The 1993 order of Pope John Paul II to the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz has been cited as guide in resolving today’s controversy about an Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero. Persons from as different walks of life as columnist Charles Krauthammer and Archbishop Timothy Dolan have invoked the memory of John Paul II, the teacher. However, as Jeffery Feldman and others have written, the lesson taught by the pope is not necessarily what these “move the mosque” spokespersons would want to hear.
The signal stimulus behind the pope’s order to the nuns came in 1989. I remember the incident well because I was “team-teaching” at Brooklyn College with a Polish rabbi who was himself a concentration camp survivor. At that time, the Carmelite nuns had been housed in a two-story building the Nazis had used as a storehouse for the deadly Zyklon B gas. The Polish Communists leased the building to the nuns in 1984 to fulfill the desire of Polish Catholics to provide a memorial to martyrs like St. Maximilian Kolbe who had been executed by the Nazis. The red-brick structure was technically not “inside the camp,” but it had been part of the Nazi installation. It stood in full view of those entering Auschwitz.
However, as communism collapsed, the Auschwitz site experienced a surge of visitors, including many who came to view the camp’s remains as might pilgrims on a religious journey. Not surprisingly, because most of Auschwitz’s victims had been Jewish, so too were most of these foreign visitors. Not only did most seem unaware of the 1984 intention by Poles to include a Christian memorial to all victims, some found placing any Christian symbol there objectionable for theological reasons.
The agreed upon solution was to construct — not a convent — but the Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim an inter-faith building “on the threshold” of the original camp. To quote its mission statement, it is “a place for reflection, education, sharing and prayer for all those who are moved by what happened here. The Centre commemorates the victims and contributes to creating mutual respect, reconciliation, and peace in the world.”
This center was not yet completed in 1989 when a New York City rabbi, Avraham Weiss, forced his way into the convent with six others dressed in prison clothing. He staged a public recitation of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. To remove these provocateurs from the convent, laymen working for the nuns poured buckets of cold water on them until finally the police arrived to stop the confrontation’s violence. As I wrote with my Jewish colleague in the Brooklyn College Kingsman, the protesters had violated the nuns’ cloister. This Catholic stricture is so severe that no male, not even a Cardinal or Bishop, can enter the area where the nuns live. In asserting his Jewish rights to pray, Weiss had violated our Catholic principles.
The resulting clash of competing claims to control “hallowed ground” was predictable. Denouncing Rabbi Weiss for his “fanatical demeanor,” Ian Buruma wrote for the New York Review of Books : “Weiss and some highly insensitive Polish prelates turned the affair into an unseemly battle over the symbols of martyrdom, degrading the memory of all those who died at Auschwitz, whether Jewish or gentile.”
Worse yet was the remorseless rabbi’s pledge to violate the convent again.
Thus, Pope John Paul II’s order for the nuns to relocate was intended to prevent violence and to encourage interfaith understanding. Given the recent ugliness in August 2010 from demonstrators against the Muslim community center, it becomes clear that right-wing thuggery is literally “around the corner.” Following the pope’s example of how to forgive and compromise, Archbishop Dolan surely knows Catholics today must defend both the Muslims and their community center from violence and sacrilege. Jesus told us to “turn the other cheek:” doesn’t this mean Catholics should accede to Muslim rights now as the Pope did then to Jewish rights?
As for Mr. Krauthammer, I’m glad he invoked Pope John Paul’s solution, even if he got the conclusion wrong. He is adept at political opinionating in print and on Fox News but he might be better off avoiding Catholic theology, about which he knows demonstrably little.