Lord Have Mercy On Your People!
I have been impressed by Pope Francis’ ability to make strong statements; not just by his words but at other times by his symbolic actions. He has not been afraid to speak his mind, or proclaim the gospel message. He has challenged his closest peers in the Vatican who have climbed their way to high places in office to be humble servants of the Lord. He has gone before the leaders of powerful governments and asked them to love one another and foster peace in the world. He has embraced those who you think would never have an opportunity to be in the presence of such a holy man-the sick, the poor, prisoners and refugees. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has modeled for us through his words and actions the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
The Wall Street Journal captured one of the pope’s recent pilgrimages that uniquely reflects his proclamation of mercy. Francis Rocca who covered the story writes,
Pope Francis visited the notorious Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz where Adolf Hitler’s forces killed about 1.5 million people including 1.1 million Jews and 140,000 Polish Christians. Pope Francis is the third consecutive pontiff to make the visit.
The pope walked through the camp’s entrance gate, passing under the arch bearing the infamous phrase, ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ German for “Work sets you free.”
He then went to the spot in the camp where St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, volunteered on July 29, 1941 to die in place of a condemned prisoner. Pope Francis sat alone for nearly 15 minutes in silent prayer and then walked to observe the gallows where the prisoners were hanged and a courtyard where the inmates were shot. There, he met a group of Holocaust survivors, one of them more than 100 years old. He was visibly moved, stopped to kiss them and give each of them a rosary....
The pope then visited Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, the largest section of the death-complex. There before a group of about 1,000 guests, he prayed before a monument with inscriptions in 23 languages commemorating the nationalities of victims.
As he prayed, the chief rabbi of Poland chanted in Hebrew the 130th psalm, which begins: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord,’ followed by another chant to commemorate the dead. The pope afterward met two dozen ‘righteous gentiles,’ non-Jews who had helped protect Jews from the Nazis.
Before leaving Auschwitz, the Argentina–born pope signed the book of honor. He wrote in Spanish, ‘Lord have mercy on your people! Lord, forgive for so much cruelty....’
Pope Francis ended the day by presiding over a devotional service with hundreds of thousands of young people in Krakow’s Blonia park. He urged the congregation to imitate Christ by caring for society’s weakest and most vulnerable members, including migrants and refugees – a sensitive point in Poland, where the center—right government opposes the welcoming policy of neighboring Germany towards migrants.
“Tonight Jesus, and we with him, embrace with particular love our brothers and sisters from Syria who have fled from the war," said the Pope, who has made advocacy for migrants a signature theme of his pontificate.
This month we will celebrate the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe on August 14th. His story is a powerful one of sacrifice, generosity and perseverance. I would like to share with you other scenes from his life where he beautifully embraced the corporal works of mercy.
Once the WWII invasion of Poland began by Germany, he was one of the only friars to remain in his monastery. He opened a temporary hospital to aid those in need and provided shelter for refugees – including hiding 2,000 Jews from German persecution. On February 17, 1941 the monastery was forcibly closed; and he was arrested by the German Gestapo. Three months later, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670.
Continuing to act as a priest, he was subjected to violent harassment, including beatings. At the end of July, 1941 a prisoner disappeared from the camp, prompting the deputy camp commander to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out “My wife! My children!”, Maximillian Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
According to an eyewitness, Fr. Kolbe not only suffered with his fellow prisoners, but he ministered to them, especially in leading the prisoners in prayer to Our Lady. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only four remained alive, and only Fr. Kolbe remained conscious. The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Fr. Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He died on August 14, 1941 – he was only 47 years old.
Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose life was saved by St. Max’s selfless act, was at the canonization of St. Maximillian Kolbe by St. Pope John Paul II in 1982. He is the patron saint of prisoners, the pro-life movement, drug addicts, and families.
The Kolbe House Ministry
Our Sharing Parish, Assumption BVM, is the site for the Kolbe House ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago and deals directly with those involved in the criminal justice system. Their services include one-to-one visits and pastoral counseling. They also provide religious services in correctional facilities and reach out through other social services. They listen and stand with family members, provide emergency services to the incarcerated, their families and other families in similar situations.
If you would like to financially support this ministry you can visit their website at kolbehouseministry.org