in temporary residence, for reasons of the war, in our convent of Marseilles, where, with the permission of the Most Rev. Ordinary of the place, he instructed in the Catholic faith and baptized a good number of Jews. This spiritual ministry gave him the opportunity to help also materially the converted and non-converted Jews, and so for three years he collaborated with the Jewish committees of Marseilles, Cannes and Nice in France, to protect the persecuted Jews, in agreement with the Italian Authorities in the French area they then occupied.
Furthermore, the Holy Father himself approved – for in July 1943, Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) received Father Benoît and approved of the priest’s work, asserted Father von Welle. In fact, Father von Welle had been the one to present Father Benoît to the pope. In early September 1943, “hundreds of foreign Jews from France poured into Rome,” according to Father von Welle. Surely one could not expect Father Benoît to ignore their plight, for when visiting these new refugees, Father Benoît “recognized among them a good number of his assistants from Marseilles and Nice.” This meant he was “not able to avoid the duty of resuming his assistance,” and in answer to their plight, began his work with Delasem.
Father von Welle argued Father Benoît’s work was “known to the Secretary of State [Cardinal Luigi Maglione] and to the Vicariate of Rome.” It was work to be praised, implied Father von Welle, for “it put Father Maria Benedetto in serious danger several times and required intense and continuous energy.” This was important work. According to his knowledge at that time, “on June 4, 1944, there were 4,000 subsidized people in Rome, of whom 1,500 were foreigners and 2,500 Italians.” During the Nazi occupation of Rome, “about 25,000,000 Italian liras were spent,” wrote Father von Welle. Father Benoît’s work was a point of pride for the pope, argued Father von Welle:
Once the persecution had passed, at least for Rome, the Jews immediately asked Fr. Maria Benedetto if they could express their gratitude to the Supreme Pontiff. The Chief Rabbi of Rome, [Israel] Zolli, accompanied by lawyer [Carlo Alberto] Ottolenghi, was received in private audience by His Holiness. The Holy Father received them very paternally, and also accepted the proposal of a public audience for all the Jews of Rome, but for later, when circumstances permit.
As to the immediate November 5 conference that had already taken place on the Via Garibaldi 28, Father von Welle responded by quoting a letter from Father Benoît, produced upon the request of his superior. The lengthy passage is fascinating for the window it gives us into the manner in which Father Benoît understood his work:
I thought it was opportune to maintain and spiritually consolidate the rapprochement that took place between Israelites and Christians during the period of the recent persecution. To this end, taking advantage of the great popularity I enjoy among the Jews of Rome, I invited Jews and Catholics to listen to lectures given by me on the Old Testament, beginning at the very beginning with Genesis. It is a common ground on which we can meet and meditate together on the great religious teachings of the Word of God. My method is neither scientific nor polemical, but based […] on the Italian version of the Vulgate, it is expository-educational. The immediate fruit of this should be, as I said in the first conference, a greater union between Jews and Christians, to fight every form of anti-Semitism, to arrive at a better understanding between all and to promote every good work. In the first three lectures I was already able to speak of the creation of the universe, of man formed in the image of God, of monogamy, of the sanctity of marriage, of the unity of the species, or rather of the human family, and thus of universal brotherhood, all matters that have pleased and made a salutary impression, as I was able to judge from the conversations that followed. Being a graduate of Theology from the [Pontifical] Gregorian University and a teacher of Theology in our International College for nearly twenty years, I believe I am able to give these lectures from the doctrinal point of view. I am familiar with the condemnation of the “Friends of Israel” because I used to be a member, but I believe I avoid the drawbacks of this association. I endeavor to conform my lectures to the spirit of the Church and the teaching of the Holy Fathers. I make use of the best commentators on the Bible such as Father [Francis de] Sales. I do not intend in any way to propose modifications in the Sacred Liturgy such as the Oremus “pro perfidis Iudaeis” on Good Friday; nor to attenuate the responsibilities of the Jewish people in the trial of Jesus or other similar things; on the contrary, I take advantage of every opportunity to make Christian doctrine known as it is, as I have already done once for the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass.
It is a remarkable “defense” from a man who risked much to offer aid to persecuted Jewry during the Holocaust. It also speaks to the degree that both Fathers von Welle and Benoît knew that any rapprochement with Judaism – or any other tradition – was deeply frowned upon as Indifferentism. Christian charity toward the suffering was one thing, but words and deeds that could be construed as approval of another faith tradition -especially Judaism -was quite another. And once again, as had been the case in 1928, the Congregation of Rites became involved.
In a long memorandum dated 18 December 1944, canon law jurist Vigilio Dalpiaz of the Congregation of Rites condemned Father Benoît’s lectures, using as a reference point the 1928 dissolution of Amici Israel. After summarizing the main points of the 1928 decree of the Holy Office, published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, issue of April 2, 1928, the memo noted an earlier announcement in L’Osservatore Romano, dated October 18, 1944 and more fleshed out than the subsequent November 4 version. In the memorandum, the entire premise of Father Benoît was rejected:
But can Fr. Benedict of Bourg be allowed to give to Catholics and Jews the conferences of which he speaks, and with the method he followed, that is, dealing with religious themes of common interest, but basing himself exclusively on the Old Testament? The Old Testament is only a prelude, a preparation for the New Testament, according to which the plan of universal salvation of souls is now based exclusively on faith in Christian revelation, on belonging to the Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, on participation in the Sacraments, etc. […] The Church and her ministers have the right and the duty to preach, but to preach the Gospel […] If Fr. Benedict of Bourg de Iré had conceived and enunciated his course of lectures on the Old Testament, so as to present them to his Catholic and Jewish listeners as a necessary premise for a further exposition of Christian faith and morals according to the New Testament, he would have done praiseworthy work, and would have been well-deserving before the Church, as well as before souls. But he has stopped, and intends to remain, halfway, taking care not to make that move towards Christianity in general and towards the Church in particular: and this, evidently so as not to upset his Jewish hearers, who could in turn repeat the gesture of their ancestors when they left the synagogue of Capernaum, protesting against the “durus sermo” [intense speech] of Jesus. In fact, the subjects he [Benoît] deals with must completely disregard the revelation of the New Testament, and form a “common ground” on which Catholics and Jews can meet, such as the Creation of the Universe and man, the unity of the human species, the institution and sanctity of Marriage, etc… Even the Messianic question, which, reflected in innumerable prophecies, forms the most vibrant chord of the Old Testament, and touched with a gentle hand, finds the most harmonious echo in the pages of the New Testament, converging irresistibly the eye and the heart if the divine figure of Jesus, is left completely aside. And what is the fruit intended by Fr. Benedict with these lectures? “A greater union with God,” he replies, “and a greater union between Jews, and Christians, in order to combat every form of anti-Semitism to arrive at a better understanding between all, and to promote every good work.” Without wishing to discuss that mysterious “union with God” especially for Catholics, it is clear, however, that the purpose of such conferences is purely philanthropic and humanitarian, i.e. such as even a simple rabbi, or any layman, could propose and achieve. But, then, why should Fr. Benedict set himself to work in his capacity as a Religious, that is, as a Minister of the Catholic Religion, and, even while dealing with religious matters, absolutely disassociate himself from the New Testament, that is, from the foundation of the Catholic Religion, the only true one? Certainly, his expostulation cannot but produce a sense of disorientation in the Catholics already used to considering the most serious problems of the spirit in the light of the New Testament, and not inject as a sweet soporific into the Jews, to whom it will not seem even true that now finally the Catholic Church resigns itself to accept as definitive the conceptions of the Old Testament, at least concerning the most fundamental religious questions. In order to achieve a greater union between Jews and Christians, which is a natural end, Fr. Benedict compromises the supernatural field of faith: in order to materially and morally favor the Jews he endangers the spiritual good of both Jews and Catholics: because both Jews and Catholics, seeing religious problems of such gravity treated by a Catholic priest exclusively according to the Old Testament, they will easily think that one Testament is worth the other, and the Jews will feel the impulse that perhaps pushed them towards the Christian Religion failing: while the Catholics will fall into the religious indifferentism that necessarily accompanies the fall of the Christian religion. Benedict of Bourg d’Iré should be enjoined to use the New Testament as the basis of his lectures, revealing its differences and superiority over the Old Testament through its points of contact and harmonies. If, as is foreseeable, this were not possible given the nature of the audience, he should be forbidden to hold these lectures.
As was the case in 1928, opinion remained divided. HE Pietro Cardinal Fumasoni Biondi (1872-1960), Prefect of the Congregation for the Propaganda of Faith from 1933 until his death, wrote,
Benedict of Bourg d’Iré seems commendable for his science and piety. Doctor of Theology, Professor of Dogmatics, Spiritual Director of the International College. Here in Rome he has given three lectures so far, and these on the Old Testament. Of course, it begins there, but it is not said that it ends there. This is demonstrated by the fact of the conversion of the Rabbi-Chief of Rome and the other fact that in Marseilles he has instructed in the Catholic Faith and baptized a good number of Jews. So let us leave him to it, and at the most, on the part of Monsignor Assessore or others, a word of praise and wise direction for the future.
Discussions about the case continued into 1946, and the ACDF is a treasure trove for the continued wrestling between different congregations and authority figures within the Roman curia.
To conclude, in the midst of the Holocaust, efforts at rapprochement with Judaism were still met with a mixture of dear, defensiveness, and even hostility. Even figures like Father Benoît knew they needed to choose their words carefully when justifying such efforts. Aid to suffering Jews was tolerated, and some argue encouraged, by the pope and his closest advisors and disciplinary bodies. Acceptance of Judaism as a religious tradition was still rejected, and would only change with the Second Vatican Council. It would take 35 years after the Holocaust for Pope John Paul II to tell his Jewish audience in Berlin that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was never revoked. It is fascinating to consider the sea change that occurred between Cardinal Selvaggiani’s November 1944 inquiry and Pope John Paul II’s November 1980 address. It is sure that pioneers like Father Benoît contributed to the Church’s journey.
Hubert Wolf, Pope and Devil: The Vatican’s Archives during the Third Reich, translated by Kenneth Kronenberg (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.
Susan Zuccotti, Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue: How a French Priest Together with Jewish Friends Saved Thousands during the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
- What are the main themes and arguments stressed by Father Benoît as included in the 1944 letter from Father von Welle to Cardinal Selvaggiani?
- What are the main themes and arguments made in the judgement of canon lawyer Vigilio Dalpiaz?
- Compare and contrast these arguments. Which do you find more convincing?
The Assisi Underground [DVD]. New York, N.Y.: MGM/UA Home Video; Distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2011.
My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes of the Holocaust (2014). Available on Netflix. See https://myitaliansecret.com/.
 The views as expressed are the author’s alone and no not necessarily represent those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or any other organization.
 This congregation, renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 1965, promotes and safeguards the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world. See https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_pro_14071997_en.html, accessed 3/30/2022.
 L’Osservatore Romano is the daily newspaper of the Vatican City State. It reports on the activities of the Holy See and events taking place in the Church and the world. It is owned by the Holy See. For a description see https://www.osservatoreromano.va/en.html, accessed 3/30/2022.
 L’Osservatore Romano, 4 November 1944 – N.259 (25.676) page 2. Short announcement under the heading “Nostra Signora di Sion.” The text read: Domenica 5 novembre, presso le Suore di Sion (via Garibaldi 28) alle ore 15 il P. Benedetto da Bourg d’Iré, O.M. Cap. Terrà la seconda conferenza sull’amicizia cristiano-ebraica.
 Letter from HE Cardinal Francesco Marchetti Selvaggiani to Father Donatus von Welle, 29 November 1944, 125/28. Archivio della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede (Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, hereafter ACDF), Vatican City: 00161 – 2 c. 206 227: Circa le conferenze del P. Benedetto.
 The Acta Apostolique Sedis is the official gazette of the Holy See containing all the principal decrees, encyclical letters, decisions of Roman congregations, and notices of ecclesiastical appointments. See https://www.vatican.va/archive/aas/index_ge.htm, accessed 3/30/2022.
 Letter from HE Cardinal Francesco Marchetti Selvaggiani to Father Donatus von Welle, 29 November 1944, 125/28. Archivio della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede (Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, hereafter ACDF), Vatican City: 161 – 2 c. 206 227: Circa le conferenze del P. Benedetto.
 At the turn of the 20th century, the Congregation of Rites dealt with matters directly related to sacred worship as well as matters relating to saints. By 1928, the Congregation consisted of two sections: one for beatification and canonization, the other for sacred rites. In 1969, the Congregation of Rites was divided into two separate entities: the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. See https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/index.htm, accessed 3/30/2022.
 See Hubert Wolf, Pope and Devil: The Vatican’s Archives during the Third Reich, translated by Kenneth Kronenberg (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010; and Emma Fattorini, Hitler, Mussolini and the Vatican: Pope Pius XI and the Speech That was Never Made, translated by Karl Ispen (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011).
 Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, is the national Holocaust memorial of the state of Israel.
 See https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/stories/benoit.html, accessed 3/30/2022.
 See Gérard Cholvy, Marie-Benoît de Bourg d’Iré (1895-1990): Itinéraire d’un fils de Saint François, Juste des Nations (Paris : Les Editions du Cerf, 2010); and Susan Zuccotti, Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue: How a French Priest Together with Jewish Friends Saved Thousands during the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), among others.
 Letter from Father Donatus von Welle to HE Cardinal Francesco Marchetti Selvaggiani, 5 December 1944, 125/28. ACDF, Vatican City: 161 – 2 c. 206 227: Circa le conferenze del P. Benedetto.
 Date of the liberation of Rome from Nazi control by the Allied powers.
 Letter from Father Donatus von Welle to HE Cardinal Francesco Marchetti Selvaggiani, 5 December 1944.
 Susan Zuccotti describes this event through the eyes of Father Benoît in her book Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue, p.196-198. With full access to the ACDF archive since early 2020, scholars can now better understand the context for Father Benoît’s 4 December 1944 letter – to whom he was writing, and why. Father von Welle relied heavily on Father Benoît’s text in his response to Cardinal Selvaggiani, dated the very next day.
 The Vulgate is a late-4th-century Latin translation of the Bible.
 Letter from Father Donatus von Welle to HE Cardinal Francesco Marchetti Selvaggiani, 5 December 1944.
 Indifferentism is the belief that no one religion is superior to another.
 According to the gospels of Luke (4:31–36) and Mark (1:21–28), Jesus of Nazareth taught in the synagogue in Capernaum and healed a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit.
 ACDF, Vatican City: 161 – 2 c. 206 227: Circa le conferenze del P. Benedetto, pp.223-228 and 65/1-65/6. On December 18, 1944, Dalpiaz rendered the decision of the judicial system of the Vatican City State seated in Piazza Santa Marta.
 Now called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, this congregation of the Roman Curia is responsible for missionary work and related activities. See https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cevang/index.htm, accessed 3/30/2022.
 Ibid. N.125/28; 66/3 and p.233 in the file.