THE QUESTION OF CROSSES IN OŚWIĘCIM
Statement Of The Standing Council Of The Conference Of Polish Bishops
Jasna Góra, August 26, 1998
1. Gathered in the Jasna Góra Sanctuary, with our eyes set on image of Our Lady of Częstochowa, we embrace with care the problems of the Church in our Homeland. We experience the painful conflict in Oświęcim with great concern as it has led to considerable confusion within our society. The tensions that have arisen about the issue of crosses at the so-called Gravel Pit expose painful wounds of conscience, insensitive to the voice of truth and reproach coming from the shepherds, who had been commissioned by Christ to offer within the Church the service of reconciliation. A great number of people – not only those who believe in God – expect of us a clear statement. Bishops have presented but their voice has been drowned out by heated emotions.
2. Kneeling in front of the icon of the Lady of Jasna Góra, we embrace the sight of the cross that has stood at the Gravel Pit for many years and express our conviction that it will remain where it stands. Within the premises of this concentration camp perished Poles, Russians and representatives of many other nations. This tragedy afflicted Jews and Romanies in a very special way as they had been condemned by a Godless racist ideology to complete extermination. At this huge cemetery of the twentieth century we owe reverence and remembrance to all victims. The sign of the cross was to many of those dying a sign of hope and quest for the sense of suffering. We should respect their beliefs and envelop the site sanctified by innocent blood with the gravity and respect this location commands. The cross, which was erected at the place of execution of 152 Poles, deserves respect, just as do the religious symbols of all who perished in this camp.
3. As shepherds of the Church we direct these words to the faithful, expressing our gratitude to those who suffered for the cross during the time of communist lawlessness. We thank all who today demonstrate their loyalty to the cross through a life based on the Gospel. At the same time we wish to emphasize categorically that no one is allowed to exploit the sacred symbol of the cross and turn it against the Church in Poland by arousing unrest and conflict. We hereby state that the action of erecting crosses at the Gravel Pit was undertaken not only without the permission of the competent diocesan bishop but even against his will. Both the Primate of Poland and the local bishop together with other bishop have expressed their objection to such actions and called for dialogue and respect for diverse beliefs. Recalcitrant erection of crosses at the Gravel Pit bears all the signs of a provocation and is inconsistent with the gravity due this very special site. We express regret and sorrow at the fact that some have not recognized the thru nature of this provocation and that they – acting in good faith – have rendered the cross an instrument of unrest. Actions organized in his manner damage both the memory of Nazi murder victims and the good of the Church and nation; they also hurt painfully the disparate sensitivity of our brother Jews.
The cross, which for us Christians is the supreme symbol of love and sacrifice, may never be used as an instrument of warfare against anyone. It was on the cross that Christ smashed the wall of hostility that divided people, and reconciled all with God. Recognition of this fact compels us to ask the following question: Are we a clear sign of reconciliation and peace? Can our brother not evoke the words from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “They are again crucifying the Son of God and exposing Him to public shame” (Hebrews 6:6)?
4. We know, beloved in Christ, that you are capable of defending the religious symbols which are dear to us. Do not do this, however, trough belittling the significance of the cross. Do not resort to actions which strip the Gravel Pit of its due gravity and which exacerbate the conflict that harms the Church and injures our Homeland Listen to the voice of your shepherds. Let your allegiance to the cross manifest itself in reverence-driven activities suggested by ecclesiastical hierarchy. We trust that the newly erected crosses will find a respectful and dignified place in our parishes and churches. Expressing our support for the shepherdly concern of the bishop of the Bielsko-Żywiec diocese, we wish to express at the same time our anguish that some have ignored his summons and engaged in actions which have rendered the cross an instrument of division.
5. We know that the Church has “very close bonds of spiritual kinship with the Jewish people” (We Remember. A Reflection on the Shoah-The Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews). Christians and Jews subscribe, however, to different concepts of the meaning of suffering: the same extermination camp carries different meanings for us. For some it is a “Golgotha of our times”; for others it is a symbol of total extermination, denoted by the word “Shoah”. This dichotomy requires of us mutual respect for our distinctions, and at the same time obliges us to pursue such solutions which harm no one and are acceptable to both parties. Any effort to impose on others one’s own convictions is irreconcilable with the command to love God and one’s neighbour, which is common to both Jews and Christians (Deut. 6:4; Lev. 19:18, Mk. 12:30-33).
6. Victims of Oświęcim (Auschwitz) extermination have been united by the same drama of death. Some shapers of opinion want to obliterate today the full truth about the extent of this extermination, of which Oświęcim has become a symbol. Only when we embark on a road of persistent dialogue, for which we strongly appeal, can we arrive at the full truth about Hitler’s genocide implemented in extermination camps. A dialogue between Jews and Christians allows us to learn and understand what unites all victims, and allows us to experience “Shoah” as the “ultimate suffering” and “the most significant even in the history of our century” (We remember, ibid.). We are open to dialogue on the future shape of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the cemetery of our times.
We declare readiness to pursue solutions which would be acceptable to all. At the same time we are aware of the fact that the former concentration camp lies within the territory of the Republic of Poland and thus it is subject to Polish law. Consequently, it is understandable that Poles expect this law to be respected by all who visit the site of these Nazi camps.
7. To all fellow countrymen we turn with a heartfelt appeal using the words of the late Cardinal Wyszyński, the Primate of the Millennium, who said: „We have one homeland and we owe her love, service, sacrifice, and even death – if God so requires. But in order for us to be always ready for this we need unity in Christ and Church. That is why we ask all those on whom this depends that they would not destroy this unity, as this could endanger the security of our Homeland and divide our nation by ushering in dispute and argument” (Jasna Góra, May 3, 1973). Experiencing in this way our Christian unity, a special symbol of which is the cross, let us on September 14 – on the feast of the Triumph of the Cross – in all parishes celebrate the liturgy of the Way of the Cross, so as to express our allegiance to the cross.
8. It is with an equally heartfelt request that we turn to Jews, to whom we are bound with unique ties of fait: In the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who for us Christians is also the God of Jesus Christ; we strongly plead for continuation of the dialogue so that the jointly shed blood of our fathers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters might help us to praise together the name of God.
From the hills of Częstochowa we send to you all the sign of love and peace. We trust that Our Lady, the Queen of Poland, will strengthen in our hearts the allegiance to the cross which manifests itself in the concern for the unity of the Church and in the obedience to your shepherds.