The Second Vatican Council opened in 1963, a time when the world had recently experienced much turmoil, the horror of two World Wars, and the terror of the attempt to exterminate the Jewish nation. I have read many interpretations of what motivated Nazi Germany to carry out this evil, but none of them have explained it so well as Pope Benedict XVI. Not long after his election, this German Pope went to Poland and, standing at the Auschwitz concentration camp, said these words:
Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here. I had to come. It is a duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of Pope John Paul II and 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 honour, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power.
The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: “We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter” were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. 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, by the Shoah, 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.
Many people suffered and died in the time of the Second World War, but there is a particular evil in the premeditated, carefully planned, calmly executed exermination of the Jewish people. Other people (Poles, Czechs, Gypsies, Catholic priests) were rounded up into concentration camps, but the Nazi war machine organized trains to bring Jews from all over Europe and systematically put them to death.
This is far beyond anything political or economic, and Pope Benedict saw that the was a spiritual battle happening here. The Jewish people carry the record of a conversation with God, and as long as they exist, it is hard to say that God does not exist. Those who took power in Germany did not want God to exist, because they wanted absolute power. It is this desire to take power for oursleves, no matter what the cost, that turns humans into ministers of death.
The sufferings of the Jewish people, and the fact that they have not been exterminated, are a powerful witness that God really does exist, that God really did speak to the Jews! The sacrifice of the Jewish people reveals the holiness of God, and it also reveals the horrible consequences of our sins against God.
At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church fully recognized her kinship with the Jewish people. God had called the Jewish people to have a relationship with Him, to carry the witness of His revelation until, after centuries of walking with God, they would know that there is only One God, and that God is not a threat to us, but that He is merciful and loving. God was preparing a nation who knew Him well enough that when he appeared, He could be recognized.
The Church is the new People of God, who carries among the nations the truth that God has appeared in the flesh, and that God has loved us even to the end, even to the death (John 13:1). The amazing love of God for all people is the message of the Gospel, and the Church exists as the unworthy messenger of the Gospel. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council saw a powerful parallel between the Jewish people and the Church of Christ:
Israel according to the flesh, which wandered as an exile in the desert, was already called the Church of God. So likewise the new Israel which while living in this present age goes in search of a future and abiding city is called the Church of Christ. For He has bought it for Himself with His blood, has filled it with His Spirit and provided it with those means which befit it as a visible and social union. God gathered together as one all those who in faith look upon Jesus as the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, and established them as the Church that for each and all it may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity. While it transcends all limits of time and confines of race, the Church is destined to extend to all regions of the earth and so enters into the history of mankind. Moving forward through trial and tribulation, the Church is strengthened by the power of God’s grace, which was promised to her by the Lord, so that in the weakness of the flesh she may not waver from perfect fidelity, but remain a bride worthy of her Lord, and moved by the Holy Spirit may never cease to renew herself, until through the Cross she arrives at the light which knows no setting. (Lumen Gentium 9)
The Church, although carrying the burden of the sin of her members (yes, even the sins of her priests), is still God’s chosen instrument to proclaim to the world that Jesus Christ was born, that Jesus Christ died for us, and that God truly loves us. The people of today are starving for love, and only the love of God will satisfy that hunger.
The existence of the Church proclaims that God loves us, and the Second Vatican Council says that the Church must pass “through the cross.” Whenever the Church is ridiculed, insulted, denounced as evil, or made to suffer, Christians should recognize the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross reveals God’s holiness shining in the Church, and it also reveals the horrible consequences of our sin.
St. Teresa Benedict of the Cross (Edith Stein) saw the sufferings of the Jewish people as a sharing in the cross. She was born a Jew, but converted to the Catholic faith and became a Carmelite nun. The Order moved her out of Germany to a convent in Holland, but when the Netherlands fell to the Nazi invasion she was arrested and put to death in the concentration camps. There were rumors in Europe of what was happening to the Jews, and Teresa Benedicta said that it was the cross of Jesus that was being put on the back of the Jewish people. As a Christian Jew, she said that she had a special duty to accept the cross of Christ in the name of the whole Jewish nation.
I see echoes of St. John the Baptist in the sufferings of the Jewish people, and it makes me think, if the Jewish nation can be brought to the brink of death because they claim to have spoken with God, can we expect that the Catholic Church will not suffer for the same reason? +