CATHOLIC VALUES COLUMNIST
Who in their life has not wondered this? This question is tough, and I often choose to push it off to deal with later. However, that changed for me when I went on pilgrimage to Poland and looked evil in the face.
Of course, Poland—which we as Catholics remember as the homeland of our modern-day saint Pope John Paul II as well as the Divine Mercy image given to St. Faustina—is also the home of Auschwitz, where an ungodly number of persons were slaughtered daily during the Nazi regime. Just hearing the horror stories from the Holocaust makes me feel sick, and it always leaves me wondering not just why, but also how. How can a human person do this to another human person?
The Holocaust is harder to wrap my mind around than even Christ’s crucifixion because I don’t understand how such evil can exist post-Resurrection. In Christ’s crucifixion, he redeemed the world and destroyed death. From his passionate love was born his Church, and Christianity grew to be the largest world religion today.
So with so many Christians who profess faith in Christ, he who is Love, I find it hard to comprehend how only 80 years ago the Holocaust could have happened. I find it hard to comprehend how such evil can exist not just in the world, but in the very hearts of men.
Poland was a pilgrimage, for sure: a pilgrimage revealing great evil and even greater mercy. The Holocaust itself began in 1933. Two years prior, Jesus visited St. Faustina, commissioning her to paint the image of his Divine Mercy, nine years before Auschwitz would open in the same country, less than 50 miles away.
I for one wrestled with God the entire way to that death camp. How could the same God whose heart pours out mercy allow the evil of the Nazis? How could people, made in the image of God, do this to other people made in the same “imago Dei”?
I cannot really describe my emotions when we arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau, which was where the box cars full of prisoners arrived and where the gas chambers were. We followed along the railroad tracks to the end of the line, where we later prayed a Divine Mercy Chaplet, and there the tour guide pointed out the gas chambers. All that was left was rubble.
Strangely, I felt this hope welling up in me. We were there. The Nazis were not. And all that was left of their oh-so-grand plan was piles of rubble. And yet we were still there. God’s mercy was still there.
Only very recently did I begin to reflect on the significance of the image of God in all of this. The Nazis tried to exterminate the image of God in Poland. Christ surely knew this was coming, and he came ahead to prepare us. He rooted his own “imago Dei”in Poland, the perfect image of God because it was the image of God himself: Jesus Christ.
Christ placed his own image in this land so that it could never forget the dignity of the human person. In this land where evil was taking over so many human hearts, Christ in his image pointed to his own heart to show the people what good was possible instead. Rather than a heart corrupted with evil, Christ pointed to his heart to show its infinite capacity for mercy, a capacity infinite in the receiving and the giving.
Evil exists. We can’t deny it, and we can’t hide from it. Just because the Church is here does not mean evil is eradicated, and as hard as we fight, the Church alone will never destroy it. But we cannot stop fighting it. There is a war going on, and the very same devil who planted the idea of gas chambers back then is active now, in the battle for our hearts. Of course, he must contend with Jesus Christ, the man who defeated him once on the Cross and will again in the end.
The history of the Church tells the tale of this great war and the back-and-forth between the God of life and the demon of death. While I cannot explain the Holocaust and all of its theological implications, this pilgrimage helped me to better come to terms with it. This was a battle in which good was ultimately victorious, but the war is not yet won. Happily for us, it is in this war that God raises up his saints. Despite the devil’s attempt to crush us, the God of mercy is always there for us, allowing us to place our trust in him.