Priest: Auschwitz Taught Holiness to John Paul II
Urges Europe Not to Forget Holocaust Tragedy
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"I am convinced that Wojtyła understood in this place the truth about man, because the questions that all ask themselves are the fundamental ones on the meaning of life," Father Manfred Deselaers told ZENIT.
The center was established in 1992 near the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by the will of Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, at that time archbishop of Krakow, with the agreement of the bishops of the whole of Europe and representatives of Jewish institutions.
Over the past seven years, more than 34,000 people have passed through the center, especially Germans, Norwegians and Americans, many of them to participate in the seminars and spiritual exercises offered there.
It is called a center of dialogue and prayer, even if, as the information brochure acknowledged, there is "an impression that prayer and dialogue cannot arise from this place."
Father Deselaers explained, "All those who come to the center must do so with the intention of listening, in the visit to the concentration camp, in the meeting with former prisoners, in the study of the documents."
However, he noted, it is not just about visiting a museum and looking at showcases with the impressive number of eyeglasses, suitcases and even inmates' hair.
The priest continued: "In Poland there is the profound conviction that the blood of the dead speaks: It is necessary to listen to the voices of the earth of Auschwitz and to have time to reflect on the question: 'What does all this mean for me?'
"And the answer varies if one is a Pole or an Italian, a Jew or a Catholic, a priest and a German -- as I am."
"Mutual respect for different sensibilities is the first response to the concentration camp where there was absolute denial of the other," said Father Deselaers.
He stated that entire schools go through the entrance doors of Auschwitz, passing under the inscription marked indelibly in the collective memory by films and memorials: "Arbeit macht frei" (work liberates).
The priest reported that many visitors leave with reddened eyes, faced to the memory of at least 1.5 million men, women and children who lost their lives there in the most cruel way.
Birkenau, he said, evidences the systematic will to exterminate, translated in ordered lines of huts, a double extension of wire netting that separated the ditches dug by the prisoners themselves. Only the cement blocks of the crematory ovens -- which the Nazis blew up before leaving the camp in an attempt to hide their crimes -- appear destroyed, demolished one on top of another.
Father Deselaers stated that everything suggests a horror that it is hard for the mind to accept that it was possible to conceive: How were persons able to do this to their fellow men?
He noted, "Many ask, 'Where was God?' which is "the first question that Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel asked when he said: 'Before God asks me 'where were you', I will ask him 'where were you when they were killing my brother, my sister, my nation?'"
No easy answers
"There are no easy answers," the priest affirmed, "only prayer and silence."
He added, "There cannot be genuine prayer that does without this place."
Father Deselaers, who has studied all the Pope's documents related to this topic, told ZENIT that John Paul II "has, in this regard, an essential role."
He explained that as Bishop Wojtyła of Krakow, not only was he bishop of Auschwitz, but "it can be said that he conceived his priesthood as an answer to everything that happened during World War II, the immense sufferings that others went through also in his place."
In fact, the priest added, "it was precisely during the war that Wojtyła decided to become a priest and entered the underground seminary organized by Cardinal Adam Sapieha."
"For him, who in his childhood had Jewish friends, Auschwitz was not an abstract tragedy but it formed part of his life," added Father Deselaers.
According to the priest, the experience of Auschwitz gave rise to John Paul II's strong commitment in favor of the dignity and rights of man, the search for dialogue between Christians and Jews, the meeting in Assisi between leaders of the religions so that all would cooperate in the civilization of love, and the root of his tensions for the unity of the human race.
"In 1965, as a young bishop, Wojtyła went to Oswiecim for the feast of All Saints," Father Deselaers said. "In the homily he explained that it was possible to look at this place with the eyes of faith."
If Auschwitz is the place, he said, "that shows us to what point man can be or can become wicked," still, "we cannot remain crushed by this terrible impression but it is necessary to look at the signs of faith, as Maximilian Kolbe did."
The priest noted that the Pontiff's example "shows us how Auschwitz also evidenced all man's greatness, all that man 'can' be, conquering death in the name of love, as Christ did." When he came here for the first time as Pope, he said "that victory over hatred in the name of love does not belong only to believers, and that every victory of humanity over an anti-human system must be a symbol for us."
Perhaps also because of this, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), who unites the confession of Christian faith and the tragedy of the Shoah, has become a patroness of Europe, Father Deselaers said.
He continued: "Wojtyła wished to say that if Europe seeks its identity in the modern age it cannot forget Auschwitz.
"Auschwitz was the school of holiness of John Paul II, which was immediately perceived by the people, because here Wojtyła understood totally what 'faith' means for the man of today."
The priest concluded, "People worldwide understood him because he understood them."
[With the contribution of Chiara Santomiero]