Pope Francis’s silent visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, his encounter with twelve survivors of the extermination camps, his meeting with the group “The Just of the Nations” who stood against the radical evil of the Shoah, the flame burning in these places to commemorate the tragedy: these will remain among the most eloquent gestures of the current Pontiff. There was need for no other words than the ancient verses of the Psalmist crying out to God, inscribed in Jewish and Polish at the front of the monument dedicated to the victims: sacred words that break through the suffocating darkness of evil, brightened only by the candles the Pope left in these places where the anguish is still palpable.
After his visit with the Polish people, on the anniversary of the country’s baptism that happens to occur in this Jubilee of Mercy, and before the concluding ceremonies of World Youth Day, the visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau was a central moment of this papal journey. His two predecessors had visited in 1979 and 2006, sons of the two peoples most closely connected to the unleashing and the suffering of the tragedy that was World War II: “Pope John Paul came here as a son of that people which, along with the Jewish people, suffered most in this place and, in general, throughout the war,” said Benedict, adding, “I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here. I had to come. It is a duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God.”
Today, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, successor to Karol Wojtyła and Joseph Ratzinger, the two European popes who symbolically brought the era of the Second World War to a close, years indelibly marked by the Shoah, this Pope from “the end of the world” returned in silence to the place where evil was unleashed with all its force. To implore the Lord’s mercy and “pardon for such cruelty,” as Francis wrote in Auschwitz after praying in silence at the place where Maximilian Kolbe died, the holy Franciscan who in this “devastating storm” (the meaning of “Shoah”) resisted to the point of giving his own life in place of that of his prison mate condemned to death. And after having embraced and kissed the faces of ten survivors, the most moving moment of the visit, the Pope placed a burning lamp in front of the “wall of death” to remind the world, again and again, that evil will never have the last word.
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 17, 2019
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