Given the widespread feeling in Poland against Muslim immigrants and recent Islamist terrorist attacks, Pope Francis undertook a tricky trip in July for World Youth Day. Up to two million people turned out for events, including some thousands from Australia.
As in Sydney’s World Youth Day in 2008, hundreds of thousands of happy young pilgrims, singing in the streets and buses, transformed the cities into festive mode, but with a sense of purpose and at times solemnity. The memory of Pope John Paul II and his role in helping rescue Poland from Soviet control affirms the strong links between Polish nationalism and the Catholic faith.
Yet Poland, like much of eastern Europe, has been isolated from the inter-cultural migration experienced by the western world which became increasingly cosmopolitan and not so defined by ethnicity or religion. Many Poles feel threatened by immigrants, and fear they will lose their identity and culture.
Pope Francis did not resile from his insistence that Europe must open its borders to people fleeing persecution, war, and acute hardship. However, he did not challenge popular Polish sentiment head-on. Instead, he packaged his message carefully in terms of the Mercy of God, and how God expects Christians likewise to be merciful to those in distress.
Alone and without fuss or making a speech, early in the morning of 29 July, Francis visited Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where up to 1.5 million people had died. He merely wrote in a visitor’s book: “Lord, have mercy on us. Lord, forgive so much cruelty”.
Where is God in the face of suffering?
In his address during the way of the Cross later that day, Francis highlighted the social justice implications of the Gospel, dwelling on Matthew 25, “I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger…”, pointing out that God will judge us on our response to such people.
He asked the question so poignant for all who suffered in the concentration camps, under the Nazis or the communists. “Where is God… if there are men and women who are hungry and thirsty, homeless, exiles, and refugees? Where is God, when innocent persons die as a result of violence, terrorism, and war?”
It is a question especially painful for Jews, of course, because of the Shoah and Hitler’s killing of six million of them. But Poles also suffered greatly, as the Nazis appear to have intended to exterminate the Poles as well. The Nazis incorporated the Warthegau region in western Poland into Germany, and systematically killed all the intellectuals and leaders. Over 1800 Polish priests also died in concentration camps.
Francis replied to his question about where God is in all this that, “humanly speaking”, there is no answer. But Jesus answers that God is in those who suffer. “Jesus is in them: he suffers in them and deeply identifies with each of them.” By embracing the Cross, “Jesus embraced the nakedness, the hunger and thirst, the loneliness, pain, and death of men and women of all times”. All Polish people could resonate with Francis talking about their own suffering.
But immediately he added: “Tonight Jesus, and we with him, embrace with particular love our brothers and sisters from Syria who have fled from the war. We greet them and we welcome them with fraternal affection and friendship.”
Then Francis listed the works of mercy, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and those in prison, and burying the dead. “We are called to serve the crucified Jesus in all… in those who are persecuted, refugees, and migrants. There we find our God; there we touch the Lord.”
In his address to 1.6 million mainly young people on 30 July, Francis made a direct incisive appeal to overcome fear, which “closes us off from others”, and to experience our “multicultural world not as a threat but as an opportunity”.
During the five days of his visit to Poland, Pope Francis made various references to welcoming refugees as a response to the Gospel, linking it closely with the popular devotion to Divine Mercy associated with St Faustina Kowalska, which St John Paul II strongly promoted.
Islam & Islamist violence
In the plane returning to Italy, Francis was asked about Islamist violence, particularly the killing of the 85 years old Fr Jacques Hamel in France. He denied that Islam as a religion supported terrorism or violence. Instead, he placed much of the blame on the social and economic marginalisation of Muslim youth in Europe. “It is not right and it is not just to say that Islam is terroristic”, he said, speaking from his own experience in interreligious dialogue. He said that, “In almost all religions there is always a small group of fundamentalists”, and some can kill.
He did not mention the crusades, when the popes in Mediaeval times had called Europe to fight to rescue the Holy Land from Muslim rule. Later Christian and secular thought rejected the crusade mentality as inappropriate and best abandoned. Recent popes, including Francis, had insisted that it risked blasphemy to kill in the name of God.
Earlier during the plane trip to Krakow, Francis had referred to terrorist attacks as comparable to the world wars. He said he was not speaking about a religious war. “No. All religions want peace.” Instead, he blamed economic and political interests. “There is a war for natural resources”, and for domination.