The light of Providence shines through Auschwitz’s inglorious past

AUSCHWITZ, Poland - It was 70 years ago this Sunday, Aug. 14, 1941, that St. Maximilian Kolbe was martyred here.

It was nine years ago that I was here last, on a pilgrimage just before my priestly ordination. I wanted to come and pray at the death block of Auschwitz, to kneel at the threshold of the bunker where Maximilian Kolbe died. I came again this year, to the horror of this hell on Earth, made into the antechamber of heaven by the man — a writer and publisher who sent millions of words into print — whose most famous words were: “I am a Catholic priest.”

Is it possible to be a pilgrim in Auschwitz? In 1998, in preparation for the great jubilee, the pontifical council for migrants would suggest exactly that: “Among these (pilgrimage) cities should also be included those places desecrated by people’s sin and later on, almost out of an instinct of reparation, consecrated by pilgrimages. Let us think for instance of Auschwitz, emblematic place of torture of the Jewish people in Europe, the Shoah....”

What does the Catholic pilgrim say in this place, emblematic of the six million Jews who died in the Shoah, three million of whom were Polish — half of all the six million Poles who died in the Second World War? In this place of great evil, is it possible to speak of Jesus Christ?

With the passing of Cardinal Swiatek, a glorious time in Church history closes

Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek died on July 21, bringing to a close one of the most noble chapters in the history of the Church. He was 96 when he died, having been ordained a bishop at 76 by his eventual successor in Belarus. Made a cardinal at age 80, he served as archbishop of Minsk until he was 91. His was one of the heroic lives of our age.

I encountered the great cardinal only once, in Wroclaw, Poland, during the 1997 international Eucharistic Congress, and then at a distance. As part of the congress, dozens of bishops administered the sacrament of Confirmation to thousands of young people in an enormous Mass at the local arena. With such a large crowd it was a somewhat noisy affair, but there was total silence when Cardinal Swiatek addressed the newly confirmed at the end of the Mass. He spoke in Polish, but even without understanding a word I could see that his story was enormously powerful, with teenage eyes widening, and many filling with tears. He was telling them what it meant to be a Christian witness, to fight for the Church, to remain faithful. Imprisoned in the Soviet gulag for nine years, he did brutal labour by day and whatever clandestine priestly work he could by night, including offering the Holy Mass secretly, using a matchbox as a ciborium.

Buy a beautiful missal

A few weeks back I wrote in these pages that the new Roman Missal, which will come into effect this Advent, should be beautiful, worthy of being on the altar during Mass. The missal is the book used by the priest which contains all the Mass prayers. A new English translation of the missal has been done, and so new missals are required in every Catholic parish.

The current missal produced by the publications service of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) is most unworthy, lacking even the creative design of a low-end recipe book. Canadian priests were hoping that the new missal published this fall would be a true work of art, not a mere functional instruction manual. We saw that publishers in England, Australia and the United States had sample pages posted online, drawing upon the long tradition of Catholic art adorning the altar missal. I wrote that if the CCCB version was as unimaginatively plain as their existing work, Canadian parishes should consider buying a British or American missal. All the prayers are exactly the same and the minor adaptations for Canada — local saints and variations in the rubrics for Mass — are easily enough obtained elsewhere.

Pius XII’s actions spoke louder than words

The conduct of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War, specifically in regard to Jews and the Shoah, has been a bone in the throat of Catholic-Jewish relations for some time now. Recent developments may point, however tentatively, to the possibility of a way forward.

In late June, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, made a remarkable statement in the course of the ceremony in which Fr. Gaetano Piccini was named “Righteous among the Gentiles” — a designation given to those who were heroic in saving Jews during the Shoah. Ambassador Lewy noted that after the Nazis rounded up Jews in Rome in October 1943 for deportation to the death camps, Catholic convents and monasteries opened their doors to shelter Jews — something risky and dangerous under Nazi occupation.

“There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on,” he said. “So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true.”

Lewy added that the fact that the Vatican couldn’t stop the deportation of Jews from Rome’s ghetto on Oct. 16-18, 1943 “only increased the will, on the part of the Vatican, to offer its own sites as refuges for the Jews.”

Some people miss mail

The recent disruption in Canada Post service has produced news stories about the unimportance of mail delivery that are at odds with my own experience, but presumably reflect the view of many others.

When Canada Post was on strike 14 years ago, even a few days without mail was big news. But during the recent disruption, settled on June 28, I’m not aware of a single newscast that made the work stoppage the lead item, and most days it has not even been front-page news. True, the growth of the online world has undoubtedly reduced most people’s reliance on mail delivery, but newscasters and pundits who think the letter carrier is dispensable are mistaken.

For those of us with a greater than average reliance on mail delivery, it was galling to see editorial content such as: “Postal strike looms — will anyone notice?”;  “In 20 years no one will remember what a mailbox looks like” or “I think there’s a packet of stamps in the house some place.” Even after almost a month, Lorne Gunter of the National Post claimed that “almost no one cares yet that the mail is not being delivered.” Trust me, if a good chunk of your income takes the form of cheques in the mail, you will care.

God’s call still shaping Pope Benedict’s life 60 years later

The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, is kept with suitable solemnity in Rome, with the Holy Father offering Mass at St. Peter’s on the patronal feast of his diocese. Ten years ago, in 2001, Blessed John Paul asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to celebrate the Mass in his stead. It was the 50th anniversary of Ratzinger’s priestly ordination, 29th June 1951, and the honour of offering the patronal Mass in the Holy Father’s presence was thought both a tribute to Ratzinger’s long service, and, perhaps, a prelude to a farewell earnestly sought by Ratzinger himself.

The farewell never came; the long service continued. Now, on the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination, Ratzinger will offer the Mass for the two princes of the apostles, not in place of anyone, but as Bishop of Rome himself.

Sixty years of faithful service in any vocation is a remarkable testimony of cooperation with God’s grace. The 60 years of Pope Benedict are all the more remarkable given that, since being called from his professor’s chair to the episcopate in 1977, he has been labouring in a section of the vineyard that he did not choose. On April 19, 2005, the cardinals chose him to be pope.

Joseph Ratzinger has long desired to devote his life to scholarship. Had it been up to him, his 60th anniversary would be spent, if not in heaven, in retirement in his library, studying and writing theology. But even as a young man Joseph knew that God might be calling him to something different.

Priests from abroad serve as fathers to Canadian Catholics

On Father’s Day, many Catholics take time to say a kind word to priests – their spiritual fathers. Might I suggest that this Father’s Day, a special word of gratitude be extended to those priests from foreign countries – India, Poland, Philippines, India, Nigeria and other nations – who are working in Canadian parishes, hospitals, prisons and universities? To extend the familial metaphor, they have become fathers to Canadian Catholics left orphaned by our own lack of priestly vocations.

It’s hard to overstate the catastrophic decline in priestly vocations. A senior Holy See diplomat, intimately familiar with the Canadian situation, once reported a devastating statistic: In one recent year there were more bishops in Canada than there were seminarians.

“A Church where there are as many bishops as seminarians is dead,” he told me. By that standard, if not dead, the Church in Canada is at least in intensive care.

D&P has a tenuous claim on Catholic dollars

It was about two months ago that I wrote about the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P), and the serious questions about its pro-life commitment. It was just after Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., of Ottawa had cancelled the speaking tour of a D&P partner organization in Mexico which collaborated with groups promoting abortion rights. Since then the most frequent question I have been asked by pastors is: What should we do about raising money for D&P?

My view is that D&P has a tenuous claim on Catholic dollars because, aside from fundraising in Catholic parishes, they have a tenuous relationship with any distinctively Catholic mission. In their operations they are largely — and by their own proud design — indistinguishable from any number of peace and justice NGOs working in the developing world.

Developments since April have underscored how weak their Catholic identity really is. The controversy in Mexico centred on D&P’s relationship with the  Centro PRODH. As reported in these pages this week, the archbishop of Mexico City, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, wrote to the Canadian bishops saying that the Centro PRODH supports “activities that are an affront to Christian values.”

Punk album flew under responsibility radar

The case of a punk rock band giving back its government grant following a public outcry shines light again on the world of government funding for the arts and revives the issue of where to draw the line.

Vancouver’s Living with Lions recently released an album called Holy S**t, complete with graphics that included a resurrection figure appearing to be created from excrement. Before the album was recalled, the last line of the band’s acknowledgements read, “We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Department of Canadian Heritage,” the standard acknowledgement for all organizations receiving Heritage funding, and not something taxpayers expect to see on such vulgar packaging.

Through Canadian Heritage, our taxes fund all kinds of projects, many of them beneficial or at least non-controversial. In this case, funds were directed through the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR), which provides loans and grants to promote and foster Canadian talent. In its statement about the Living with Lions CD, FACTOR noted that “the record in question was packaged with graphics and liner notes that some may consider offensive. This material had not been submitted to FACTOR prior to its release. We have communicated to the record label that there has been a negative reaction from some members of the public regarding the content.”

Don’t spare the beauty for the new Roman Missal

Canadian parishes will begin preparing soon for the new translation of the Mass, to be implemented in Advent 2011. Yet one decision needs to be made sooner; parishes must order their copies of the new Roman Missal (the book of prayers for Mass used at the altar).

The missal must be beautiful. Anything that is not beautiful should never be on the altar. Our supreme worship of the Lord requires beauty. We too require beauty — which is why we dress up for important functions, decorate our homes by the season and use beautiful things for special occasions. Mercifully, the age of ugly vessels upon the altar is largely passed, and increasingly one sees beautiful vestments, church decor and architecture.

Most people never see the missal. Yet the priest who offers Mass and the servers who assist him need to be constantly reminded that what they are doing is not routine. The long tradition of missals that were themselves works of art was aimed at assisting the priest to be mindful of just that.

Missionary work is cultural as well

The first Jesuits in North America arrived 400 years ago. In 1611, two Jesuit priests arrived in what is now Nova Scotia, a few months after the local Mi’kmaq chief decided to be baptized along with his family, becoming the first aboriginal Christians in Canada. With the conversion of the chief, the first Jesuits found a secure welcome and lived with the Mi’kmaq for several years. Consequently the quatercentenary emphasized the initial encounter between the Jesuits and the Mi’kmaq. But as reported in The Catholic Register (Jesuits mark 400 years of ministry in Canada), the Mi’kmaq were not only looking to the past. They want the Jesuits to help with the future.

“Maybe it’s time for the Mi’kmaq to ask for your help in preserving our language,” said Grand Keptin Antle Denny. Young people do not learn their mother tongue; indeed the new mother tongue is English for about 70 per cent of Mi’kmaq. Their historic tongue will be extinct within 20 years.

What the Jesuits can do about that is not clear. Yet the Mi’kmaq were on to something — there is a longstanding connection between Christian missionaries and the preservation and enrichment of indigenous languages.