Pope Francis said little during his historic trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial sites in Poland last week. But the short prayer he recorded in a guest book at the former death camps resonated loudly on his day of quiet contemplation — especially two of the 12 words he wrote.
The pope’s message, though framed as a plea to God, says something powerful to a mortal audience, as well. And while written in Spanish and signed in Latin, it holds universal meaning: “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!”
The visit by the Argentine-born Francis to this place where more than a million people were systematically exterminated during World War II was the first by a pontiff who did not come of age on the European continent.
This outsider pope could have begged God to dispense grace to a distant third-person “them.” He could have disassociated himself (and us) from Adolf Hitler, the Nazi lackeys and other Germans who were bystanders to the Holocaust. Instead, Francis cast a wider net by beseeching mercy and forgiveness for “your people,” perhaps because he knows the base injustices that they (and us) are capable of.
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In saying “your people,” he could have been speaking about his own church. The Vatican’s wartime secrets — did Pope Pius XII do enough to try to stop the eradication of Jews; did the Vatican Bank do extensive business with the Third Reich? — remain buried in official archives. Francis can order them unsealed by papal decree, which he has pledged to do. Historians, human rights groups and Holocaust survivors are growing understandably impatient.
He could have been speaking about cruelties committed at the same time on U.S. soil, in places like Tacoma and Auburn. Japanese American families were arbitrarily rounded up after Pearl Harbor and sent to holding centers, including Camp Harmony in Puyallup, before being dispersed to internment camps. Some never returned to their homes and farms. Many who did faced years of post-war discrimination. Their voices would fade into history, if not for the memoirs and exhibits like one now on display at the White River Valley Museum.
And who’s to say Francis’s intercession was limited to the evils of World War II? He could have been asking forgiveness for the sins of contemporary society as well — from the child sex abuse scandals and coverups of the worldwide Catholic Church, to rampant American gun violence, ambush attacks on police officers and fatal shootings of innercity black men.
One of the key architects of the Holocaust was Adolf Eichmann. By most accounts, he was a mid-level bureaucrat of no great intelligence, an impressionable yes man and an ordinary person.
Political scientist Hannah Arendt had this to say about him in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil,” which she wrote in 1963:
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
The pedestrian nature of wrongdoing, and the ways in which regular people can be enlisted as accomplices, are worth keeping in mind during this election year. The Republican presidential nominee advocates building a border wall and conducting unprecedented surveillance of Muslims. He has espoused torture, carpet bombing and killing family members of suspected terrorists.
How will history look back on this period if he’s elected less than 100 days from now, and if he follows through on even half his bravado?
One can only hope that a future pope doesn’t need to lift a prayer of regret on our behalf.