Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

1979-06-07 - Homily of His Holiness John Paul II said at Concentration Camp in Birkenau



Brzezinka, 7 June 1979

1. "This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith" (1 Jn 5:4).

These words from the Letter of Saint John come to my mind and enter my heart as I find myself in this place in which a special victory was won through faith; through the faith that gives rise to love of God and of one's neighbour, the unique love, the supreme love that is ready to "lay down (one's) life for (one's) friends" (Jn 15:13; cf. 10:11). A victory therefore through love, enlivened by faith to the extreme point of the final definitive witness.

This victory through faith and love was won in this place by a man whose first name is Maximilian Mary. Surname: Kolbe. Profession (as registered in the books of the concentration camp): Catholic priest. Vocation: a son of Saint Francis. Birth: a son of simple, hardworking devout parents, who were weavers near Lódz. By God's grace and the Church's judgment: Blessed.

The victory through faith and love was won by him 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. A place built on hatred and on contempt for man in the name of a crazed ideology. A place built on cruelty. On the entrance gate which still exists, is placed the inscription "Arbeit macht frei", which has a sardonic sound, since its meaning was radically contradicted by what took place within.

In this site of the terrible slaughter that brought death to four million people of different nations, Father Maximilian voluntarily offered himself for death in the starvation bunker for a brother, and so won a spiritual victory like that of Christ himself. This brother still lives today in the land of Poland.

But was Father Maximilian Kolbe the only one? Certainly he won a victory that was immediately felt by his companions in captivity and is still felt today by the Church and the world. However, there is no doubt that many other similar victories were won. I am thinking, for example, of the death in the concentration camp gas chamber of the Carmelite Sister Benedicta of the Cross, whose name in the world was Edith Stein, who was an illustrious student of Husserl and became one of the glories of contemporary German philosophy, and who was a descendant of a Jewish family living in Wroclaw.

I do not want to stop with these two names, because I ask myself: was it only he? Was it only she? How many victories were gained here? They were gained by human beings of different faiths, of different ideologies, and certainly not only by believers. We want to embrace with a feeling of deepest admiration each of these victories, each revelation of humanity which negated a system that was a systematic negation of humanity. Where the dignity of man was so horribly trampled on, victory was won through faith and love.

Can it still be a surprise to anyone that the Pope born and brought up in this land, the Pope who came to the see of Saint Peter from the diocese in whose territory is situated the camp of Auschwitz, should have begun his first Encyclical with the words "Redemptor Hominis" and should have dedicated it as a whole to the cause of man, to the dignity of man, to the threats to him, and finally to his inalienable rights that can so easily be trampled on and annihilated by his fellowmen? Is it enough to put man in a different uniform, arm him with the apparatus of violence? Is it enough to impose on him an ideology in which human rights are subjected to the demands of the system, completely subjected to them, so as in practice not to exist at all?

2. I am here today as a pilgrim. It is well known that I have been here many times. So many times! And many times I have gone down to Maximilian Kolbe's death cell and stopped in front of the execution wall and passed among the ruins of the cremation furnaces of Birkenau. It was impossible for me not to come here as Pope.

I have come then to this special shrine, the birthplace, I can say, of the patron of our difficult century, just as nine centuries ago Skalka was the birthplace under the sword of Saint Stanislaus, Patron of the Poles. But I have not only come here to honour the patron saint of our century. I am here in order to confront once more, together with you – irrespective of your faith -, the question about man. I have come to pray with all of you who have come here today and with the whole of Poland and the whole of Europe. Christ wishes that I who have become the Successor of Peter should give witness before the world to what constitutes the greatness and the misery of contemporary man, to what is his defeat and his victory.

I have come and I kneel on this Golgotha of the modern world, on these tombs, largely nameless like the great tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I kneel before all the inscriptions that come one after another bearing the memory of the victims of Auschwitz in languages: Polish, English, Bulgarian, Romany, Czech, Danish, French, Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, Flemish, Serbo-Croat, German, Norwegian, Russian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian.

In particular I pause with you, dear participants in this encounter, before the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription awakens the memory of the People whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination. This People draws its origin from Abraham, our father in faith (cf. Rom 4:12), as was expressed by Paul of Tarsus. The very people that received from God the commandment "Thou shalt not kill", itself experienced in a special measure what is meant by killing. It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference.

I still have another chosen plaque: in the Russian language. I do not add any comment. We know the people of whom it speaks; we know what share this people had in the horrible war for the liberty of the peoples; this plaque, too, must not be passed by indifferently.

Finally, the last inscription: that in Polish. Six million Poles lost their lives during the second world war: a fifth of the nation. Yet another stage in the centuries-old fight of this nation, my nation, for its fundamental rights among the peoples of Europe. Yet another loud cry for the right to a place of its own on the map of Europe. Yet another painful reckoning with the conscience of mankind.

I have singled out three plaques. We should stay at all of them, and that is what we will do.

3. Auschwitz is such a reckoning. It is impossible merely to visit it. It is necessary on this occasion to think with fear of how far hatred can go, how far man's destruction of man can go, how far cruelty can go.

Auschwitz is a testimony of war. War brings with it a disproportionate growth of hatred, destruction and cruelty. It cannot be denied that it also manifests new capabilities of human courage, heroism and patriotism, but the fact remains that it is the reckoning of the losses that prevails. That reckoning prevails more and more, since each day sees an increase in the destructive capacity of the weapons invented by modern technology. Not only those who directly bring about wars are responsible for them, but also those who fail to do all they can to prevent them. Therefore I would like to repeat in this place the words that Paul VI pronounced before the United Nations Organizations:

"It is enough to remember that the blood of millions of men, numberless and unprecedented sufferings, useless slaughter and frightful ruin, are the sanction of the covenant which unites you in a solemn pledge which must change the future history of the world: No more war, war never again. It is peace, peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all mankind" (AAS 57, 1965, P. 881).

If however Auschwitz's great call and the cry of man tortured here is to bear fruit for Europe and for the world also, the Declaration of Human Rights must have all its just consequences drawn from it, as John XXIII urged in the encyclical Pacem in Terris. For the Declaration is "a solemn recognition of the personal dignity of every human being; an assertion of everyone's right to be free to seek out the truth, to follow moral principles, discharge the duties imposed by justice, and lead a fully human life. It also recognized other rights connected with these" (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, IV - 4,4S 55, 1963, pp. 295-296). There must be a return to the wisdom of the old teacher Pawel Wlodkowic, Rector of the Jagellonian University at Krakow, and the rights of nations must be ensured: their right to existence, to freedom, to independence, to their own culture, and to honourable development. Wlodkowic wrote: "Where power is more at work than love, people seek their own interests and not those of Jesus Christ, and accordingly they easily depart from the rule of God's law... All the kinds of law are against those who threaten people wishing to live in peace: against them is the civil law... the canon law... the natural law, expressed in the principle 'Do to others what you would have done to you'. Against them is the divine law, in that... the commandment 'Thou shalt not steal' forbids all robbery, and the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' forbids all violence (Pawel Wlodkowic, Saevientibus (1415), Tract. II, Solutio quaest. 4a; cf. L. Ehrlich, Pisma wybrane Pawla Wlodkowica. Warszawa 1968, t. 1, s. 61; 58-59).

But here we are not only concerned with law, but also and foremost with love: with love of one's neighbour, in which God's love expresses itself and in which it can be felt, with the love which Christ proclaimed in his Commandment, which all human beings have inscribed in their hearts – the Commandment which the Creator Himself put upon these hearts.

This Commandment finds its concrete realization in respect for the other, in respect for his personality, for his conscience; it becomes concrete in dialogue with the other, in the ability to search for and acknowledge what is good and positive in him who professes ideas which differ from ours, yes, even in him who in good faith – errs...

Never one nation shall develop at the other's expense, at the cost of the enslavement of the other, at the cost of conquest, outrage, exploitation and death.

These are thoughts of John XXIII and Paul VI about peace in the modern world. He who is speaking these words is their unworthy successor. But he is also the son of a nation that in its history has suffered many afflictions from others. Permit me not to call the others by their name – permit me not to name them.

When we stand here, however different we may be as individuals and as nations, we cannot escape the longing to recognize each other as brothers. And if there was a certain bitterness, too, my dear brothers and sisters, in what I have said, I have not said this in order to accuse but to remind.

For I do not only speak with the thought of those who perished – of the millions of victims in these vast fields, I speak in the name of all the nations whose rights are being violated and forgotten. I speak, for truth obliges me and all of us. I speak, since concern for man obliges me and all of us, and therefore I beg all who listen to me that they concentrate all their strength on this concern for man. And I ask those who listen to me full of faith in Jesus Christ: that they unite in their prayer for peace and reconciliation.

4. My dear brothers and sisters, I have no more to say. Only the words of the Great Supplication come to my mind:

Holy is God! Holy and strong! Holy Immortal One! From plague, from famine, from fire and from war ... and from war, deliver us, Lord.




The text of the sermon published on the Vatican homepage translated the prepared manuscript before the event (© Copyright 1979 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana).

We compared the Vatican text with the longer Polish version of the spoken homily (according to OSERVATORE ROMANO) and corrected accordingly.

Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim, 2012




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