I love history and am especially intrigued by the people and events of the Second World War. The era showcased man and society at its very worst and yet, there was always a ray of hope.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz in Poland. The horrors of the concentration camp were magnified by the realization that engineers, businessmen, bankers, and many others actually made money off the slave labor of the camps. Hair from shaved heads was sold as upholstery stuffing. Shoes, clothes, and personal belongings were sold to finance war efforts. Genetic testing on innocent children was done to determine best ways to control population. Chemists and engineers worked on the most efficient ways to exterminate people who were deemed “unnecessary”.
How could this happen? Why didn’t people stand up against it?
Later in the day as we walked through the streets of Kraków, I realized God in His infinite Mercy had never abandoned His people. Prior to the ramping up of World War II a young nun by the name of Sr. Faustina Kowalska began receiving messages from Jesus. The encounters not only taught her of His mercy, but encouraged her to tell the world. With little formal education this simple nun proclaimed the message of Jesus' Divine Mercy through her diary. The message reminded us of God’s incredible love for each of us, despite our sinfulness. His merciful arms are open and waiting and for us.
At the same time in history, another young woman answered God's call. Born into a Jewish family, Edith Stein spent her life in search of Truth, which took her on a journey through atheism to Catholicism. As a young college student and nurse she witnessed firsthand the horrors of World War I. As Nazism escalated Edith witnessed the systematic destruction of the Jewish culture and people. She spoke out, proclaiming, "The nation...doesn't simply need what we have, it needs what we are." Edith’s convictions led her to the Carmelite order, where she took the name Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Because of her Jewish heritage, Sr. Teresa was taken from her cloister in Holland and martyred in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. To one who lived mercy, none was given.
At our visit to the Divine Mercy Sanctuary just outside of Krakow, the incredible witness of God presence and mercy hit home. Below the main Sanctuary were several chapels connected by a glass wall to a main chapel dedicated to Sr. Faustina Kowalska. Following her death her diary been published, giving the message of Divine Mercy to the world.
One of the chapels was donated by Germany. The sacred space was unlike the others in its starkness. Walls painted white, a barbed wire stencil ran at chair height around the room. The altar was a stone block. Sitting on it was a small black iron crucifix made of nails. Hanging on the glass wall behind the altar, which looked out into the St. Faustina chapel, was a huge cross encircled by a crown of thorns. Made of steel and barbed wire, the harshness echoed the evil of the crucifixion of not only Jesus, but all the innocents who suffer at the hands of evil. Across from the chapel’s entrance was a life-sized sculpture of Sr. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein), whose arms held the crucified body of Christ as it she had lifted Him from the Cross..
I froze as I entered into the chapel. Looking at the statue, it was as if Edith Stein was now offering Jesus’ broken Body to me. Stunned, I turned my head and through the cross and crown of thorns, could see the image of St. Faustina looking back at me. "Take Him," they seemed to be saying. "Take those who are suffering under the weight of sin, and be mercy."
Auschwitz is a reminder of the horrors of man's sinfulness. Despite of such incredible darkness, God was and is present. His Holy Spirit gives voice to those who, like Faustina, Edith Stein, and so many others who bravely stood against the face of evil, to speak out. Their courage reminds us to not succumb to hatred, sin, and evil, but to stand up and be a voice for love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness in the world.
The Church canonized St. Faustina and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross/Edith Stein (and many others from the WWII era). We must remember God has empowered us through the Holy Spirit to be His instruments of His Love, Compassion, Forgiveness, and Mercy, and today. When we do, we incarnate Jesus in a world so desperately in need of His Love.