The Catholic diocese of Shrewsbury has published Bishop Mark Davies’s Holocaust Memorial Day address which he gave on 24 November at a synagogue in Manchester:
Thank you for your invitation to join you on this Holocaust Memorial Day. I have been asked in these opening words to address the importance of the Holocaust specifically for Christians and to thereby consider the theological significance of the Holocaust to the Christian mind. As Blessed John Paul II expressed this, “no one is permitted to pass by the tragedy of the Shoah …” and no Christian can pass by the Holocaust without profound reflection. A Christian reflection might focus upon the mystery of evil, upon the sins of Christians and the need of repentance on the heartfelt prayer of Blessed John Paul II that our relationship “be healed for ever”. However, today in this short address I wish to focus upon the significance to the Christian mind of the attempted annihilation more than 60 years ago of that people who were called by the Lord, “before all others”.
I can only begin this reflection from silence, the silence often remarked upon at the scenes of the Holocaust where it is said the birds no longer sing. Four years ago I travelled with a group of Catholic priests to Auschwitz-Birkenau and my abiding memory will be of the silence which marked that day and continued in the group long into the evening. It is not only a human response to such horror but also as Pope Benedict described on his visit to that same camp in 2006: “To speak of this place of horror, in this place where an 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 …” It is a silence which must also mark this Holocaust Memorial Day. A silence which becomes in Pope Benedict’s words, a heartfelt cry to God which leads us to bow our heads before the endless number who suffered and were put to death and a plea to the living God that this must never happen again (28th May 2006).
We are painfully conscious that mass crimes, acts of genocide and cruelty on an unimaginable scale have continued to disfigure history. We think of the trial continuing today of the former rulers of Cambodia and we cannot forget the return of “eugenic” thinking directed against the unborn and the most vulnerable deemed “unfit to live” or threatened with “mercy killing.” The struggle against evil continues. Yet the Holocaust causes us in Blessed John Paul II’s words on his return to Poland in 1979: “to think with fear of how far hatred can go, how far man’s destruction of man can go, how far cruelty can go” (Mass at Brezeinka Concentration Camp 7th June 1979). “For the death camps,” he insisted, “were built for the negation of faith – faith in God and faith in man – to trample radically not only on love but on all signs of human dignity, of humanity. A place built on hatred and contempt for man …” And as he reflected as a now aged Pope on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the prisoners at Auschwitz in 2005, “may it serve today and for the future as a warning: there must be no yielding to ideologies which justify contempt for human dignity …”
As Christians we cannot fail to see that amidst all the victims of Nazism it was a chosen people who marked down for systematic and total destruction. Both Pope Benedict and Blessed John Paul point to the significance of this will to annihilate the people, “who draws its origin from Abraham, our father in faith” (Romans 4:12) to the people who in the words of the Apostle Paul, “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises …” (Romans 9:4-5).
Here I wish to share with you a story which was brought to my attention in a publication I was given Jerusalem earlier this year. It begins in the South Tyrol (a German-speaking region of Italy) in the last months of the Second World War. In the autumn of 1944 the remaining youth of the town all Catholics were conscripted into the collapsing armies of the Third Reich and in January of the following year despatched to the Eastern front under the command of SS officers. One boy, a medical orderly, finding his friend dead heard the officer sneer, “Now you may love your enemies; isn’t that what you were told by this Jew Jesus?” And he gave a courageous reply which he later realised flowed from his Christian faith and upbringing, “Yes, I love the Jews … they are the people of Jesus.” German soldiers were executed for lesser offences against Nazi ideology but somehow he survived amid the chaos of those days and became after the war a Catholic priest who dedicated much of his life to increasing understanding between the faith of Israel and the faith of the Church. As a teenager he had seen what Pope Benedict wishes to frequently reminds us as Christians that the Jewish people are “our fathers” in faith. “The people chosen by the Lord before all others to receive his word,” as theCatechism of the Catholic Church declares (CCC 839).
In this one, small incident in a barn on the Silesia in 1945 we see something of the hope which Pope Benedict expressed last year on his visit to the Synagogue of Rome that the memory of these events of the Holocaust “compel us to the strengthen the bonds that unite us so that our mutual understanding, respect and acceptance may always increase.” The Nazi reign of terror we recall today was based on a racist myth on an idolatry of race and state but as both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have reminded us it was also a radical rejection of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who is, “the God of Jesus Christ and all who believe in him”. For “the Almighty” Hitler and the Nazis spoke of was a pagan idol as Pope Benedict declared in Berlin’s Reichstag Building in September this year This idol Pope Benedict said “wanted to take the place of the Biblical God, the Father and Creator of all men”. “By wiping out this people,” he had declared at Auschwitz, “they intended to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide to mankind, principles that remain eternally valid.” And contemporary historians point to the logical intention of the National Socialist State rooted in this idolatry of man, of race, of the state to destroy not only the Jewish race but Christian morality and the faith of the Church.
For it strikes us as both Jews and Christians as to how the Holocaust so explicitly trampled on every one of the “The Ten Words” “The Ten Commandments” in a systematic eradication of morality: “you shall not kill,” “you shall not steal,” “you shall not bear false witness.” As Pope Benedict reflected with the Jewish community in Rome earlier this year, “the Ten Commandments call us to respect life and to protect it against every injustice and abuse, recognising the worth of each person, created in the image and likeness of God … Bearing witness together to the supreme value of life against all selfishness, is an important contribution to a new world where injustice and peace reign, a world marked by that “shalom” which the lawgivers, the prophets and sages of Israel longed to see.”
The study of the Holocaust must lead, as I have tried to suggest in this brief talk to a deeper appreciation of the close bonds between the Jewish people and Christians recognising our common roots and the rich spiritual patrimony we share. An ideology which grew at the centre of European civilisation sought to remove from the face of the earth in this Holocaust the people called by the Lord before all others. This must surely lead us to recognise every continuing assault upon the value and dignity of every human life and person and to recognise in this the denial of the Creator. This must call us to vigilance in the face of the developing ideologies and mindsets of our time so often hostile to the Judeo-Christian foundations on which our civilisation was built. So as Pope Benedict reflected on the memory of the Holocaust: “the past is never simply the past; it tells us the paths to take and the paths not to take.”
May the memory of this day, reflected upon by Christians and Jews, help all humanity to take those right paths. Amen.
(Photograph by Father Tim Finigan)
You must be logged in to post a comment.