Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Manfred Deselaers – Pope John Paul II and Auschwitz

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Manfred Deselaers

Pope John Paul II and Auschwitz[1]



When Pope John Paul II was in Auschwitz in 1979, he said,
"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 … It is well known that I have been here many times. So many times! It was impossible for me not to come here as Pope.” [2]

The memory of Auschwitz, and all that is connected with this memory was very important for Pope John Paul II. In this article the central themes, the development and the versatility of his reflections will be presented. His speeches will be extensively quoted in order to faithfully give voice to the holy Shepherd.
Karol Wojtyla spent his childhood and youth (1920-1938) in the city of Wadowice about 35 kms from Auschwitz .  Jews also lived there, some of whom he was friendly with. His father was an army officer during World War I and fought for Polish independence.
The terrible experience of World War II changed his life. He decided during the war to become a priest and in 1942 entered the underground seminary in Krakow. In 1948 after the war, he defended his doctorate in Rome, "The Problem of Faith in St. John of the Cross”, a Faith that goes through the ‘Dark Night’.
From 1958, as bishop of the Archdiocese of Krakow he often visited the parishes of Oswiecim. His sermons strongly emphasized the need to pray for the dead, also to pray on behalf of those who cannot come to Oswiecim/Auschwitz.
Looking for signs of hope in the face of this tragedy of Auschwitz became occasions for deep reflection on man and his vocation, particularly, in the preparations for the beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe in 1972. The cult of Maximilian Kolbe also became a bridge towards the German nation.
During his first visit to Poland as Pope in 1979 he visited Auschwitz: "I could not fail to come here as Pope!"
He stressed that on the path towards a world in which the dignity and rights of individuals and peoples are to be respected you have to fight, but fight like Kolbe, with the strength of faith to overcome evil with good. In the 1980's in Poland this was also understood within the context of communist oppression.
When atheistic Communism weakened, at the threshold of the Auschwitz camp a convent of Carmelite nuns was established in 1984. This sparked strong Jewish protest. From that time the Pope pointed increasingly to the suffering of Jews during World War II and the long common Christian- Jewish history on Polish soil. He also condemned anti-Semitism. In the spirit of Vatican Council II, he emphasized on numerous occasions the religious dignity of the Jewish people and their significance for Christians.
Edith Stein, also known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, became for him a symbol that combines solidarity with the tragedy of the Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau together with a deep confession of the Christian faith. In 1999 he proclaimed Edith Stein one of the Patrons of Europe.
The next step was an  examination of conscience about the relationship of the Church to the Jews, sorrow for sin, and the promise of lasting brotherhood with the people of the covenant. In such a way the Pope wanted in the year 2000 to "cross the threshold of hope".[3]
Towards the end of his life in 2002, he entrusted the world to Divine Mercy, convinced that only God's mercy can heal the wounds of the world.
We do not deviate from the truth if we say that the whole ministry of Karol Wojtyla was marked by the tragedy of World War II and he sought an answer to it. John Paul II from the depths of his being was 'the Pope after Auschwitz'.


In the book "Gift and Mystery" John Paul II writes about his vocation to the priesthood:
As a result of the outbreak of war I became  detached from  study and the university environment. I lost at that time  my father, the last man of my immediate family. [...] At the same time, more and more appeared in my mind the light: God wants that I become a priest. [...] all this happened against the background of the terrible events that unfolded around me in Krakow, Poland, in Europe and in the world. [...] I am thinking here particularly of those close to my heart, colleagues, also  those of Jewish descent  from  high school in Wadowice. [...] Well, in this great and terrible theatre of World War II many were spared. But every day I could be taken from the street, from the quarry or from the factory and transported to the camp. Sometimes I even asked myself, many of my peers were killed, why not me? Now I know that was not the case. [...] and reveals  another particularly important dimension of the history of my vocation. The years of World War II and the German occupation of the West and occupation from the Soviet East, entailed a large number of arrests and the exile of Polish priests to concentration camps. [...] Everything  said about the concentration camps, of course, is only part of the dramatic apocalypse of our century. And I say that, in order to emphasize that my priesthood is at this first stage, in keeping with the great sacrifice of the people of my generation, men and women. For me, the most difficult experiences have been spared by Providence, but because I have a greater sense of the debt in relation to so many people that I know, and even more numerous, these nameless, without distinction of nationality and language,  victims on the great altar of history, have contributed in some way to my vocation to the priesthood. In a sense, they introduced me to this path, in the light of the victims, appeared to me the truth - the deepest and most essential truth of the priesthood of Christ.[4]


From 4th July 1958 when Karol Wojtyla was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow, until his election as Pope on 16th October 1978, the area where Auschwitz is located was part of his pastoral responsibility. How was he to see the challenge of this soil ?
Cardinal Wojtyla believed that the first thing you should do is to pray for the dead. In 1970, on All Souls' Day he said in Oswiecim:
"What a vast crowd could be here in this place, if everyone wanted to come to the graves of their loved ones and light candles and lay wreaths and make a chorus of prayer!  There would be a huge crowd! Many languages; like the languages that are written at the monument of the memorial site at the crematoria in Birkenau. [...] We are here, dear brothers and sisters, representatives of the multitudes who should come to this place – multitudes of many languages. "[5]

This ground obliges those whom it was given by destiny to live here, to intercede and pray for the dead. All the more so it obligates us as Christians:
  "All this we bring to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. [...] We, the living Church on earth - we, the descendants of those dead and martyred - in the sacrifice of Christ we put our intercession, our advocacy, our most humble prayer; so that for the victims of this modern Calvary, He who on Calvary gave his life for all humankind, becomes their Savior and reward. To accept them all: in the many thousands and millions, multitudes, to accept them all in these apocalyptic dimensions. [...] Here it is [...] the substance of our common prayer, the content of our faith, the content of what we wish to express here: for ourselves and for our entire nation and for the whole of  humanity. "[6]

It was in this spirit, also in 1979, that the Pope said, "so I come and I kneel on this Golgotha ​​of the modern world, on these tombs, largely nameless, like a great tomb of the Unknown Soldier." [7]
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