Where silence should reign: Pope will pray, not speak, at Auschwitz

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Tears and not words. Prayers and not

During his trip to Poland for World Youth Day, Pope Francis will
go to the Auschwitz-Birkenau
Nazi death camp. He said he wants to go alone and say nothing.

When Pope Francis speaks, he can delight fans and frustrate
critics. He can wax poetic or be bluntly funny about human quirks.

But in the face of great suffering and horror, his first and
strongest inclinations are silence, a profoundly bowed head and hands clasped
tightly in prayer.

Pope Francis had asked that there be no speeches during his
visit to Armenia’s genocide memorial
June 25. At times, even the prayer service there with the Armenian
Apostolic patriarch seemed too wordy. An aide gently cupped his elbow when it
was time to end the silent reflection and begin the service.

The Vatican’s schedule for the pope’s visit to
Auschwitz-Birkenau July 29
had him giving a speech at the international monument at Birkenau, just as St.
John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did.

But on the flight back to Rome from Armenia, Jesuit Father
Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told Pope Francis, “I heard that you
want to live that moment more with silence than words.”

The pope responded by reminding reporters that in 2014 when he went to Redipuglia in northern Italy
to mark the 100th anniversary
of World War I, “I went in silence,” walking alone among the graves.
“Then there was the Mass and I preached at Mass, but that was something

Speaking about his planned visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau,
“I would like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without
crowds — only the few people necessary,” he said. “Alone, enter,
pray. And may the Lord give me the grace to cry.”

Father Lombardi confirmed June 30 that the official program
had been changed and the pope would not give a speech at the death camp. But it
is not that Pope Francis has nothing to say about the horror of the Shoah, the
importance of remembering it and the need to continue fighting anti-Semitism.

“The past must be a lesson to us for the present and
the future,” he said Jan.
17 during a visit to Rome’s synagogue. “The Shoah teaches us that
maximum vigilance is always needed in order to intervene quickly in defense of
human dignity and peace.”

In the book “On Heaven and Earth,” written in 2010
with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the future pope and rabbi discussed the Holocaust at

While the question “Where was God” is an important
theological and human question, the pope said, “Where was man?” is an
even bigger question. “The Shoah is genocide, like the others of the 20th
century, but it has a distinctive feature,” an “idolatrous construction”
in which the Nazis claimed to be god and embracing true evil tried to eradicate

“Each Jew that they killed was a slap in the face to
the living God,” the future pope wrote.

In a very formal, very solemn commemoration, Pope Francis
visited the Shoah memorial,
Yad Vashem, in Israel in 2014. He laid a wreath of flowers in memory of
the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis, clasped his hands and stood in
silence before slowly walking back to his place. He met six survivors of Nazi
camps, kissing their hands in a sign of deference and recognition of their

Protocol for the occasion required a speech and, led to the
podium, Pope Francis spoke softly, reflecting on the question of “Where
was man?” and how could human beings have sunk so horribly low.

In his speech, he prayed to God, “Grant us the grace to
be ashamed of what we men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry, of
having despised and destroyed our own flesh which you formed from the earth, to
which you gave life with your own breath of life. Never again, Lord, never

“Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man, created in your
own image and likeness, was capable of doing,” he said. “Remember us
in your mercy.”

After finishing the speech, the pope stood in silence at the
lectern for almost three minutes, writing in the Yad Vashem guestbook.

His message: “With shame for what man, who was created
in the image of God, was able to do; with shame for the fact that man made
himself the owner of evil; with shame that man made himself into god and sacrificed
his brothers. Never again! Never again!”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden

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