While in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, I take my tired eyes off a 5-inch-thick compilation of letters sent to Pope Innocent III in September of 1683. The Vatican Apostolic Archive was known as the Vatican Secret Archive until last year, when Pope Francis published his decision regarding the name change. I share the room with researchers of every description: men and women, young and old, Orthodox Jews and Catholic priests among lay people from around the globe. We occupy 20 simple reading desks. Heavy, leather-bound ancient texts set upon reading racks are meticulously examined, sometimes with the aid of magnifying glasses and flashlights, pages turned with wooden sticks resembling Harry Potter’s magic wand. I am privileged among the few researchers granted free access to examine the many records on miles of shelves. My eyes regain focus by looking beyond stark index volumes which fill the two-level room from floor to ceiling. On the far side of the arched brick ceiling is a 12-foot oval mural depicting papal keys. My mind momentarily wanders.

September 11: An ominous day. Members of my father’s and mother’s families faced the caliphate army looking to take over the western world. Christendom itself was under attack. This was not 2001 in Lower Manhattan, Virginia, or Pennsylvania, but 1683 when my family joined King Jan Sobieski in Vienna to bring a cessation of the ancient caliphate. I seek documentation of that fateful event and other events in history involving my family.

Among my research subjects are: my Great-Great-Uncle (fourteen generations back) Mikolaj Woiciech Albrecht Gniewosz 1613–1654 (Bishop, Ambassador, Secretary of the Crown, whose heraldic tapestry was carted off as spoils of the Swedish invasion); and my Grandfather Jan Bisping, who was a papal chamberlin for a dozen years after his first wife and baby died in childbirth. What records remain secreted in these archives? My quest continues.

In the book “Noble Flight” written with my mother Teresa Maria Gniewosz (neé Bisping), the story is recounted how she met Pope Pius XII in February 1940. The pope was eager to discover more about the war and the atrocities that were happening in northern Europe. The Pope learned of the disappearance of my Grandfather Jan, of displaced persons, of countless hardships. In 2008 I was able to provide Pope Benedict XVI this testimony through Apostolic Nuncio to Washington D.C., the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi.

The papal archives were opened to researchers in 1879 under Pope Leo XIII. Today permission is granted to consult documents in the archives up until the end of the papacy of Pope Pius XI (February 1939). Until this month, I could not examine any records of my mother’s audience with Pope Pius XII or documents which might shed more light on the wartime disappearance of my Grandfather Jan Bisping and my Uncle Franciszek Xawery Gniewosz. I am among many who seek information of family and friends who suffered and/or disappeared: priests, officers, Roma, intellectuals, Jews and nobles, and the disenfranchised and outcasts of society.

The announcement that changed access to records after February 1939 came in a meeting with archive staff a year ago. Pope Francis stated: “The church is not afraid of history; on the contrary, she loves it and would like to love it more and better, just as she loves God. Therefore, with the same confidence as my predecessors, I open and entrust to researchers (this wealth of documents).” For the past 13 years, wartime archives have been organized, catalogued and prepared to be made accessible. Starting March 1, researchers were able to access all documents in the archives from the election of Pope Pius XII in 1939 to his death in 1958. I, along with my fellow researchers, am eager to put my eyes on this wealth of newly available history.

Gniewosz, a Portland Catholic, is a researcher, writer, and publisher of international business and historical materials.