Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Captured by the age, lost to Christ

September 13, 2009

Of the 55 million people who died in the Second World War, Poland lost 6 million, 3 million of them Jews and 3 million of them Christians. The Nazi plan to annihilate all of Europe’s Jews and their success in killing 6 million of them must continue to be remembered and condemned. The Nazis also planned to erase Polish culture and history and, over time, the Polish nation itself.

In Nazi occupied Poland, as reported to the U.S. government by our Ambassador, Anthony Drexel Biddle, it was illegal for Poles to have sexual relations and abortion was compulsory for pregnant Poles. Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor General of Poland, who set up his headquarters in the archbishop’s residence in Cracow, instructed the German occupiers: “The Pole has no rights whatsoever… A major goal of our plan is to finish off as speedily as possible all troublemaking politicians, priests and leaders who fall into our hands… Every vestige of Polish culture is to be eliminated. Those Poles who seem to have Nordic appearances will be taken to Germany to work in our factories… The rest? They will work. They will eat little. And in the end they will die out. There will never again be a Poland.”

A young man with artistic talent, Karol Wojtyla, joined others in finding ways to preserve Polish culture and identity. During the German occupation of Cracow, he wrote his first play, “David,” a drama partly biblical, partly rooted in Polish history. Fifty years later, as Pope John Paul II, he wrote an apostolic letter on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of what became the Second World War. In that letter, written 20 years ago, the pope spoke of the obligation to remember before God the atrocities of the war and to pray for forgiveness. He recalled the appeal to the world by Pope Pius XII on Aug. 24, 1939: “Nothing is lost with peace. Everything can be lost with war.”

John Paul II described succinctly and accurately the debasement and contempt for the human person that he had himself witnessed in occupied Poland. He wrote of the persecution of the Jews to the point of extermination in the camps at Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. He wrote of religion’s role in combating totalitarian ideologies and states and he taught about the rights of peoples, especially in small and weak countries. He pleaded for greater efforts to limit armaments; and he set out goals for educating youth and bringing moral principles into public life.

Twenty years after John Paul’s letter, we can look at public life and raise a few questions. We forget, I believe, just how popular both fascism and communism were in the 1920s and ’30s. Both movements had followers not only in the countries of their birth but also here and in Western Europe and elsewhere in the world. People looked upon them as noble experiments. Both movements, once in power, addressed the poverty of their countries and both seemed to give new purpose and hope to their people. Both captured the enthusiasm and dedication of young people. In Germany, as in Russia, the police and lawyers, the doctors and journalists cooperated in actions that systematically did away with people unwanted by the government, people whose “quality of life” didn’t meet someone else’s standards. Whatever moral moorings people might have had were lost in the needs and enthusiasms of the moment.

“The moral abyss, including contempt for God and consequently for man, into which the world was cast brought humanity face to face with the power of the ‘Prince of this World’ (Jn 14: 30), who is able to seduce consciences with lies, with disdain for man and for rights, with the cult of power and strength. Today,” continued Pope John Paul II in his letter of 20 years ago, “we remember all this and meditate on extremisms that can lead to the abandonment of every reference to God and to every transcendent moral law.”

Contrary to what we sometimes hear today, it is not religion that leads to violence; it is only false religion that does so. Speaking of God publicly brings us into the presence of One who can never be co-opted for our own purposes. Religious language is a corrective to sinful impulses and plans, to hatred and contempt for others. Religious language becomes dangerous only when it is used to speak about the “people” or the “nation” as if they were God. Religious language is sinful if it tames God, reducing him to a citizen of any country, limiting him to the ambit of our experience or our cultural norms. When we are captured by our times, Christ cannot call us to the conversion needed to live in peace with one another now and with him in eternity. Each generation has to learn that lesson anew.