The state of the world at Christmas, according to Bishop Punt

In his regular ‘Word from the Bishop’ column, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam this time looks ahead to Christmas, and particularly the state of our world today. Are political grandstanding and military threats really an answer, he asks. While we live in a broken world, power is needed to keep opposing powers in check, but real change starts in the hearts of people, he argues.

20160110_punt_70“We are celebrating Christmas in a tense time. The Middle East is on fire. North Korea and American are threatening “fire and fury” upon each other. Almost all countries are rearming themselves. Each one, in their own opinion, to defend themselves against the others. That is how the First World War started. How do we break this spiral of fear, hate and violence?

The world leaders are betting on diplomacy, shows of force and alliances. Understandable. At the same time, everyone knows that that is not the ultimate solution. What we need is a New World Order, many politicians therefore claim. Especially a world government with complete power and authority to control international conflicts. What they forget is that leaders are also always people with exactly the same weaknesses. They, too, easily fall into self-interest, greed and lust for power. We see it everywhere around us. We have already seen in extreme way, in Hitler, Stalin and Mao, what the concentration of power leads to. On a worldwide level the consequences will be unimaginable.

Great thinkers from the past have long foreseen this and warned against it. Think of Dostoyevsky or George Orwell, or of Aldous Huyxley with his famous novel Brave New World (1932). Or also of Robert Benson, an English priest from the 1900s, with his novel Lord of the World (1907). Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have referred to it as a warning to us. Visionary, Benson describes a secularised world in which mankind, plagued by fear and chaos, calls for a strong leader. Then, an all-powerful dictator rises, a sort of Antichrist. He does indeed bring order with power and control, but ultimately robs mankind of all its dignity and freedom. A new world order is not the answer to chaos and war, but sooner or later a highway to the most complete dictatorship of all time. As long as we live in this broken world, powers must always be confronted by other powers.

But how should things be? I have said it before: the world will only change when man changes. Diplomacy, alliances and sometimes military interventions are necessary, but can only combat the symptoms of a wounded world and an inwardly wounded mankind, but it is not the cure. That should take place in the heart of man. And the Good News of Christmas is that this is possible. Man has a conscience and is able to change. He can became great and holy, a force for good for all mankind. Great and small people defeating evil, first in their own hearts, and then changing their surroundings and the world. Our time needs such people, not least in politics. Nothing in man’s being or in his history should be an obstacle to that, the Lord promises.

You will probably the beautiful song Amazing Grace. What you may not know is that it was written by the captain of a slave ship in the eighteenth century, John Newton. In a storm he was touched by the light of God, and saw the great evil of his life. He had the courage to confront it and ask for forgiveness. One moment of grace completely changed him. He began to strive for the abolishment of slavery, and later became a gifted preacher who drew full churches in England. Only the change of heart can offer the solution. The entire Bible is an encouragement to open yourself up to the touch of God’s Spirit.

But Scripture also teaches us that that touch is never open-ended and always presents us with a choice. When the Spirit comes in force, as it did for John Newton, his mild Light will let you feel the love of God, but also show you the dark places of your heart and your hidden sins. Not to discourage you, but to give you the chance to change what is not right, and to receive forgiveness. That is why Christ has come, Scripture tell us, to save us through the forgiveness of our sins. We can leave behind everything that we regret and confess honestly. When you believe in this Child, love incarnate, and bring everything that weighs you down and holds you back to Him, He will carry it with and for you, and give you strength to be a force for good for the world around you. And after this life He will receive you in His eternal Kingdom. Some will receive this gift of redemption in gratitude, like the shepherds and the magi, and kneel down to worship the Child. Others will be too prideful for that, like Herod, and hold on to their power, greed and lust, persecute the Child and banish God from their lives.

Christmas is the feast of the Light. The Light of God’s Love and truth that enlightens the hearts of people, and through them the world. May this Light be ours in these days. In that sense I wish you all a Blessed Christmas.”

 

End of a chapter – Dachau’s last priest prisoner dies

At the age of 102 Father Hermann Scheipers passed away last night. He was the last surviving priest of Dachau concentration camp.

Seligsprechung des sorbischen Kaplans Alojs Andritzki

Fr. Hermann Scheipers in 2011, photographed in Dresden on the occasion of the beatification of Alojs Andritzki, who was killed in Dachau in 1943. Fr. Scheipers and Blessed Alojs were both in the camp’s sickbay with typhoid fever for some time.

Domradio has an obituary, written by Andreas Otto, which I share in English below:

As prisoner ‘number 24255’ Hermann Scheipers survived hell in Dachau concentration camp. Nevertheless, the priest and enemy of the Nazis survived, to die now at the age of 102.

Hermann Scheipers had a mission. He had to tell young people of that time: how he, as a young priest in 1940, was arrested by the Nazis and taken to Dachau concentration camp, how he survived the war and how he was once again oppressed, this time by the communist dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic. How he survived that time, too, he continuously impressed upon his listeners. On Thursday night Scheipers died in Ochtrup, aged 102. He was the last surviving German clergyman to have been imprisoned in Dachau.

In the Nazi eye

Scheipers hails from Ochtrup in Münsterland. As there were too many priests there in the 1930s, he decided to go to Bautzen in the middle German diaspora. There Scheipers, born on 24 July 1913, was ordained to the priesthood, and began working in the rural parish of Hubertusburg. Apparentry with some success. His self-assured Catholic work among the youth drew the attention of the Nazis. Because he was sympathetic with Polish forced labourers, celebrated Mass with them and heard their confessions, he was arrested on October of 1940 and brought to Dachau concentration camp five months later. His file, which he came across by chance,  states the true reason for his arrest: “Scheipers is a fanatical proponent of the Catholic Church and thus likely to cause unrest among the population.”

‘Number 24255’

The priest is – especially denigrating – taken to Dachau together with criminals. During the transport one of them wonders, “Well, did you sing out of tune from the pulpit?” Scheipers survived hell as prisoner ‘number 24255’. “You are without honour, without help and without rights. Here, you can either work or perish,” the camp commander welcomes the new inmates. Like many of the priests in Dachau, Scheipers slaves away as a field worker, receiving mostly watery soup to eat. Persons who aren’t fast enough are whipped, hung by the arms or drenched with icy water. Many die. “The only thing one could do was escape or pray,” Scheipers recalled.

Escaping the gas chamber

In 1942 an attack of weakness brings him close to his own murder. His twin sister Anna travels to Berlin, to the Reich security offices and bluffs to the head of the priest department: Everywhere in Münsterland people are saying that her brother is to be gassed. And if it comes to that, the Catholics there will not accept it… This civil courage has effect: he escapes the gas chamber.

Amid all the danger, Scheipers is aware of God’s help, even at that time. “I noticed this closeness frequently.” He can not forget how a fellow priest gave him his ration of bread before he was transported towards his death. “Everytime when I celebrate Mass and break the bread, I think of that.” In April of 1945, Scheipers finally manages to escape from a death march towards Bad Tölz.

15 Spies in the DDR

After the war he returns to his former place of work. As a priest in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen he resists those in power in the unjust GDR state. When Scheipers sees his Stasi file after the fall of communism, he has a big scare. 15 Spies were set on his case.  The papers show that a trial against him for distributing subversive propaganda was to be convened. “I was in Dachau for the exact same reasons,” Scheipers commented.

After his retirement Scheipers lives in Münsterland again, from where he travels again and again, despite the discomforts of age, to speak about his experience as a contemporary witness.

Of this his multiple-edition book ‘Gratwanderungen – Priester unter zwei Diktaturen’ [Balancing act – Priest under two dictatorships] – also speaks. This too is a  witness of his unshakeable faith, which he sees expressed in a word from Romano Guardini: “Security in what comes last gives serenity in what comes before.”

Dachau housed virtually all of the clerical prisoners of the Nazi regime: 2,720 clergy were imprisoned there, with the vast majority, 95%, being Catholic. As Fr. Scheipers’ story shows,the Nazis needed little excuse to arrest priests. The Church was a serious opponent to the National Socialist rulers who accepted loyalty to the party and Adolf Hitler alone. Many of the Catholic clergy prisoners have since been beatified, among them Blesseds Titus Brandsma, Bernhard Lichtenberg, Karl Leisner and the aforementioned Alojs Andritzki.

Fr. Hermann Scheipers’ death is a bookend to a formative period in recent history, not only of Europe, but certainly also of the Catholic Church and its relationship to state and government.

Papal soundbytes – Germany

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Berlin and is greeted by President Christian Wulff

After a state visit which was also a pastoral visit and an opportunity to address issues in both Church and state, during which protesters – once again – failed to leave much of an actual impression (despite media efforts to place them firmly center stage) and politicians who stayed away out of protest made a right fool of themselves, it’s perhaps best to focus on what the pope came to say. The texts of the various addresses and homilies are online, and I have paid attention to a mere two of these.

Here is my selection of the most interesting and important passages from the texts, all according to me, of course. It’s by no means complete, and I recommend reading the full texts to get a sense of context and further development of the points touched upon.

On being part of the Church

“I would say it is important to know that being in the Church is not like being in some association, but it is being in the net of the Lord, with which he draws good fish and bad fish from the waters of death to the land of life. It is possible that I might be alongside bad fish in this net and I sense this, but it remains true that I am in it neither for the former  nor for the latter but because it is the Lord’s net; it is something different from all human associations, a reality that touches the very heart of my being.” [Interview during the flight to Berlin, 22 September]

The link between freedom and religion

“Freedom requires a primordial link to a higher instance. The fact that there are values which are not absolutely open to manipulation is the true guarantee of our freedom. The man who feels a duty to truth and goodness will immediately agree with this: freedom develops only in responsibility to a greater good. Such a good exists only for all of us together; therefore I must always be concerned for my neighbours. Freedom cannot be lived in the absence of relationships.” [Welcome ceremony in Berlin, 22 September]

Pope from above: the Holy Father leaves the Bundestag after his address

The pope’s responsibility

“[T]he invitation to give this address was extended to me as Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, who bears the highest responsibility for Catholic Christianity.” (Address to the Bundestag, 22 September]

On what should ultimately matter for a politician

“His fundamental criterion and the motivation for his work as a politician must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace. Naturally a politician will seek success, without which he would have no opportunity for effective political action at all. Yet success is subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right. Success can also be seductive and thus can open up the path towards the falsification of what is right, towards the destruction of justice. “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”, as Saint Augustine once said.”  [idem]

The limitations of the majority vote

“For most of the matters that need to be regulated by law, the support of the majority can serve as a sufficient criterion. Yet it is evident that for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough: everyone in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the criteria to be followed when framing laws.” [idem]

The limitations and dangers of positivism

“A positivist conception of nature as purely functional, as the natural sciences consider it to be, is incapable of producing any bridge to ethics and law, but once again yields only functional answers. The same also applies to reason, according to the positivist understanding that is widely held to be the only genuinely scientific one. Anything that is not verifiable or falsifiable, according to this understanding, does not belong to the realm of reason strictly understood. Hence ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective field, and they remain extraneous to the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word. Where positivist reason dominates the field to the exclusion of all else – and that is broadly the case in our public mindset – then the classical sources of knowledge for ethics and law are excluded.

[…]

“In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.”[idem]

A strong condemnation of Nazism

“The Nazi reign of terror was based on a racist myth, part of which was the rejection of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ and of all who believe in him. The supposedly “almighty” Adolf Hitler was a pagan idol, who wanted to take the place of the biblical God, the Creator and Father of all men. Refusal to heed this one God always makes people heedless of human dignity as well. What man is capable of when he rejects God, and what the face of a people can look like when it denies this God, the terrible images from the concentration camps at the end of the war showed.” [Meeting with Jewish community representatives, 22 September]

The relationship between Judaism and Christianity

“For Christians, there can be no rupture in salvation history. Salvation comes from the Jews (cf. Jn 4:22). When Jesus’ conflict with the Judaism of his time is superficially interpreted as a breach with the Old Covenant, it tends to be reduced to the idea of a liberation that mistakenly views the Torah merely as a slavish enactment of rituals and outward observances. Yet in actual fact, the Sermon on the Mount does not abolish the Mosaic Law, but reveals its hidden possibilities and allows more radical demands to emerge. It points us towards the deepest source of human action, the heart, where choices are made between what is pure and what is impure, where faith, hope and love blossom forth.” [idem]

A general impression of Berlin's Olympic Stadium, filled for the papal Mass

Jersus’ identification with the oppressed Church

“On the road to Damascus, Christ himself asked Saul, the persecutor of the Church: “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). With these words the Lord expresses the common destiny that arises from his Church’s inner communion of life with himself, the risen one. He continues to live in his Church in this world. He is present among us, and we with him. “Why do you persecute me?” It is ultimately at Jesus that persecution of his Church is directed. At the same time, this means that when we are oppressed for the sake of our faith, we are not alone: Jesus Christ is beside us and with us.” [Homily during Mass at the Olympic Stadium, 22 September]

Christ takes our suffering on His shoulders

“Christ himself came into this world through his incarnation, to be our root. Whatever hardship or drought befall us, he is the source that offers us the water of life, that feeds and strengthens us. He takes upon himself all our sins, anxieties and sufferings and he purifies and transforms us, in a way that is ultimately mysterious, into good branches that produce good wine. In such times of hardship we can sometimes feel as if we ourselves were in the wine-press, like grapes being utterly crushed. But we know that if we are joined to Christ we become mature wine. God can transform into love even the burdensome and oppressive aspects of our lives. It is important that we “abide” in Christ, in the vine.” [idem]

God’s most beautiful gift

“The Church, as the herald of God’s word and dispenser of the sacraments, joins us to Christ, the true vine. The Church as “fullness and completion of the Redeemer”, as Pius XII expressed it (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, AAS 35 [1943] p. 230: “plenitudo et complementum Redemptoris”), is to us a pledge of divine life and mediator of those fruits of which the parable of the vine speaks. Thus the Church is God’s most beautiful gift.” [idem]

Catholics and Lutherans are addressed by the Holy Father at the former Augustine convent in Erfurt

Evil is no trivial matter

“[I]nsofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter.” [Meeting with the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, 23 September]

The development of a shallow Christianity

“Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon – that bishops from all over the world are constantly telling me about – poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.” [idem]

In the face of secularisation

“Naturally faith today has to be thought out afresh, and above all lived afresh, so that it is suited to the present day. Yet it is not by watering the faith down, but by living it today in its fullness that we achieve this. This is a key ecumenical task in which we have to help one another: developing a deeper and livelier faith. It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith – thought out and lived afresh; through such faith, Christ enters this world of ours, and with him, the living God.” [idem]

The fundamental unity of Christians

“Our fundamental unity comes from the fact that we believe in God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. And that we confess that he is the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The highest unity is not the solitude of a nomad, but rather a unity born of love. We believe in God – the real God. We believe that God spoke to us and became one of us. To bear witness to this living God is our common task at the present time.” [Address during the ecumenical prayer service, 23 September]

Man’s need of God

“Does man need God, or can we do quite well without him? When, in the first phase of God’s absence, his light continues to illumine and sustain the order of human existence, it appears that things can also function quite well without God. But the more the world withdraws from God, the clearer it becomes that man, in his hubris of power, in his emptiness of heart and in his longing for satisfaction and happiness, increasingly loses his life. A thirst for the infinite is indelibly present in human beings. Man was created to have a relationship with God; we need him.” [idem]

Why faith is not subject to negotiations

“A self-made faith is worthless. Faith is not something we work out intellectually and negotiate between us.” [idem]

In prayer at Etzelsbach

Mary, our mother

“When Christians of all times and places turn to Mary, they are acting on the spontaneous conviction that Jesus cannot refuse his mother what she asks; and they are relying on the unshakable trust that Mary is also our mother – a mother who has experienced the greatest of all sorrows, who feels all our griefs with us and ponders in a maternal way how to overcome them.” [Marian Vespers, 23 September]

Mary as a channel of grace

“Looking down from the Cross, from the throne of grace and salvation, Jesus gave us his mother Mary to be our mother. At the moment of his self-offering for mankind, he makes Mary as it were the channel of the rivers of grace that flow from the Cross. At the foot of the Cross, Mary becomes our fellow traveller and protector on life’s journey. “By her motherly love she cares for her son’s sisters and brothers who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into their blessed home,” as the Second Vatican Council expressed it (Lumen Gentium, 62). Yes indeed, in life we pass through high-points and low-points, but Mary intercedes for us with her Son and helps us to discover the power of his divine love, and to open ourselves to that love.” [idem]

The quality of the saints

“Still today Christ comes towards us, he speaks to every individual, just as he did in the Gospel, and invites every one of us to listen to him, to come to understand him and to follow him. This summons and this opportunity the saints acted on, they recognized the living God, they saw him, they listened to him and they went towards him, they travelled with him; they so to speak “caught” his contagious presence, they reached out to him in the ongoing dialogue of prayer, and in return they received from him the light that shows where true life is to be found.” [Homily during Mass in Erfurt, 24 September]

Shared faith

“Faith always includes as an essential element the fact that it is shared with others. No one can believe alone. We receive the faith – as Saint Paul tells us – through hearing, and hearing is part of being together, in spirit and in body. Only within this great assembly of believers of all times, who found Christ and were found by him, am I able to believe. In the first place I have God to thank for the fact that I can believe, for God approaches me and so to speak “ignites” my faith. But on a practical level, I have my fellow human beings to thank for my faith, those who believed before me and who believe with me. This great “with”, apart from which there can be no personal faith, is the Church. And this Church does not stop at national borders.” [idem]

The hope of union with our closest brothers

“[A]mong Christian Churches and communities, it is undoubtedly the Orthodox who are theologically closest to us; Catholics and Orthodox have maintained the same basic structure inherited from the ancient Church; in this sense we are all the early Church that is still present and new. And so we dare to hope, even if humanly speaking constantly new difficulties arise, that the day may still be not too far away when we may once again celebrate the Eucharist together (cf. Light of the World. A Conversation with Peter Seewald, p. 86).” [Meeting with representatives of Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Church, 24 September]

What the seminary is for

“As Saint Bonaventure once said: the angels, wherever they go, however far away, always move within the inner being of God. This is also the case here: as priests we must go out onto the many different streets, where we find people whom we should invite to his wedding feast. But we can only do this if in the process we always remain with him. And learning this: this combination of, on the one hand, going out on mission, and on the other hand being with him, remaining with him, is – I believe – precisely what we have to learn in the seminary.” [Meeting with seminarians, 24 September]

Learning about the present from the past

“In exegesis we learn much about the past: what happened, what sources there are, what communities there were, and so on. This is also important. But more important still is that from the past we should learn about the present, we should learn that he is speaking these words now, and that they all carry their present within them, and that over and above the historical circumstances in which they arose, they contain a fullness which speaks to all times. And it is important to learn this present-day aspect of his word – to learn to listen out for it – and thus to be able to speak of it to others.” [idem]

“Faith comes from hearing”

I sometimes say that Saint Paul wrote: “Faith comes from hearing” – not from reading. It needs reading as well, but it comes from hearing, that is to say from the living word, addressed to me by the other, whom I can hear, addressed to me by the Church throughout the ages, from her contemporary word, spoken to me the priests, bishops and my fellow believers. Faith must include a “you” and it must include a “we”. [idem]

Faith in a scientific world

“Our world today is a rationalist and thoroughly scientific world, albeit often somewhat pseudo-scientific. But this scientific spirit, this spirit of understanding, explaining, know-how, rejection of the irrational, is dominant in our time. There is a good side to this, even if it often conceals much arrogance and nonsense. The faith is not a parallel world of feelings that we can still afford to hold on to, rather it is the key that encompasses everything, gives it meaning, interprets it and also provides its inner ethical orientation: making clear that it is to be understood and lived as tending towards God and proceeding from God.” [idem]

The light of Christ

“While all around us there may be darkness and gloom, yet we see a light: a small, tiny flame that is stronger than the seemingly powerful and invincible darkness. Christ, risen from the dead, shines in this world and he does so most brightly in those places where, in human terms, everything is sombre and hopeless. He has conquered death – he is alive – and faith in him, like a small light, cuts through all that is dark and threatening. To be sure, those who believe in Jesus do not lead lives of perpetual sunshine, as though they could be spared suffering and hardship, but there is always a bright glimmer there, lighting up the path that leads to fullness of life (cf. Jn 10:10). The eyes of those who believe in Christ see light even amid the darkest night and they already see the dawning of a new day.” [Vigil with young people, 24 September]

“Dear friends, Christ is not so much interested in how often in our lives we stumble and fall, as in how often with his help we pick ourselves up again. He does not demand glittering achievements, but he wants his light to shine in you. He does not call you because you are good and perfect, but because he is good and he wants to make you his friends. Yes, you are the light of the world because Jesus is your light. You are Christians – not because you do special and extraordinary things, but because he, Christ, is your life, our life. You are holy, we are holy, if we allow his grace to work in us.” [idem]

The pope ascends the steps to the sanctuary to celebrate Mass

Power and freedom

“There are theologians who, in the face of all the terrible things that happen in the world today, say that God cannot possibly be all-powerful. In response to this we profess God, the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth. And we are glad and thankful that God is all-powerful. At the same time, we have to be aware that he exercises his power differently from the way we normally do. He has placed a limit on his power, by recognizing the freedom of his creatures. We are glad and thankful for the gift of freedom. However, when we see the terrible things that happen as a result of it, we are frightened. Let us put our trust in God, whose power manifests itself above all in mercy and forgiveness. Let us be certain, dear faithful, that God desires the salvation of his people. He desires our salvation, my salvation, the salvation of every single person. He is always close to us, especially in times of danger and radical change, and his heart aches for us, he reaches out to us. We need to open ourselves to him so that the power of his mercy can touch our hearts. We have to be ready freely to abandon evil, to raise ourselves from indifference and make room for his word. God respects our freedom. He does not constrain us. He is waiting for us to say “yes”, he as it were begs us to say “yes”.” [Homily during the Mass in Freiburg, 25 September]

Our personal relationship with God

“So let us ask ourselves, in the light of today’s Gospel, how is my personal relationship with God: in prayer, in participation at Sunday Mass, in exploring my faith through meditation on sacred Scripture and study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Dear friends, in the last analysis, the renewal of the Church will only come about through openness to conversion and through renewed faith.” [idem]

The exchange between God and man

“The Fathers explain it in this way: we have nothing to give God, we have only our sin to place before him. And this he receives and makes his own, while in return he gives us himself and his glory: a truly unequal exchange, which is brought to completion in the life and passion of Christ. He becomes, as it were, a “sinner”, he takes sin upon himself, takes what is ours and gives us what is his. But as the Church continued to reflect upon and live the faith, it became clear that we not only give him our sin, but that he has empowered us, from deep within he gives us the power, to offer him something positive as well: our love – to offer him humanity in the positive sense. Clearly, it is only through God’s generosity that man, the beggar, who receives a wealth of divine gifts, is yet able to offer something to God as well; that God makes it possible for us to accept his gift, by making us capable of becoming givers ourselves in his regard.” [Meeting with active Catholics, 25 September]

Detaching the Church from the world

“[I]t is time once again to discover the right form of detachment from the world, to move resolutely away from the Church’s worldliness. This does not, of course, mean withdrawing from the world: quite the contrary. A Church relieved of the burden of worldliness is in a position, not least through her charitable activities, to mediate the life-giving strength of the Christian faith to those in need, to sufferers and to their carers.” [idem]

As the sun sets over Freiburg, the pope bids farewell to Germany

Photo credits:
[1], [12] Johannes Simon/Getty Images
[2] AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
[3] AP Photo/Frank Augstein
[4] Reuters/Miro Kuzmanovic
[5] Patrick Lux/AFP/Getty Images
[6] Norbert Neetz/Pool/Getty Images
[7] Reuters/Andrew Medichini/Pool
[8], [10] Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
[9] Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images
[11] Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Much-maligned pontiff

A very good defense of Pope Pius XII on the website of Israeli newspaper Haaretz yesterday. Emphases and notes mine.

Much-maligned pontiff

by Dimitri Cavalli

Some things never go away. The controversy over Pope Pius XII’s actions during World War II was recently reignited when Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree affirming that his predecessor displayed “heroic virtues” during his lifetime. When the pope visited the Great Synagogue of Rome on Sunday, Riccardo Pacifici, president of Rome’s Jewish community, told him: “The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah still hurts because something should have been done.”

This was not the first time the wartime pope, who is now a step closer to beatification, has been accused of keeping silent during the Holocaust, of doing little or nothing to help the Jews, and even of collaborating with the Nazis. To what extent, if any, does the evidence back up these allegations, which have been repeated since the early 1960s?

On April 4, 1933, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state, instructed the papal nuncio in Germany to see what he could do to oppose the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies.

On behalf of Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli drafted an encyclical, entitled “Mit brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Anxiety”), that condemned Nazi doctrines and persecution of the Catholic Church. The encyclical was smuggled into Germany and read from Catholic pulpits on March 21, 1937.

Although many Vatican critics today dismiss the encyclical as a light slap on the wrist, the Germans saw it as a security threat. For example, on March 26, 1937, Hans Dieckhoff, an official in the German foreign ministry, wrote that the “encyclical contains attacks of the severest nature upon the German government, calls upon Catholic citizens to rebel against the authority of the state, and therefore signifies an attempt to endanger internal peace.”

Both Great Britain and France should have interpreted the document as a warning that they should not trust Adolf Hitler or try to appease him.

After the death of Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli was elected pope, on March 2, 1939. The Nazis were displeased with the new pontiff, who took the name Pius XII. On March 4, Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, wrote in his diary: “Midday with the Fuehrer. He is considering whether we should abrogate the concordat with Rome in light of Pacelli’s election as pope.”

During the war, the pope was far from silent: In numerous speeches and encyclicals, he championed human rights for all people and called on the belligerent nations to respect the rights of all civilians and prisoners of war. Unlike many of the pope’s latter-day detractors, the Nazis understood him very well. After studying Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas message, the Reich Central Security Office concluded: “In a manner never known before the pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order … Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward the Jews and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.” (Pick up any book that criticizes Pius XII, and you won’t find any mention of this important report.)

In early 1940, the pope acted as an intermediary between a group of German generals who wanted to overthrow Hitler and the British government. Although the conspiracy never went forward, Pius XII kept in close contact with the German resistance and heard about two other plots against Hitler. In the fall of 1941, through diplomatic channels, the pope agreed with Franklin Delano Roosevelt that America’s Catholics could support the president’s plans to extend military aid to the Soviet Union after it was invaded by the Nazis. On behalf of the Vatican, John T. McNicholas, the archbishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, delivered a well-publicized address that explained that the extension of assistance to the Soviets could be morally justified because it helped the Russian people, who were the innocent victims of German aggression.

Throughout the war, the pope’s deputies frequently ordered the Vatican’s diplomatic representatives in many Nazi-occupied and Axis countries to intervene on behalf of endangered Jews. Up until Pius XII’s death in 1958, many Jewish organizations, newspapers and leaders lauded his efforts. To cite one of many examples, in his April 7, 1944, letter to the papal nuncio in Romania, Alexander Shafran, chief rabbi of Bucharest, wrote: “It is not easy for us to find the right words to express the warmth and consolation we experienced because of the concern of the supreme pontiff, who offered a large sum to relieve the sufferings of deported Jews … The Jews of Romania will never forget these facts of historic importance.” [Ironic, since many later did forget…]

The campaign against Pope Pius XII is doomed to failure because his detractors cannot sustain their main charges against him – that he was silent, pro-Nazi, and did little or nothing to help the Jews – with evidence. Perhaps only in a backward world such as ours would the one man who did more than any other wartime leader to help Jews and other Nazi victims, receive the greatest condemnation. [It shows the power of populaist theory. As long as it sound good, people will believe it, despite the evidence against it.]

Dimitri Cavalli is an editor and writer in New York City. He is working on books on both Pope Pius XII and Joe McCarthy, the late manager of the New York Yankees.