National Catholic Reporter ®

August 23, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 52

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A papal message ignored; the ‘virtual’ Jewish quarter; Images from Auschwitz; one-year anniversary

I have rarely seen a case in which the main point in every papal speech, the key concept he obviously wanted to emphasize, was so thoroughly ignored by the press.

I write this week from Poland, where John Paul II’s four-day trip to Krakow and environs has drawn to a close. It sometimes happens when the pope travels that his message and the media’s reporting of it seem like distant cousins, and here in Poland they were simply not on speaking terms.

     I have rarely seen a case in which the main point in every papal speech, the key concept he obviously wanted to emphasize, was so thoroughly ignored by the press. For the record, the point was that human beings cannot be merciful to one another without acknowledging their dependence on God’s mercy, and that the Divine Mercy devotion of St. Faustina Kowalska, an early 20th century Polish nun, is the key to promoting this realization.

     The clash between John Paul’s agenda, and the press corps’ need to tell stories in terms of politics or human interest, created a classic example of what the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “category mistake.” The pope was using a spiritual vocabulary that simply doesn’t translate on network TV or in secular newspapers. Reflecting this conceptual gap, one colleague declared at the beginning of the trip that the phrase “Divine Mercy” would never see the light of day in his copy, and he kept his word. Most others followed suit.

     However defensible that choice may be in terms of reader interest and comprehension, it inevitably meant the main point of the trip from the pope’s point of view was buried. Instead, the press decided to make the Aug. 16-19 trip a story about nostalgia, about an elderly and ailing John Paul II reconnecting with his past. The focus was on his offhand remembrances, on pictures of him praying by his parent’s tomb or sitting in the cathedral where he said his first Mass as a priest. Countless stories trumpeted the pope’s sad final farewell to his beloved Poland (as stories from his seventh and eighth trips here had also done). Adding spice to the mix were rumors leading up to the trip that John Paul would resign and remain in a Polish monastery, which obviously did not happen.

     It’s not that the four-day visit lacked biographical resonance. Virtually every spot John Paul went had deep roots in his personal history, and that fact alone invited a family album-type approach to the coverage. But above and beyond the “thanks for the memories” aspect was the papal message, and by a sort of informal journalistic consensus, it simply didn’t make the cut.

     When papal nostalgia ran out of steam, reporters tried to find political hooks to the trip by focusing on what the pope thinks about Poland’s debate over European Union membership, or the tension between the Catholic hierarchy in Poland and the country’s restyled socialist leadership.

     Certainly, I understand why many reporters don’t know what to make of Faustina and the Divine Mercy movement, which is based on a series of revelations she believed she received from Jesus, Mary and saints such as Teresa from 1931 to 1938. I’ve read Faustina’s diary, all 600 pages of it, and I found little that seemed profound. On a spiritual level, the revelations largely repeat the basic gospel insight that humans should be merciful as God is merciful. In that sense, about the most one can say is that the Divine Mercy devotion is innocuous, with little of the menacing apocalyptic undercurrent of Fatima or Garabandal.

     More touching, perhaps, are the windows it offers into the life of a Polish nun into the 1930s, and the intimate personal concern Faustina believed Jesus had for that existence. At one stage, for example, Faustina is on her way to the hospital and Jesus appears to assure her that he has arranged that she will have a single room. In another case she’s had a spat with an older nun, and Jesus assures her that the elderly sister really isn’t so bad.

     I asked Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, John Paul’s successor as archbishop of Krakow, about Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion at a press conference in Krakow Aug. 18. He conceded that there was nothing original, but argued that Faustina forces people to concentrate on pages of the gospel that we tend to treat “as if they’re glued together” — in other words, we skip over the tough parts about loving our enemies. I suppose Macharski is right, though I wonder if we need an image of Jesus with rays of light pouring from his wounded heart and a special feast day on the Sunday after Easter to make the point.

     To many modern Catholics, Faustina’s spirituality can seem terribly alien. She used to see the child Jesus on the altar while the priest was saying the Eucharistic prayers, for example, and then he would disappear when the priest consumed the host. Once she saw Jesus turn his head and move his lips on the crucifix in the convent of her order, the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy; another time she wore a belt with pointed spikes turned in on her flesh as a type of penance for three days. 

     Yet however much I may struggle to understand the pope’s attachment to Faustina, I do know that he came to Poland not principally to take a stroll down memory lane, but to propose this nun’s life and legacy as the key to building a better, more merciful future. I’m sure the pope believes it is no accident that this message of mercy came to a Pole, a native of a country that spent much of the 20th century lacerated by violence, and that it came in the run-up to WWII, just a few miles from Auschwitz. Faustina’s appeal for mercy may be banal, but seen from here it’s hard to argue that it’s irrelevant.

     That’s what John Paul said. If you don’t believe me, go look at the speeches for yourself, because you certainly didn’t get this from the nightly news.

* * *

     Sidelights from the Poland trip.

     As it has done before, the southern province of Poland decided to ban alcohol in conjunction with the pope’s visit. The ban took effect a day before the pope arrived, and extended until after he left. It no doubt irritated many Poles, since the country has one of the highest per capita rates of liquor consumption in Europe (20 percent of road accidents are attributed to drunk driving). It also caused no small degree of angst among some journalists. I know one TV producer who received a panicked phone call as she waited to board a flight at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, informing her of the situation. She saved the day by dashing into the duty-free shop and stocking up enough bottles to survive a five-day experiment in prohibition.

     Another end-run, it turned out, was to go to dinner in one of Krakow’s trendy Jewish restaurants, where for some reason liquor was flowing freely. I was sitting at a table where talk turned to the booze ban. Several people complained loudly, and I was asked for my view. “I don’t mind it, as long as there’s a way around it,” I said instinctively.

     It was then I realized that I’ve been living in Italy too long.

     Speaking of the Jewish quarter in Krakow, I was mildly surprised to learn that it’s largely fake. Of course I knew that the overwhelming majority of the pre-war Jewish population of 60,000 (about 25 percent of the total at the time) had been wiped out, but I assumed that Krakow’s relative prosperity and reputation as a cultural center had brought some Jewish families back. In fact, only about 200 Jews live in the city, and there is only one functioning synagogue. The Jewish restaurants are run by non-Jews, and even the live traditional Jewish Klezmer music is performed by non-Jews. The recovery of Krakow’s Jewish past, in other words, is largely the work of goyim. (Writer Ruth Gruber has examined this phenomenon across Europe in a book entitled Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, from the University of California press). One factor responsible for the local boomlet in Jewish history, by the way, was the filming nearby of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” The walls of the restaurant we ate in, named “Alef,” were dotted with pieces of paper signed by Spielberg, his wife Kate Capshaw, and actor Ben Kingsley.

     Back now to Poles and booze. 

     At the pope’s farewell ceremony on Aug. 19 at Balice Airport, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the primate of the nation, gave an address in which he rallied to the defense of his countrymen. “They say we lead a ruinous kind of life, and still the consumption of hard liquor has decreased and life expectancy for men has increased considerably,” he said. So, at least some Poles were not chafing under the blue laws, and living longer for their restraint.

* * *

     On Aug. 20, the day after John Paul returned to Rome, my wife Shannon and I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the company of National Public Radio’s Sylvia Poggioli and her husband Piero, a legendary Italian journalist who was among the founders of the Rome daily La Repubblica

     This largest and most infamous of the Nazi death camps was erected in southern Poland perhaps 45 minutes outside Krakow, on the site of a former Polish army barracks. It’s not far from the small town of Wadowice where Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, grew up. (Given that proximity, it is probably no surprise that John Paul has felt compelled to meditate on mercy.)

     I may write more on Auschwitz another time. For now I can’t help feeling that all the words have already been spoken. To the extent that speech is capable of expressing the evil that happened here, others more capable than I have already found the words. 

     I’ll record two mental images, however, that made an impression.

     The first came as we went through the preserved barracks in Auschwitz I, which now house some of the material objects that were confiscated from prisoners as they rolled in on trains. There is a room full of human hair, for example, collected in order to be converted into textiles. There is a room with eyeglasses, one with hairbrushes, and so on. One of these rooms contains prosthetics — artificial arms and legs, neck braces, false hands and feet, back supports for children with spinal deformities. Seeing the enormous mass of items imparts a sense of the scale of what happened here, where one and half million people died. What struck me only later, however, as I stared at these items, was that each had a four-digit number scrawled in white chalk. I thought initially this might be for museum purposes, but in fact those numbers were inscribed at the camp after the arms and legs were pried off the corpses of gassed inmates. Someone, presumably a prisoner, was given the task of assigning each one of the tens of thousands of pieces a number, and someone else wrote it down in a catalogue. 

     That’s the part of Auschwitz that, for me, is most chilling — how the horror was methodically organized and systematized, how bureaucratic routine turned murder into an administrative task like delivering the mail or processing social security checks. This was not mere barbarism, but a perversion that seems to mock everything human.

     The second image came as we were in our car heading away from Birkenau, the larger of the sites, where most of the barracks and the crematoria were located. It was here that the infamous train tracks ended, here that inmates were separated into those capable of working and those to be gassed immediately (usually about 75 percent of new arrivals). As we had walked around the camp all day, we kept bumping into a group of teenagers from Israel, many wearing Israeli flags like capes. We saw them in the barracks, we heard them sing songs of memory and loss at a shrine to the Jewish dead, and we saw them by the ruins of the ovens. As we left the camp, I happened to look back and see them posed for a group picture at the end of the rail line, where trains had once disgorged hundreds of thousands of Jews marked for death.

     They had clearly chosen to wear those flags around for a reason, and it seemed obvious enough what the message was: “We survived. You tried to wipe us from the earth and we’re still here.” 

     It struck me that anyone who wants to understand the Middle East, Catholic-Jewish dialogue, or anything else involving Judaism and its relationships with the rest of the world should first try to imagine what those young people must have been feeling, given the history to which they are the heirs. Perhaps such an exercise in sympathy would not result in new peace plans or theological agreements, but it could affect the climate in which such things are discussed.

* * *

     This is the 52nd “Word from Rome,” which means this feature turns one year old this week. I’d like to thank all those who read it, and invite you to share the column with anyone you think might be interested. I’d also like to invite you to pass along any comments you might have about the column — topics you’d like to see treated, features you’d like to see added, any other reactions large or small. I also want to thank the people at NCR who set time aside every week to make this feature work, including editor Tom Roberts, associate publisher Rita Larivee, and web expert Michel Tisdale. Grazie tante a tutti!

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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