In the few minutes I had before Mass, I briefly stepped into an upstairs hall - large tapestries hung from the ceiling, each one commemorating visits Pope John Paul II had made to Marian shrines or sites. When I turned around, I ran into Bishop J. Folda from my home Diocese of Fargo, ND! They say 'the Catholic world is a small world.' We weren't able to chat long, but I am surely thankful for that Shepherd looking after my family's flock. At Noon there was Mass prayed in English in the Basilica, which was rebuilt in the early 1700's in the style of Polish Baroque - so gorgeous and inspiring! Not just our group from the Diocese of Winona was in attendance, but also pilgrims from Australia, the UK, and at least Wisconsin filled the nave. Our own Bishop Quinn was the main celebrant and encouraged us from today's Readings: "Don't be afraid in your life to be intimate with God and persist in your prayer. Because if you knock, the door shall be opened."
It's heart-warming to be able to come together with people from around the globe and worship Christ, sharing faith and the Sacraments of His Grace. [Next week the experience will be even more astounding, as all the pilgrims will be of different cultures and languages, yet in the Communion of one Faith!]
A few hours later (and another Chaplet of Divine Mercy prayed together) on the bus, we were in Oświęcim. The Nazis renamed this former site of Austrian/Polish army barracks "Auschwitz," when they annexed the area and established the concentration camp. "Auschwitz II" is also known as Birkenau. Honestly I was not 'looking forward' to the sadness of visiting these sites, but their significance is imperative to understand. Auschwitz is where St. Maximilian Kolbe voluntarily died in the place of another prisoner in 'Block 11.' So many died. I must say I hated being at these sites. I hated them the way I 'hate' praying in front of an abortion clinic - how can one feel comfortable where life is being destroyed? I 'hate' the reason all this happened. This reminder of evil is thoroughly heart-breaking.
My soul ached.
I mourned the ones murdered and the way they were murdered... but that's why it's important to acknowledge that it happened, so that all the tragedy and consequences of these sins can be atoned for and healed. We must face evil if we are to fight it and stop it! Christ overcomes. His Merciful Love will/does forgive even this. How open are we to God's Merciful Grace, in our own lives and hearts?
The Birkenau concentration and extermination camp was four times larger, with a capacity of 100,000 prisoners. It was sickening to think that I am free to walk around this camp on its slate-colored roads of rock and dust, when so many sent here were immediately burned into gray ashes that were strewn about the ponds. Alas, we shall all turn to dust. It is a hopeful Truth that our Maker loved us into being and provides us with His Own Heart, that we may love one another as God loves us, rather than choose such sin against our neighbor. I prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet repeatedly as I traversed the path around the camp's perimeter, knowing that God is answering this Call for His Mercy. In places like Wadowice and Częstochowa, I would've liked a full day at each to pray and continue looking around and enjoying it! At the concentration camps, I feel I need a day to reflect and recover my heart that's heavy with these emotions of misery. Misery. 'Misericordia' is a merciful heart.
In the words of Pope St. JPII:
God, merciful Father, in Your Son, Jesus Christ, You have revealed Your love and poured it out upon us in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. We entrust to You today the destiny of the world and of every man and woman.
Bend down to us sinners, heal our weakness, conquer all evil, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may experience Your mercy. In You, the Triune God, may they ever find the source of hope. Eternal Father, for the sake of the sorrowful Passion and the Resurrection of Your Son, have mercy on us, and upon the whole world! Amen.