Pilgrimages are physical and spiritual journeys where we come to discover more about God, our Christian faith, and ourselves. Things which we discover can be light, welcoming, and beautiful on one hand and on the other they can be confronting, challenging, and disturbing on the other. It is the latter which would describe our day of pilgrimage on Monday, July 18 when we visited a place of great darkness, the Auschwitz concentration camps.
For a few days before visiting the camps I had that famous image in my mind of the entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. You may be able to recall a picture of it with the train line passing under a brick archway that supports a watch tower and two brick wings either side of the train line. It has featured in many of the movies that tell the story of this place. I wondered how I would feel seeing this image with my very own eyes and not just in a black and white photo. Any thoughts about how I would be feeling were drowned out as I found myself standing in this quiet and peaceful place with lovely green grass covering the fields, trying to imagine this empty space full of thousands of prisoners, with new trains arriving, and smoke billowing into the sky as terrible acts of evil took place.
Nothing could prepare a person to see all the rows of barbed wire attached to grey concrete poles, menacing over the camp. Nothing could prepare a person to see tens of thousands of shoes that once belonged to men and women, young and old, piled high after they had been forced to take them off. Nothing could prepare a person to see tonnes of human hair, taken from the victims and placed in bails to be turned into carpets, pantihose, and other clothing. Or the dark underground chambers where people like St Maximilian Kolbe suffered and died. Or the gas chambers and furnaces which saw more than a million people enter and never come out.
While travelling down the stairs to the basement of the building where St Maximillian Kolbe gave up his life, I touched the wall and wondered about the countless other hands which had touched that same place. People who would have been wondering if they would come back up those stairs and have another chance to keep on living, and those who knew they would never walk up those stairs again and feel the sun on their skin every again.
It was a very emotional and heavy day, full of disturbing sights and stories as we discovered and learnt more about this dark era of human history. As we walked around the camp thinking of the million plus other feet which had walked on the same ground in despair and misery. It was a day to feel connected to the misery of the world and experience a darker side of humanity, it is something which we do not run away from or ignore.
Jesus lived among human suffering and tried to eradicate it through healing, teaching, peace, and love. He also challenged the causes of human suffering. Tonight we will celebrate a healing mass for our pilgrims and any trauma people may have experienced or are carrying with them. And I know that for myself and probably for those others, having the respectful honour to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps will only strengthen us to do as Jesus did and eradicate human suffering wherever we encounter it.
Fr Pat Mara msc