“Can it still be a surprise to anyone that the Pope born and brought up in this land, the Pope who came to the See of St. Peter from the diocese in whose territory is situated the camp of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), should have begun his first encyclical with the words “Redemptor Hominis” and should have dedicated it as a whole to the cause of man, to the dignity of man, to the threats to him, and finally to his inalienable rights that can so easily be trampled on and annihilated by his fellowmen?”

Pope John Paul II offered this anguished reflection during his 1979 visit to Auschwitz, located about an hour’s drive from his birthplace in Wadowice.  His words exposed the devastating impact of the Nazis’ brutal legacy on the spiritual life of a Pole who knew many victims — Jewish and Christian — that perished in the camps.  During the German occupation, a number of his peers in the underground seminary were arrested and died in prison, while a series of seemingly lucky breaks protected him from harm.

During the Second World War, a reported 900,000 Jews were immediately killed, following their arrival at Auschwitz, and another 200,000 perished there, according to incomplete records compiled at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum archives.

Among an estimated 200,000 non-Jews imprisoned at the camp, 165,000 were Catholics, including priests, seminarians and religious. Edith Stein, the Jewish philosopher, Catholic convert and Carmelite nun — St.Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — was executed at Auschwitz in1942 for the crime of being a Jew. 

It was a gray day when our pilgrim group arrived at the buildings that still contain the devastating evidence of the hundreds of thousands of lives extinguished at Auschwitz.

Our stone-faced tour guide pointed out piles of shoes, bowls, and human hair,  grotesque reminders of the Nazis’ parallel war against an entire race of people.

Films like Schindler’s List have helped to educate the public about the efficient machinery of Hitler’s “Final Solution” and the moral challenges it posed to men like Oskar Schindler, who initially sought to exploit the vulnerable status of Jewish workers, yet ultimately risked everything to save them from the ovens.

Now, as our group passed through the camp,  once inhabited by half-starved human beings treated like garbage — or even worse - human guinea pigs, we experienced in a more visceral way a sense of the horror that filled their final days on earth.

For a moment, I remembered the controversy provoked by the Carmelite nuns who established a convent at Auschwitz, until Jewish opposition forced them to relocate, following an explicit directive from Pope John Paul II. I understood now why the nuns stubbornly sought to remain as a source of consolation.  The all-pervading desolation called out for some witness to hope.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).” 

There are those who confront the horror of Auschwitz and rage at a God who was “silent” and did not intervene to halt the trains that continued to dislodge their human cargo, or to save the famished slave laborers that struggled to survive until the end of the war.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Auschwitz in 2006, he acknowledged that the legacy of war crimes committed by his countrymen led many in the West to repudiate God. The Pontiff warned that such anger could result in a kind of moral passivity or even a refusal to respect the dignity of the human person—the “only creature God made for its own sake.”

“We cannot peer into God’s mysterious plan — we see only piecemeal, and we would be wrong to set ourselves up as judges of God and history. Then we would not be defending man, but only contributing to his downfall,” Pope Benedict suggested.

“No — when all is said and done, we must continue to cry out humbly yet insistently to God: Rouse yourself!  Do not forget mankind, your creature! And our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence — so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us.”

At the end of his life, Jesus called out to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Pope John Paul II has described Auschwitz as “this Golgotha of the modern world.”

Yet, despite the desolation, there were prisoners who still believed in love and acted on that belief to the end. I once spoke to a Polish priest—one of a small group of seminarians still alive when the camp was liberated. I met him four decades later in a leper colony in India. He went there after the war to fulfill a vow he made while still in the camp: if he didn’t die, he would spend the rest of his life working among the neediest people in the world. Hitler would not have the final word.

When Pope John Paul II visited the camp in 1979, he lit a candle in the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was transferred to Auschwitz in 1941 and branded prisoner 16670. Reportedly, he was given the most dehumanizing tasks, and beaten routinely, but still heard confessions and provided Communion to the faithful. When several prisoners escaped and 10 men were randomly selected for execution as punishment, Father Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a Polish father and husband. He was starved for three weeks before receiving a lethal injection.

John Paul declared Kolbe the “the patron saint of our difficult century.” Today, many of us approach the Nazis’ record as a cautionary tale, which underscores the urgent need to address nascent evil before it explodes into a new regime of state-sponsored violence against a vulnerable class of persons.

But there is another lesson to be learned at Auschwitz. In every circumstance, no matter how desperate, we have a measure of freedom to love, to hope and to believe. At Auschwitz, amid fear, death and suffering Christ the Redeemer remained present to all who joined their sufferings to his own passion and death on the cross.

That truth shaped John Paul’s message to his fellow Poles, who struggled under the yoke of communism for decades after the camps were liberated. During his visit to Auschwitz, he spoke directly to those still living under totalitarianism: “Many victories were won [here]. Where the dignity of man was so horribly trampled on, victory was won through faith and love.”

The Pope’s biographer, George Weigel, underscored the most important lesson that John Paul gleaned during a time of great suffering in his native land:

“[E]vil did not have the final word, because at the center of the human drama is Christ, whose entry into the human condition and whose conquest of death meant that hope was neither a vain illusion nor a defensive fantasy constructed against the fear of the heart of modern darkness,” wrote Weigel in his biography, Witness to Hope.

Early Christian pilgrims were the first to visit the graves of martyrs and holy men and women. Our pilgrimage to Auschwitz followed this pattern, in a special way.

There, we beseeched God to grant his forgiveness, and we prayed for the victims — Jews and Christians, the dead and the survivors. We sought the intercession of the saints who perished here and for the grace we need to follow their holy example.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland. This summer, she joined a Franciscan University pilgrimage to Poland led by Bishop Zubik of Pittsburgh..