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Pope's Message at Auschwitz

5/30/2006 - 5:00 AM PST

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"As a Son of the German People, I Could Not Fail to Come Here"

KRAKOW, Poland, MAY 30, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Sunday when visiting the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, the last stage of his apostolic trip to Poland.

* * *

To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible -- and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany. In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence -- a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?

In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.

Twenty-seven years ago, on June 7, 1979, Pope John Paul II stood in this place. He said: "I come here today as a pilgrim. As you know, I have been here many times. So many times! And many times I have gone down to Maximilian Kolbe's death cell, paused before the execution wall, and walked amid the ruins of the Birkenau ovens. It was impossible for me not to come here as Pope."

Pope John Paul came here as a son of that people which, along with the Jewish people, suffered most in this place and, in general, throughout the war. "Six million Poles lost their lives during the Second World War: a fifth of the nation," he reminded us. Here, too, he solemnly called for respect for human rights and the rights of nations, as his predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI had done before him, and added: "The one who speaks these words is ... the son of a nation which, in its history, has suffered greatly from others. He says this, not to accuse, but to remember. He speaks in the name of all those nations whose rights are being violated and disregarded ..."

Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here.

I had to come. It is a duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of Pope John Paul II and as a son of the German people -- a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power.

Yes, I could not fail to come here. On June 7, 1979, I came as the archbishop of Munich-Freising, along with many other bishops who accompanied the Pope, listened to his words and joined in his prayer. In 1980, I came back to this dreadful place with a delegation of German bishops, appalled by its evil, yet grateful for the fact that above its dark clouds the star of reconciliation had emerged.

This is the same reason why I have come here today: to implore the grace of reconciliation -- first of all from God, who alone can open and purify our hearts, from the men and women who suffered here, and finally the grace of reconciliation for all those who, at this hour of our history, are suffering in new ways from the power of hatred and the violence which hatred spawns.

How many questions arise in this place! Constantly the question comes up: Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?

The words of Psalm 44 come to mind, Israel's lament for its woes: "You have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness ... because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!" (Psalm 44:19,22-26).

This cry of anguish, which Israel raised to God in its suffering, at moments of deep distress, is also the cry for help raised by all those who in every age -- yesterday, today and tomorrow -- suffer for the love of God, for the love of truth and goodness. How many they are, even in our own day!

We cannot peer into God's mysterious plan -- we see only piecemeal, and we would be wrong to set ourselves up as judges of God and history. Then we would not be defending man, but only contributing to his downfall. No -- when all is said and done, we must continue to cry out humbly yet ...

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