May 28, 2006

A Pope From Germany Prays at Auschwitz

AUSCHWITZ, Poland, May 28 — Pope Benedict XVI prayed today at the cells and crematoriums of the death camps here, on a visit he called "particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a pope from Germany."

"Words fail," said Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927 to a policeman in Bavaria, who as a young man was inducted unwillingly into the Hitler Youth and the German army. "In the end, there can only be a dread silence — a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God.

"Why, Lord, did you remain silent?" he asked. "How could you tolerate this?"

Benedict has marveled that a German could have been elected to lead the world's Catholics only 60 years after the horrors here at Auschwitz and at Birkenau. His visit thus marked one more milestone of reckoning, for more than one million dead at these two camps alone, most of them Jews, as well as a significant step in his year-old papacy.

And the images, beamed around the world, were striking: the pope in pristine white walking alone under the infamous iron lie promising freedom through work; a kiss on the cheek to a Jewish survivor; dark rain that gave way to sun and then, somehow, a rainbow as he finished prayers.

But in his two hours here, Benedict confronted the past in a distinctly theological way, rather than an emotional or personal one, a trait that is emerging as the hallmark of his papacy.

Unlike his predecessor, John Paul II, who visited here in 1979, Benedict said little about himself, and nothing about his experience in the war. He was part of an anti-aircraft unit at an airplane motor factory, deserted and was held as an American prisoner of war — all without firing his gun.

And while he spoke eloquently about "forgiveness and reconciliation," Benedict did not beg pardon for the sins of Germans or the Roman Catholic Church during World War II. He laid the blame squarely on the Nazi regime, avoiding a common acknowledgment among many Germans that ordinary citizens also shared responsibility.

He said he came here "as a son of the German people — a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation."

He then cast the war in a larger theological frame: that the Nazis' attempt to eradiate the Jews was an attempt of man to banish and replace God. God sets limits on man's power, thus, World War II showed the nightmare of a world without God.

"Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke in Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are entirely valid," he said.

"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.

"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's visit here came on the fourth and final day of his trip to Poland, the second voyage outside of Italy since John Paul died in April 2005 and Benedict was elected to replace him. On a tour of places important to John Paul, the more reserved Benedict still drew huge and enthusiastic crowds, culminating with what the police estimated as just under one million worshippers at an outdoor mass in Krakow.

More directly than he has done on this trip, Benedict urged Poles not to dilute their faith as many in other more secular European nations have.

"I ask you, finally, to share with the other peoples of Europe and the world the treasure of your faith," he said at the end of his homily.