July 2016

Fr. Manfred Deselaers: Pope John Paul II said during his visit to Auschwitz in 1979, “It was impossible for me not to come here as Pope.” Pope Benedict XVI repeated these words during his own visit to Auschwitz in 2006. Now Pope Francis is coming to Auschwitz on the way to World Youth Day. Why is this place so important for the Church?

Cardinal Kurt Koch: The mass murder carried out with industrial perfection on European Jews was a crime against humanity and a grave sin against God. One must be reminded of this constantly so that something similar is not repeated. The visits of various Popes aim to keep this memory alive and set a sign of solidarity and union with the Jewish people. In the face of new waves of rising antisemitism, Pope Francis admonishes us that it is impossible to be both a Christian and antisemitic.

This year we are celebrating the Holy Year of Mercy. How can we speak of the mercy of God in the face of Auschwitz? Where was the merciful God in Auschwitz?

In the Gospel of the Judgement of the Nations (Matt. 25), Jesus says that people encountered Him when they fed the hungry, gave the thirsty a drink and visited those in prison. Jesus is not only in solidarity but he also identifies with the poorest and the suffering. By faith, therefore, we can assume that the merciful God was present also in Auschwitz and that He experienced the terrible suffering so many Jews experienced. We may be convinced of this for in the hell of Auschwitz so many Jewish people cried out to God and sought His mercy.

Even Pope Benedict during his visit to Auschwitz in 2006 said, “Constantly the question comes up: Where was God in those days?  Why was he silent?” Following his speech, a Jewish guest in attendance said he could no longer listen to this question of where God was and that the correct question is, where were the people, where was the Church? What do you say to that?

It is precisely this question that Pope Francis asked in his visit to the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem; “Where are you, oh man? What have you come to?” And, “we hear God’s question resound: “Adam, where are you?”  Indeed, in the face of Auschwitz we must ask where the people were, yes, we must ask the question God asks, where were the people? But we may and we must ask where God was and why He was silent. The Holocaust was carried out by a godless gang of criminals and has shown us where man ends up if he denies God and puts himself in God’s place. The National Socialists also wanted to kill God. We must resist this with all of our strength.

The majority of the victims of Auschwitz were Jewish, over 90%, but there were many thousands of non- Jewish victims: Poles, Sinti and Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and many others. The ideology of the Nazis was racist and also anti-Christian.  Why is the Christian- Jewish dialogue so important “after Auschwitz?”  Is it not simply about fundamental issues that affect all nations?

Christian-Jewish dialogue is not important only “after Auschwitz.”  We Christians have a unique relationship with Judaism like with no other religion. During a visit to Rome’s synagogue on 13th April 1986, Pope John Paul II made a clear statement when he said, “The Jewish religion is not "extrinsic" to us, but in a certain way is "intrinsic" to our own religion.”   This dialogue has become even more important after Auschwitz, because we Christians are also affected by the Holocaust and we must ask ourselves the question: why wasn’t the resistance on the part of Christians against the extermination of the Jewish people as strong as one might rightly expect? Obviously we commemorate all the people who were murdered in Auschwitz.

Pope Benedict walked alone and in silence through the Auschwitz Memorial. In Birkenau, he began his speech with the words: “To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible .[…] In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence…” Pope Francis has now announced that he does not wish to make an address during his visit to Birkenau, but would rather be alone in silence and pray for the gift of tears. Is it not better for us, generally, just to be silent regarding Auschwitz?

The horror of Auschwitz leaves us speechless and forces us into silence. This does not mean, however, that we should not speak about Auschwitz, otherwise, the victims of the Holocaust would be forgotten and they would, once again, be denied their names. They must be remembered.  However, it is important that words about Auschwitz come out of a silent interior movement and so take place out of respect for the victims. We owe them our memory. The address of Pope Benedict XVI was so convincing because it was the fruit of his silent walk through the Memorial.

World Youth Day is a festival of international encounters, mutual encouragement of the youth, joy and much singing and dancing. Does the reminder of the horror of Auschwitz not disturb this? Should it not be divided: first the festival and the mourning left for another time?

Auschwitz cannot be understood. It disturbs and disorientates people again and again. And for those who listen to the daily news, they find out that much good happens in our world, over which we may rejoice; but also much cruelty and terror are every day events. We are confronted with both and cannot separate one from the other. Man can, after all, only truly rejoice when he does not evade sad events. The tears of joy and the tears of pain come from the same spring water of the soul.  I am convinced that Pope John Paul II, who founded World Youth Day, would view this in such a way and would certainly also visit Auschwitz.