AUSCHWITZ, Poland – It was 70 years ago this Sunday, August 14, 1941, that St. Maximilian Kolbe was martyred here.
It was nine years ago that I was here last, on a pilgrimage just before my priestly ordination. I wanted to come and pray at the death block of Auschwitz, to kneel at the threshold of the bunker where Maximilian Kolbe died. I came again this year, to the horror of this hell on Earth, made into the antechamber of heaven by the man — a writer and publisher who sent millions of words into print — whose most famous words were: “I am a Catholic priest.”
Is it possible to be a pilgrim in Auschwitz? In 1998, in preparation for the great jubilee, the pontifical council for migrants would suggest exactly that: “Among these (pilgrimage) cities should also be included those places desecrated by people’s sin and later on, almost out of an instinct of reparation, consecrated by pilgrimages. Let us think for instance of Auschwitz, emblematic place of torture of the Jewish people in Europe, the Shoah….”
What does the Catholic pilgrim say in this place, emblematic of the six million Jews who died in the Shoah, three million of whom were Polish — half of all the six million Poles who died in the Second World War? In this place of great evil, is it possible to speak of Jesus Christ?
As a pilgrim here in 1979, Blessed John Paul lifted up the figure of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the one who died here in place of a stranger, a husband and a father who had been selected to die in the starvation bunker. The story is well known. When asked who he was, Fr. Kolbe did not give his own name, but said simply, “I am a Catholic priest.” Is that not another way of saying that I stand here in the name of Jesus Christ? Is it not another way of saying that I come, I stand, I suffer, I witness, I sacrifice, I die as a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Maximilian Kolbe’s baptismal name was Raymond, so I consider him a personal patron saint. Blessed John Paul went further, calling him “the patron saint of our difficult century.”
With the eyes of faith we can see that God was not absent from this place. This place was built for His destruction, His defeat, for the extermination of His people, but He was not absent, for He was present here in His saints.
“The victory through faith and love was won by (Maximilian Kolbe) in this place, which was built for the negation of faith — faith in God and faith in man — and to trample radically not only on love but on all signs of human dignity, of humanity,” the late Holy Father said.
Consider what was prepared here. This icon of evil formed part of the archdiocese which would be led one day by Karol Wojtyla. In solidarity with our Jewish brothers, and drawn by the luminous figure of St. Maximilian, he would come here many times as archbishop of Krakow. And from here he would become pope; having been prepared to defend the dignity of man by the horrors of this place.
Blessed John Paul would also speak of Edith Stein, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, whom he would later beatify and canonize, and who was killed at Birkenau because she was a Jew. When Pope Benedict came here in 2006, he too spoke of her.
The Polish saint and the Polish pope. The German saint and the German Pope. The pagan persecution of the Jewish people in the heart of Christian Europe took place here. A new relationship with the Jewish people grew up in the years afterward, with the Polish pope and the German pope praying with and for Jews in Jerusalem. All this the pilgrim sees at Auschwitz.
In the long dark night that descended here, one can see the light of Providence preparing another dawn, another day, another future. Can it be a mere coincidence, if this place was indeed the “Golgotha of the modern world,” that the Vicar of Christ John Paul II would come from this place, and that he would return to this place? Can it be a coincidence that his successor, the Vicar of Christ Benedict XVI would also come to this place, a son of the German people? It cannot be a coincidence that in this place built for the extermination of the name of Israel, God would send two saints, one a son of Poland and the other a daughter of Germany, to manifest the power of the Cross for mercy, for solidarity, for love, for victory?
Auschwitz speaks to us about all these things and it is our duty — a special duty to those of us who honour St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and Blessed John Paul II — to keep alive the memory of what happened here.
Seventy years ago this Sunday, Golgotha came to our world, and St. Maximilian Kolbe there, both the priest and the victim.