Pope Benedict XVI’s most gripping remark during his four-day state visit to Germany may have been his veiled reference to his homeland’s legacy of Nazi war crimes: “We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the state became an instrument for destroying right — a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.”
Delivered during his address before the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, the warning could be described as a shot across the bow of the nation’s collective conscience. The statement carried additional potency because it was uttered by a German pope named Joseph Ratzinger, a native Bavarian who once was conscripted into the Hitler Youth — a requirement for every German adolescent of that time.
During the long pontificate of Pope John Paul II, Catholics became intimately familiar with stories of the Polish victims of totalitarianism. The man who was born Karol Wojtyla recalled with great feeling his own wartime struggle to elude Nazis’ roundups of Polish seminarians. Nazi physicians used his friends as “human guinea pigs,” one of many forms of brutality committed by a “highly organized band of robbers.”
John Paul II spoke of the daunting moral challenge totalitarian systems posed to the conscience of subjected people: They could give up their freedom and succumb to fatalism and despair, or they could live “as if they were free people.”
Also, another kind of choice loomed before them: Would they become consumed with hatred for their oppressors or would they let love guide them?
These choices were examined in encyclicals like Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) and Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women). In every instance, the faithful were asked to choose the path of love, which finds its origins in Trinitarian communion.
Pope John Paul II shared the belief of Jewish leaders that the memory of the Holocaust must be kept alive to “rouse consciences, to resolve conflicts, to inspire the building of peace.”
But what of those forced to acknowledge kinship with that “band of robbers?” What of the German people who have only just begun to set aside a legacy inherited from the past?
In the wake of the Second World War, the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals exposed their systematic extermination of European Jews and other “undesirables,” from Gypsies to disabled persons deemed “unworthy of life.” Decades after those dark days, Auschwitz lingered as the symbol of German identity, and West German history textbooks and museum exhibits explored the role of “ordinary” Germans in implementing Hitler’s “Final Solution.” During the ’60s, young West Germans embraced the political left, in part, as a refuge from anti-Semitism — a phenomenon Father Joseph Ratzinger witnessed firsthand as a college professor.
The wounds still have not entirely healed, nor have all the lessons of the past become firmly fixed in the conscience of contemporary Germans. After the reunification of Germany, the notion that its people constituted an “outlaw” nation gradually receded. But what did the nation stand for? What moral vision constituted its vision of national life?
“There are no coincidences,” Blessed John Paul II often observed. And the election of a German pope may well reflect a step in a divine plan to help a reunified German people become a nation that no longer doubts its capacity to choose the good.
“Where God is, there is a future,” Pope Benedict stated in a video broadcast to Germans that introduced the themes for his four-day state visit. His words spoke directly to the conscience of his beloved homeland, offering words of reassurance: “God returns to our world, this God who often seems totally absent, of whom we have dire need.
“Perhaps you will ask me: ‘But does God exist? And if he exists, does he care about us? Can we reach him?’ It is true, of course, that we cannot put God on the table; we cannot touch him like a utensil or take him in hand like any object. We must again develop the capacity to perceive God, a capacity that exists in us.
“So, in these days, we want to try to return to seeing God, to return to being persons through whom the light of hope might enter the world, a light that comes from God and helps us to live.”
In an unexpected way, the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI offers another perspective on the intimate dialogue between the Creator and his human creatures. This time, however, man’s conscience seeks a resolution to a different problem: the confusion and despair that pervades a culture scarred by the sins of its own people.
How, then, can modern Germans embrace the future with optimism, while preventing a repetition of past errors? For now, many Germans have found ready substitutes for religious belief. The Pope suggested that young Germans should match their passionate interest in environmentalism with a deeper study of the natural law imprinted on their hearts.
The Pope’s own remedy reflects the wisdom of the Church: True reform demands a return to origins. Germany must begin a deeper engagement with its Christian heritage. In his gentle, yet insistent way, the Holy Father sought to stir the consciences of his countrymen, praying, no doubt, that the Holy Spirit — and Blessed John Paul II — do the heavy work.