Walter Cardinal Kasper
Foreword to the book GOD AND AUSCHWITZ

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Auschwitz is very much alive in my memory. Obviously, it had a particular meaning that the German Pope repeated after the Polish Pope, “As Pope I could not fail to come here.” Yet that statement was not only of  historical and national significance. Benedict  XVI also said those words as Pope for the Universal Church who carries her message of God’s redeeming love through history and which is  part thereof herself.

“Auschwitz”, the concrete historical experience connected with this site as well as the symbolic meaning which the name has acquired, signifies a deep wound. It is a deep wound in  the soul of Israel, in the peoples of the Sinti and Roma, in the Polish people, in the peoples of the former Soviet Union and in many other human beings affected by it. It is –  due not in the least to the issue of guilt – a deep wound in the soul of the German people.  And finally Auschwitz is a deep wound in the soul of Christianity, especially that of Europe. This wound heals only very slowly and still today it affects the whole human family.

The Church must, and will, take up the challenge seriously. During his visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau Pope Benedict XVI gave expression to this will especially by being present there in silence and by meeting with survivors of the Holocaust. Together with representatives from different groups of victims he prayed to God.

The Church has to preach the hope which is based upon God’s promise—the hope which is her own support and, as she is convinced, means salvation for the whole world. This hope is rooted in the Cross and the Resurrection: God himself descended into the deepest night of death; therefore the powers of evil and death do not have the last word. God is with the victims of injustice and violence even in the darkest night. The promise of the Resurrection is made to all humans. God is fidelity in love—that is our faith, even “after Auschwitz.”

In the face of Auschwitz the Church does not only have to respond to the challenge to profess her faith, but also the challenge to search her conscience. Therefore, the process of the “purification of memory,” the confession of guilt and the prayer for God’s grace, which took place on the first Sunday of Lent in the year 2000, was a substantial move for the Church into the third millennium.

Our relation with the Jewish people does not only concern ethical questions but also theology. The Second Vatican Council reminds us again that God’s Covenant with His people never came to an end and that it is of lasting significance for Christians. Pope John Paul II’s visit to the synagogue in Rome in April 1986 and his prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in March 2000 showed this clearly to the whole world. Immediately in August 2005, at the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI paid a visit to the synagogue of Cologne during his first journey abroad. On his visit to Poland he also made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. Later he pointed out, “My travels in Poland could not omit a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to that place of the cruelest barbarities, the attempt to wipe out the People of Israel, and thus render their election by God vain and indeed, to banish God himself from history.” (Address to the Curia in Rome, 22 December 2006).

The Catholic Church is true to her promise to keep the Shoah in her memory; she desires “to express her deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age. This is an act of repentance (teshuva) […] The Church approaches with deep respect and great compassion the experience of extermination, the Shoah, suffered by the Jewish people during World War II. It is not a matter of mere words, but indeed of binding commitment. […] Finally, we invite all men and women of good will to reflect deeply on the significance of the Shoah.” (Document of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, 1998; We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, #5).

This process has just begun and must continue out of responsibility for the future. In the end this can only be done in dialogue and borne by prayer. But neither prayer nor dialogue are easy from the perspective of Auschwitz. Yet both are necessary. Only thus can we heal the world (tikkun olam). Therefore, it was Pope Benedict XVI’s earnest request to bless the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim and the Sisters from the nearby Carmelite Convent when he visited Auschwitz.

On this occasion I would like to address our Polish brothers and sisters also. The whole Polish people suffered gravely during World War II and was deeply wounded. The extermination camps for the Jews, organized by German Nazi criminals, have left a bitter legacy  in Poland. The many years of Communist dictatorship made it difficult to deal with that challenge appropriately. It is of great help for us that there is a strong tradition of reconciliation in Poland. I call to mind the letter of 1964 from the Polish bishops to the bishops in Germany and the sentence, “We forgive and we ask forgiveness.” We all are still deeply impressed by the work of the great Pope John Paul II, who drew strength for his work of reconciliation also from the Polish roots of his Christian faith.

It gives me great joy that this book—with texts about the Pope’s visit to Auschwitz, about the seminar on Edith Stein, and about the seminar which asked for God’s presence in the darknesses of history—gives evidence to the fact that we still struggle for serious responses to the warning voice of Auschwitz. This is an important step on a journey which must continue. My wish, therefore, is that the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim can also make its contribution in the future that “this place of horror will gradually become a place for constructive thinking, and that remembrance will foster resistance to evil and the triumph of love” (Benedict XVI in Auschwitz-Birkenau, 28 May 2006).

Walter Cardinal Kasper
President of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews at the Holy See
Rome October 10, 2008

Translated by Annegret Fuehr
In: God and Auschwitz. On Edith Stein, Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit, and God in the Twilight of History. Kraków 2008