In “The Paradox of Suffering,” I invited TSW readers to join my friend Pornchai Moontri and me in a personal Consecration to Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s dual movements: the Militia of the Immaculata and the Knights at the Foot of the Cross. Our Consecration will take place at Mass on the night of August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption, and the day after Saint Maximilian’s Feast Day. Instructions for registering your own Consecration can be found at www.marytown.com. the website of the National Shrine of Saint Maximilian Kolbe.
We’re very moved by the number of people who have pledged to join us in the Consecration last year. The invitation remains always open.
I can’t speak for Pornchai, but Consecration as members of Saint Maximilian’s M.I. or Knights at the Foot of the Cross certainly doesn’t mean I plan to take on any more suffering or that I’ll never again complain. It doesn’t even mean that I accept with open arms whatever crosses I bear and embrace them.
A person who is unjustly imprisoned must do all in his power to reverse that plight just as a person with cancer must do everything possible to be restored to health. Consecration doesn’t mean we will simply acquiesce to suffering and look for more. It means we embrace the suffering of Christ, and offer our own as a share in it. In the end, I know I cannot empty myself, as Christ did, but I can perhaps attain the attitude of “Simon of Cyrene: Compelled to Carry THE Cross,” of which my own is but a splinter.
Last March in my post, “Saint Patrick and the Labyrinthine Ways,” I wrote that history has a tendency to treat its events lightly. The centuries have made Saint Patrick, for example, a sort of whimsical figure. History has distorted the fact that he became the saint he is after great personal suffering. Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders at the age of 16, forced from his home and family, taken across the Irish Sea and forced into slavery.
The life and death of Saint Maximilian are still too recent to be subjected to the colored glasses through which we often view history. As with nearly all the saints – and with some of us who simply struggle to believe – great suffering was imposed on Maximilian Kolbe and he responded in a way that revealed a Christ-centered rather than self-centered life. What happened to Father Maximilian Kolbe must not be removed from what the Germans would call his “sitz im laben,” the “setting in life” of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. As evil as they were, they were the forges in which Maximilian cast off self and took on the person of Christ.
“AND THE WINNER IS . . .”
Do you remember the television “mini-series” productions of the 1970s and 1980s? After the great success of bringing Alex Haley’s “Roots” to the screen, several other forays into history were aired in our living rooms. One of them was a superb and compelling series entitled “Holocaust” that debuted on NBC on April 16, 1978. It was a brilliant and powerful example of television’s potential.
“Holocaust” won several Emmy Awards for NBC in 1978 for outstanding Limited Series, Best Director (Marvin Chomsky), Best Screenplay (Gerald Green), Best Actor (Michael Moriarty), Best Actress (Meryl Streep) and a number of supporting actor and other awards. As a historical narrative, however, “Holocaust” was deeply disturbing and shook an otherwise comfortable generation all too inclined to want to forget and move on. That was a complaint during the famous Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and 1946.
Just two years after the Allied Invasion of Germany and Poland ended the war and exposed the Death Camps, writers complained that Americans had lost interest and were not reading about the Nuremberg Trials. The aftermath of war revealed the sheer evil of the Nazi Final Solution, and it was more than most of us could bear to look at – so many did not look.
As I wrote in “Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich,” there are some who would have you believe that the Catholic Church is to be the moral scapegoat of the 20th Century. Viewing “Holocaust” (the miniseries) would quickly shatter any such revisionist history. Its first episode was so graphic in its depiction of Nazi oppression, and caused me so much anguish, that I struggled with whether to watch the rest.
I was 25 years old when it first aired, and finishing senior year at Saint Anselm College, a Benedictine school in New Hampshire. I was a double major in philosophy and psychology, and was in the middle of writing my psychology thesis on the relationship between trauma and depression when “Holocaust” kept me awake all night.
The morning after that first episode, I sought out a friend, an elderly Benedictine monk on campus who recommended the series to me. I thought he might tell me to turn my television off, but I was wrong. “This happened in my lifetime,” he said. “We cannot run from it. So don’t look away. Stare straight into its heart of darkness, and never forget what you see.”
He was right, and his words were eerily similar to those of biographer, George Weigel, who wrote of Pope John Paul II and his interest in Saint Maximilian Kolbe in Witness to Hope (HarperCollins, 1999):
“Maximilian Kolbe . . . was the ‘saint of the abyss’ – the man who looked into the modern heart of darkness and remained faithful to Christ by sacrificing his life for another in the Auschwitz starvation bunker while helping his cellmates die with dignity and hope.” (Witness to Hope, p. 447).
That was what the Holocaust was: “the modern heart of darkness.” I have been a student of the Holocaust since, but I am no closer to understanding it than I was on that sleepless night in 1978. As I asked in “Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich”:
“How did a society come to stand behind the hateful rhetoric of one man and his political machine? How did masses of people become convinced that any ideology of the state was worth the horror unfolding before their eyes?”
We have all been reading about the breakdown of faith in Europe, and about how decades-old scandals are now being used to justify the abandonment of Catholicism in European culture. This is not a new phenomenon. This madness engulfed Europe just seventy years ago, and before it was over, six million of our spiritual ancestors were deprived of liberty, and then life, for being Jews.
Hitler’s “Final Solution” exterminated fully two-thirds of the Jewish men, women, and children of Europe – and millions of others who either stood in his way or spoke the truth. Among those imprisoned and murdered were close to 12,000 Catholic priests and thousands more women religious and other Catholics. The determination to rid Europe of the Judeo-Christian faith did not begin with claims of sexual abuse, and this is not the first time such claims were used to further that agenda.
THE GREAT LIE AND REVEALED TRUTH
This of all weeks keeps me riveted on the Holocaust. It was in this week that two of my dearest spiritual friends were murdered a year apart at Auschwitz by that madman, Hitler, and his monstrous Third Reich. Father Maximilian Kolbe traded his life for that of a fellow prisoner on August 14,1941, and Edith Stein – who became Carmelite Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – was dragged from a cattle train and murdered along with her sister, Rosa, immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942.
My post, “Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich,” opened with a line from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Vol. 1, Ch.10, 1925): “The great mass of people … will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.” In order for a lie to disseminate and prevail, the truth must be controlled. In 1933, the Third Reich imposed the “Editor’s Law” in Germany requiring that editors and publishers join the Third Reich’s Literary Chamber or cease publishing. In 1933 there were over 400 Catholic newspapers and magazines published in Germany. By 1935 there were none.
The Nazi law was imposed in each country invaded by the Reich. In Poland, Father Maximilian was one of many priests sent to prison for his continued writings, but time in prison did not teach him the lesson intended by the Nazis. He was imprisoned again, and he would not emerge alive from his second sentence at Auschwitz. He was not alone in this. Nearly 12,000 priests were sent to their deaths in concentration camps.
“COME, LET US GO FOR OUR PEOPLE.”
Edith Stein was the youngest of eleven children in a devout Jewish family in Germany. She was born on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on October 12, l891. As a young woman, Edith broke her mother’s heart by abandoning her faith in adolescent rebellion. She was also brilliant, and it was difficult to win her over with reason and logic. She was a master of both.
Edith received her doctorate in philosophy under the noted phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, and taught at a German university when the Nazis came to power in 1933. During this time of upheaval, Edith converted to Catholicism after stumbling across the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. “This is the truth,” Edith declared after reading it through in one sleepless night. A few years after her conversion, Edith Stein entered a Carmelite convent in Germany taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Blessed by the Cross).
March 27, 1939 was Passion Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. In response to a declaration of Adolf Hitler that the Jews would bring about their own extinction, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote a private note to her Carmelite superior. She offered herself in prayer as expiation against the Anti-Christ who had cast all of Europe into a spiritual stranglehold. In her letter to her superior, Sister Teresa offered herself as expiation for the Church, for the Jews, for her native Germany, and for world peace.
As the Nazi horror overtook Europe, Sister Teresa grew fearful that she was placing her entire convent at risk. Edith was then assigned to a Carmelite Convent in Holland. Her sister, Rosa, who also converted to Catholicism, joined her there as a postulant.
Catholics in France, Belgium, Holland and throughout Europe organized to rescue tens of thousands of Jewish children from deportation to the Death Camps. Philip Friedman, in Roads to Extinction: Essays on the Holocaust (The Jewish Publication Society, 1980) commended the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands for their public protest about the Nazi deportation of Jews from Holland. In retaliation for those bishops’ actions, however, even Jews who had converted to Catholicism were rounded up for deportation to Auschwitz.
A new book by Paul Hamans – Edith Stein and Companions: On the Way to Auschwitz (Ignatius Press, 2010) – details the horror of that day. Hundreds of Catholic Jews were arrested in Holland in retaliation for the bishops’ open rebellion, and most were never seen again. This information stands in stark contrast to the often heard revisionist history that Pope Pius XII “collaborated” with the Nazis through his “silence.” He was credited by the chief rabbi of Rome, Eugenio Zolli, with having personally saved over 860,000 Jews and preventing untold numbers of deaths.
The last words heard from Sister Teresa as she was forced aboard a cattle car packed with victims were spoken to her sister, Rosa, “Come, let us go for our people.” On August 9, 1942, Sister Teresa emerged from the cramped human horror of that cattle train into the Auschwitz Death Camp to face The Sorting.
Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel described The Sorting:
“How do you describe the sorting out on arriving at Auschwitz, the separation of children who see a father or mother going away, never to be seen again? How do you express the dumb grief of a little girl and the endless lines of women, children and rabbis being driven across the Polish or Ukranian landscapes to their deaths? No, I can’t do it. And because I’m a writer and teacher, I don’t understand how Europe’s most cultured nation could have done that.”
That August 9th, Edith Stein went no further into the depths of Auschwitz than The Sorting. Some SS officer glared at this brilliant 50-year-old nun in the tattered remains of her Carmelite habit, and declared that she was not fit for work. This woman who had worked every day of her life, who taught philosophy to Germany’s graduate students, who scrubbed convent floors each night, was determined to be “unfit for work” by a Nazi officer who knew it was a death sentence.
Edith and Rosa were taken directly to a cottage along with 113 others, packed in, the doors sealed, and they were gassed to death. Their remains, like those of Maximilian Kolbe a year earlier, went unceremoniously up in smoke to drift through the sky above Auschwitz. And Europe thinks it would be better off now without faith!
“Thus the way from Bethlehem leads inevitably to Golgotha, from the crib to the Cross. (Simeon’s) prophecy announced the Passion, the fight between light and darkness that already showed itself before the crib … The star of Bethlehem shines in the night of sin. The shadow of the Cross falls on the light that shines from the crib. This light is extinguished in the darkness that is Good Friday, but it rises all the more brilliantly in the sun of grace on the morning of the Resurrection.
The way of the incarnate Son of God leads through the Cross and Passion to the glory of the Resurrection. In His company the way of everyone of us, indeed of all humanity, leads through suffering and death to this same glorious goal.”
Edith Stein/Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.