Everything must be examined from this [utilitarian] point of view and used or rejected according to its utility. (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)
During my recent mission to Poland, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. As I walked through the entrance onto the grounds of both camps, there was a noticeable heaviness within my heart. So many people entered through the very gate I entered but, unlike me, they never walked out.
No one among the “unwanted” – child or adult – was exempt from the plague of such incomprehensible evil and destructive will. Among the many exhibits, there were reminders of the camp’s human occupants and the stories of their tragic ends. There were buildings filled with human hair, shoes and various personal grooming products – each representing someone – a child, a woman or a man. It was overwhelming. It was a harsh reminder of evil and its corrosive desire to destroy everything in its path.
Yet in the midst of such evil, I was also reminded of the power and glory of the Cross of Jesus. Among the millions of souls whose blood was poured upon those hallowed grounds were saints – known and unknown. Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) were among them. I had the humble privilege of visiting and praying at the cell of Saint Kolbe in Block 11, where he courageously gave up his spirit to the Father. They, like many others, heroically gave witness to the power of love and glory of the Cross of Jesus.
In many of the barracks there were crosses and sacred images – especially of Mary – carved into walls and wooden doors. In spite of every effort to undermine and destroy their hope, many found comfort in their faith and in the promising words of Jesus, I am with you always… Be not afraid. Yes, we adore Jesus, the Son of God, and contemplate His cross because it was from His death that new hope for humanity was born. By His death, Jesus crushed the head of the serpent and triumphed over death, eliminating its poisonous root forever.
While I walked among the grounds and barracks, I contemplated the life of Pope Saint John Paul II and his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, promulgated on March 4, 1979, five months after he was elected Pope. With this document he laid out the major objectives of his pontificate: a desire to draw all humanity to Christ, the need for a strong moral life grounded in objective truth, and the defense of fundamental and inherent human rights. John Paul II, who personally lost friends and suffered under Nazism and Communism, understood the tasks the Church must take up in order to enter the new millennium. These tasks needed to be based upon an undeniable truth: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history.”
John Paul II confronted the great fallacy of humanism, defined as the self-sufficiency of a person without God. These injustices and atrocities being leveled against the dignity of the human person were the direct consequence of the “great lie” perpetrated by atheistic ideologies whose viewpoint of the human person was secular and utilitarian. Faced with the utter inadequacy of our own reason and our own strength that had plunged humanity into the crisis of the 20th century, John Paul II returned to the truth proclaimed in Saint John’s Gospel: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” With this redeeming act by God in Christ, the history of humanity reaches its culmination – through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension He intended man to have from the beginning.
The human person cannot live without love. Without love, man no longer understands himself, thus causing his life to lack meaning and direction. The fundamental mission of the Church, in every age, is to reveal Christ to the world, helping each person to find himself in Christ – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. (John 3:16) With this single message, John Paul II confronted the atheistic systems of Nazism and Communism, exposing the systemic flaw that would eventually lead to their destruction.
Unfortunately, the challenges confronting the Church in 1979 are still present in 2017. Though decades have passed since the atrocities of Auschwitz and Birkenau, we still are dealing with atheistic ideological and philosophical systems attempting to subjugate the human person, enslaving him to the mundane and temporal. Moral and objective truth is rejected and relativism runs rampant, acting as the vanguard for a complete change in values that is not at all tolerant or relativistic. Religious freedom and the inherent rights of the human person from the moment of conception to natural death are ignored and threatened, while marriage between one man and one woman is being redefined. Sadly, we have not learned the lessons of the last century and their deadly consequences. Leading philosophers today make statements nearly identical to the quote from Hitler above, and few recognize the corruption behind this worldview.
The message of Redemptor Hominis continues to resound thirty-eight years later. We cannot live without love . . . we cannot live without God.
The human person cannot relinquish his place and obligation in the world, nor can he become the slave of things, of economic systems, or of his own mere productivity. A purely materialistic civilization has slavery as its consequence and future. It is imperative for us to remember the sense of dominion over the Earth that our Creator conceded to us as a duty. This dominion rests in the priority of morality over technology and science, of the person over things and the spirit over matter.
During the 20th century, Nazism and Communism attempted to eradicate the inherent dignity of the human person and strip him of any hope in a transcendent future. Yet, in spite of everything done to accomplish this task, they ultimately failed because their ideological systems were man-made and based on a fallacy. The same will happen to all ideological and philosophical systems that attempt to alienate the human person from the inherent dignity won for him and restored in Jesus Christ.
John Paul II dedicated his life as a priest, bishop, cardinal and pontiff to the defense of truth and human dignity. Like this great saint, we must never forget that our strength and hope always resides in the power of the Cross of Jesus and the Easter proclamation, “He is Risen!” This proclamation is the foundation of the hope of all of humanity. The evil witnessed in Auschwitz and Birkenau could not destroy the power of the Cross or the reality of the resurrection; neither can the evil we witness today being thrust upon life and family destroy what God has in store for His children – for those who love Him.
May the Risen Christ grant you and your loved ones peace and joy this blessed Easter season and throughout the year! You and your intentions will be remembered in Masses that I celebrate throughout the Easter Season.