As I write this it is Tuesday of Holy Week. It is one day before we at Intercessor begin the special liturgies of Holy Week culminating in the Great Feast of the Resurrection. It has been said many times that the events we recall this Holy Week are the central aspects of the Christian faith. Without the cross and the resurrection there is in fact no Christianity. But more importantly the historic and factual crucifixion and resurrection are the key events of all of human history. It is the moment in time when God has brought all of creation unto himself. It is the fullest and complete revelation of the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God.
Several years ago, after many years of longing, I traveled to Krakow, Poland to visit the tomb of St. Stanislaw of Szczepanowski the patron Saint of Krakow. St. Stanislaw was Bishop of Krakow in the early eleventh century. He was known for preaching, spiritual wisdom, and as a leader in reforming efforts in the Church. He eventually incurred the enmity of King Bolesluas the Bold and denounced the King for cruelties and injustice. Eventually St. Stanislaw excommunicated the King and stopped a Mass in the chapel when the King entered. Boleslaus himself killed St. Stanislaw while the Bishop was saying Mass in a chapel outside the city on April 11, 1079.
Not growing up Roman Catholic, I had little knowledge of this famous saint and my interest grew in him after reading a biography of John Paul II. As many know John Paul II came to the papacy from his episcopate in Krakow. The early life of John Paul II is fascinating. Like many great men of God he was one familiar with human suffering, his own and that of others. He grew up under the Nazi regime and then served in the Church of Poland at the time of communist reign. His words of faith and hope in the Risen Christ inspired many who led the non-violent overthrow of communism in Poland. The life of St. Stanislaw had a tremendous influence on John Paul II and on the lives of many in the resistance movement to both Nazism and Communism. It was these experiences and John Paul’s faith in the Risen Christ to proclaim over and over again to the people – Be not afraid.
Of course all of must recognize the great spiritual, theological and social leadership of John Paul II. He leadership is especially important to many in the Pro Life movement. Not only did he remain steadfast in his opposition to abortion but also was a voice for the sanctity of the family. His work “The Theology of the Body” will perhaps be recorded as one of the best theological works of the 20th century. John Paul II will be remembered as one of the great spiritual leaders of the century. And, we can expect that Rome will canonize this great man from Krakow.
We arrived in Krakow in the late fall and during the first evening of our visit it snowed slightly. Our hotel was right across from the old city not far from the Cathedral and the residence of the Cardinal. Looking out the window early in the morning and gazing at the new fallen snow is a memory that I cherish. Since Krakow was not bombed during World War II many of the buildings were old. There was an operational trolley car just below our window. Across the street was a Church – an old medieval building. It was early in the morning and yet the streets were filled with people heading off to work and school (a university is nearby). We had a brief Polish breakfast and headed off to Mass. It was midweek and when we entered the Church I was shocked to discover that it was filled with worshippers. This experience occurred over and over again in every Church we entered. No matter what time of day the Churches were filled. But filled not with elderly women saying prayers, but filled with young men and women caught up in prayer or in the Eucharist. Poland unlike other nations of Europe had a faith that was alive.
The second day of our journey we traveled to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. This is a place where the Nazi’s exterminated over one million Jews –men, women, and children. It was a key center for the Nazi’s plan called the Final Solution. There are not words to describe the horror of Auschwitz. And, when one goes through the camp and views the various exhibits describing the holocaust there is a sorrow that I have never felt before in my life.
There is not a question that the Nazi Final Solution, indeed the whole holocaust, was aimed at the extermination of the Jews. Nothing should distract us from remembering this fact. Yet, there were millions of others – disabled children and adults, the elderly with dementia, gypsies, political dissents, and homosexuals who died in the extermination camps. It should be remembered that the first group to suffer or die at Auschwitz were Poles. On the day it opened there were 728 Polish prisoners. For the first two years of the camps existence, the majority of the inmates were Polish. By the time the camp was liberated the largest group to die in the camp where Jews and the second largest group were Polish. Hitler swore, “All Poles will disappear from the world.” One week before the invasion of Poland, Hitler gave these instructions, “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language…be merciless. Be brutal. It is necessary to proceed with maximum severity. The war is to be a war of annihilation.”
Over six million Poles -22% of the population – died in World War II. Of this group 5,384,000 died in prison, death camps, raids, executions, the obliteration of ghettoes, epidemics, starvation, overwork, or ill treatment.
The Nazi’s went after the Catholic Church in Poland, in particular, but also the Protestant community. By 1939, 80 percent of the Catholic clergy including five bishops were sent to concentration camps. In Wroclaw, 49% of the clergy were dead; in Chelmno, 47%; in Lodz, 36%; in Poznan, 31%. In the Warsaw Diocese, the future Diocese of John Paul II, 212 priests were executed. Through the Nazi Empire thousands of Bishops, Priests, and Nuns faced incarceration in Concentration Camps. In Dachau Concentration Camp of the 2,720 priests held 1,034 did not survive. Of that group the majority were Polish priests – 868.
With the so-called liberation of Poland by the Communists the persecution of Jews and Christians continued.
Such suffering had occurred in Poland. Such darkness covered the country for decades. This was not a suffering of hundreds of years ago but a suffering that happened in the lifetime of my parents and of my early life. Here I was standing in a country soaked in the blood of innocent people – Jews, Christians and others. A country where to have faith in God was a crime punishable by death. Yet it was the very Church that suffered so much under the hands of Hitler and Stalin that was to rise up and in a few short decades be free from tyranny. This country is a center of Christian renewal that gave us the spiritual giant of John Paul II.
Today around the world there are still groups of people facing horrific evil expressed in genocide. The fall of the Nazis and the Communists has not been the end of evil. We can’t forget the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the Genocide in Rwanda. Our hearts must be awakened to hear the cries of those who still face genocide in the Sudan or wholesale murder in parts of the Congo.
But the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, particularly in Poland, is a reminder that the Church is victorious because Christ conquered death, defeated Satan, and has freed us from sin. The Christian is a resurrected person. Scripture says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you walked…But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2.1-6) The fact that Jesus has been resurrected and that we who have believed in Him and come to Him in baptism have not only shared in His death but also in His resurrection. This is our hope – a hope that can allow us to sing “Alleluia” even at the grave.
What the purveyors of evil and the culture of death don’t understand is that Christianity is not a philosophy like National Socialism or Communism. What they can’t comprehend is that Christianity is about a living relationship with the Risen and victorious Christ Jesus.
This victory is experienced every time a person comes to Christ by faith. Whether it be a young drug addict or prisoner who meets Christ in a prison chapel, or a man or women who answer an “altar call in Church”, or married couple who make Jesus the center of their marriage, or a Masai warrior who turns his life to Christ, or a business man who tried to find “joy in money” but has now found the joy of the Lord – this is the victory of the Risen Christ. This is the fulfillment of the mission of Christ that all who believe in Him and call upon his name shall not perish but have eternal life beginning now. This is the testimony of the martyrs not that they would eventually see Jesus – though that be truth – but that they already knew and participated in eternal life with the Risen Christ NOW. The resurrection faith proclaims that we have been “raised…up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
This year is the 20th anniversary of the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church. From the small beginnings at St. Michael’s Church in San Clemente we now have churches around the world – United States, Canada, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Philippines, DR Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, Pakistan, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, France, Belgium, Tanzania, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Soon we will have Churches in India, Ghana, Southeast Asia, and Argentina.
Many of these Churches function with little or no resources and under terrible conditions – some under fear of persecution. Yet, we move forward because the Risen Christ is with us. No matter how dark it gets or hard it becomes we are already risen with Christ and nothing will every separate us from His love.
I pray as many as possible will find a way to come to Madrid, Spain July 10-12, 2012. We will celebrate the presence of Christ in our midst. We will hear from Archbishop Hines who for over three decades has ministered in Asia sometimes under extreme difficulty with no resources and only his faith as a weapon. We will hear from Bishop Bernard Njoroge, who was one of the authors of the Kenyan Constitution and remains a leader in the Kenya government while at the same time planting a Church in the largest slum in East Africa. And we will hear from Abp. Charles Jones who God has used in a mighty way to bring healing to thousands of people and now speaks prophetically to the nations. These are men who have one thing in common- a living relationship with the Risen Christ. We will gather and we will go to the streets of Madrid with the message of life and our young adults will lead us. The same adults that I believe will bring an end to the holocaust of abortion and euthanasia. But most importantly we will gather every day for the Eucharist where will stand in the heavenly courts in the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus and be empowered by Him and Him alone to be life for the world.
Alleluia Christ is Risen. Yes, Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death-by-death and giving life to those in the tomb.
Under His mercy,
The Most Rev. Craig W. Bates,