Over this weekend at our Masses, we will spiritually join over a million young people from all over the world gathered with Pope Francis in Krakow for the World Youth Day celebrations. Since Pope St. John Paul II inaugurated the concept of special meetings between the pope and young people in the 1980’s, World Youth Day has visited all five continents and Pope’s John Paul, Benedict, and now Francis have met with millions of young people for prayer, catechesis, and reconciliation.
This WYD is being celebrated in the midst of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, called by Pope Francis last year. It is taking place in Krakow near the home of Divine Mercy and in the heart of Pope John Paul’s home city. There have been very moving scenes of Pope Francis walking through the gates of Auschwitz where perhaps the worst kinds of evil were perpetrated upon men, women, and children during World War II. Francis is the third pope to come to Auschwitz and to simply pray in profound solidarity with survivors and their families today. Pope John Paul II had personal experiences of Auschwitz during the war as friends of his were taken there and murdered. Later as archbishop and then as pope he visited Auschwitz in 1979 and he wrote these words;
“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 Birkenau 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.
And one inscription more, a chosen one, the plaque in the Russian language. I don’t add any comment. We know which nation the inscription is about. We know about their participation in the last terrible war for the freedom of peoples. Also this inscription we should not pass with indifference.
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.”
Yesterday, Pope Francis silently sat in the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who took the place of another and died as a martyr in the starvation bunker in Auschwitz. The scenes of the pope sitting in prayer in the darkness of Kolbe’s cell evokes for all of us the words of Jesus Christ from John’s Gospel “No greater love can anyone have than to lay down their lives for their friends.” (John 15:13)
I see Fr. Jacques Hamel’s face here too. An elderly priest who spent his whole life until the end in the service of the Gospel. He was murdered and martyred as he broke open the Word and God for the people and celebrated the Eucharist. Truly he shared in Jesus Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection that morning last week.
In a world where we need to draw strength from the merciful heart of Jesus Christ, we pray that this same merciful heart will take away from those bent on evil and destruction their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh instead. We are fortified by the enthusiasm of so many young people who this night will pray in vigil with our Holy Father, Pope Francis and will celebrate the Eucharist -the Mass with him tomorrow in Krakow. We don’t forget the many people in the face of evil and bloodshed who try to assist and help to heal wounds and dry the tears. We pray for peace with justice for all, and especially for the most vulnerable. St. John Paul II, pray for us. St. Faustina, pray for us. St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us. Amen.