Pope Benedict's Auschwitz Prayer

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In many ways Pope Benedict XVI's entire trip to Poland has been a chance to pay homage to the Polish pope. He spoke in the central Warsaw square where John Paul II encouraged his countrymen to maintain their faith in the face of the Communist regime. He visited his predecessor’s hometown and gave hope to those who want to see John Paul be made a saint as soon as possible. And he drew a million-strong crowd Sunday morning in Krakow, the former diocese of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, for an open-air mass. All along, he received rave reviews from the devout Polish people.

Even his final stop on this second foreign tour as Pope, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp later on Sunday, was in many ways a tribute to his predecessor. John Paul II himself visited the death camp on his first return to Poland as Pope in 1979, an early sign of how committed he was to healing the wounds between Catholicism and Judaism. But Benedict's arrival here on Sunday was also rich with its own significance.

The sight of a German Pope crossing into the death camp beneath the infamously false Nazi sign, "Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free), is arguably the most striking image of Benedict’s 14-month-old papacy. Walking alone with his hands clasped in front of him, an utterly grim expression fixed across his face, the 79-year-old pontiff entered as both the leader of the billion-strong Roman Catholic Church, and a World War II-generation German citizen. “To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man is almost impossible — and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany,” he said.

With these words, Benedict set off on a rather remarkable theological meditation on the Holocaust. “Why, Lord” he asked, “did you remain silent?” It is of course an unanswerable question, but one that Benedict used to implore Catholics and non-Catholics alike to pray — and work — so that it never happens again. He unpacked the singular aims of Hitler’s Final Solution, and discovered universal religious and Christian theological lessons: “The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth,” he said. “Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are entirely valid.

“If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone — to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world.” He concluded the point by returning to the specific question of Christianity: “By destroying Israel, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful,” he said. Benedict went on to say that the remains of cruelty on display at the extermination camps “don’t instill hatred in us; instead they show us the terrifying effect of hatred.”

Despite the moving words, the news about this new Pope continues to be that he is not quite like the old Pope. Unlike the Pole, for instance, this German pontiff made no mention of his personal experience during the war; the then Joseph Ratzinger was an unwilling member of the Hitler Youth as a teenager in his native Bavaria. He also did not explicitly ask for forgiveness on behalf of Catholics or Germans. Some Jews will likely be left unsatisfied by Benedict’s avoiding the topic of his homeland's potential collective responsibility for the Holocaust, placing the blame on a “ring” of Nazi criminals who also victimized the Germans.

Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee’s interfaith office, said he was “disappointed” that there wasn’t a more explicit reference to German responsibility. “He speaks like [the Nazis] just dropped in out of nowhere,” Rosen said. “That’s just a little bit facile.” But the rabbi ultimately thinks this pontiff is committed to keeping strong ties to Jews, judging by his presence here and words that were “saturated with his sense of bonding with the Jewish people.”

In the end, the new Pope’s physical presence at Auschwitz — his gestures — were really the news. His deep prayers in front of the wall of death where prisoners were regularly executed; the two-cheeked kiss he shared with a Jewish survivor; his using German for the first time all trip to say a prayer at Birchenau. The visit followed two trips Ratzinger made to the camp a quarter-century ago as a Cardinal.

Of course, that there is ever news at a place as horribly frozen in history as Auschwitz is a story in itself. Nearly 50 years ago A.M. Rosenthal, the New York Times Warsaw correspondent who would go on to become the paper of record's top editor, wrote what became a famous article headlined, ‘There is No News at Auschwitz,’ describing how the mundane of the present exists in disquieting company alongside the horrors at the defunct Nazi concentration camp. Rosenthal, who just recently died at the age of 84, movingly recalled his unease at seeing the sunny rows of poplars and hearing the sounds of town children playing just down the road from the remains of torture chambers, low-level barracks and human furnaces. “It all seemed frighteningly wrong, as in a nightmare,” he wrote. “It would be fitting if the sun never shone and the grass withered, because this is a place of unutterable terror.”

Almost as if on cue, as Benedict's voyage to Auschwitz drew toward its close early Sunday evening, the wind picked up and a cool rain began to fall. The final ceremony began with the Pope pausing to pray at memorials in the different languages of the 1.5 million killed. But by the time he reached the final plaque, the rain had stopped, the umbrellas were tucked away, and the pack of reporters noticed that across the broad field of half-standing brick barracks of Birkenau, a vivid rainbow had appeared. The editors of TIME, like those who A. M. Rosenthal worked for back in the 1950s, would surely not normally consider this news. But on a day that the German Pope came to Auschwitz to ponder God’s silence, that surprising explosion of colors seemed well worth reporting.