Pope Francis made a historic visit to the former Nazi concentration camp known as Auschwitz this week, where he walked the grounds and took everything in. During the visit, he prayed over various parts of the camp and talked to former prisoners.
Pope Francis’ visit to this part of Germany is something only two previous pontiffs have been able or willing to do. CNN reports the pontiff made the trek in order to honor the vast number of victims, largely Jewish, who died at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
According to those at the trip, Francis arrived at Auschwitz early Friday and started the trek by sitting quietly near a tree and entering into solemn reflection. During that reflection, he sat near piles of rubble.
Everywhere around him, there were destroyed gas chambers, once used to exterminate Jews who were put to death for no other reason than they were Jews. The visit comes on the same week where he gave a stern warning about the “world being at war.”
The entire trip wasn’t about the Pope sitting alone and being alone. There was also a period of time when he met with people who had been kept in the camp and managed to survive the horrors.
Among the top people the pontiff talked to was Holocaust survivor and Jewish activist Marian Turski. After quite a long conversation between the two, Turski told the gathered press he felt as though Pope Francis was like a friend of his.
Turski also commended the holy man’s ability to truly understand and empathize with people. During his stay there, the activist talked about how he had been “branded” and told he had been “purchased” by the camp.
“I was in this camp until almost the last day and then put in the death march to another camp.”
Turski told the journalists. It was clear to Turski and others in attendance that the leader of the Catholic church was not just sightseeing for a few minutes as a way to feign feelings. He walked the entire grounds, including visiting cells where prisoners were held.
During this time, he often sat on the ground and prayed, making the sign of the cross in many of the cells. Before entering Auschwitz, he told reporters he wanted to go to this place of horror without having to make speeches or greet crowds.
The New York Times reports he added he wanted to go “alone, enter, pray, and may the Lord give me the grace to cry.” Auschwitz is now located in the Polish town known as Oswiecim, which is about 30 miles west of Krakow.
The last time the pontiff visited a concentration camp was in 2006, when Pope Benedict paid his respects. Benedict XVI had been previously unwillingly inducted into the Hitler Youth when he was a young man growing up during World War II.
During that stay, Benedict asked “Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate this?”
The time before that was way back in 1979, when John Paul II made the trek in June. When he was viewing the site, he declared “No more war!” He also said he wanted the world to know only peace.
The man who leads the entire Catholic church made no mention of that church or his religion while he was at Auschwitz. Instead, he made sure to keep the focus where it needed to be. This drew quite a bit praise from the other religious leaders.
Among the rabbis and priests who were in attendance, Pope Francis was almost universally praised. Of course, it’s unlikely he cares whether he was the one who got the plaudits.
[Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images]