Many years ago, I was in a talk given by Fr. James Keenan, SJ, one of the premier moral theologians in the world. He recounted his experience of visiting the memorial inside the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, in Germany. Like Auswitch, Dachau has come to symbolize the Nazi atrocities during the war. Around 70,000 thousand Jews lost their lives there.

Then he went to visit the town proper, just several kilometres away from the camp itself. I remember him saying that he felt some anger at the Catholics of Dachau. How could they turn their backs, look the other way, while thousands of Jews were being killed by the Nazis just on the other side of their town? Then he saw the church and saw that the cross on which Christ was crucified was made of the barbwires taken from the concentration camp. The parish priest told him that the community placed it there after the War to remind themselves of their sins. When the people come to worship, they are reminded of the way they looked the other way when all these were happening. Every time they come to mass, they are reminded that they did not do anything to help the Jews. Every time they go to mass, they are reminded of their sin of omission and cowardice. And they’re reminded of the unconditional mercy and love that continues to be given them despite everything. It is this brave effort to face their shame head-on that is bringing healing to their church.

The Church of Mortal Agony, Dachau, Germany. 📸: Ted McGrath:

The difficult invitation to all of us is to put the barbwires of our lives– the times we looked the other way, the times we were cowards and did not do anything while violence and injustice are done to others — in front and centre. For sure, this causes shame and discomfort, and that’s why we don’t want to do it. But this difficult process is needed for healing to take place.

We have lost this sense of discomfort because we have beautified our crosses, but the cross ought to remind us to look at ourselves and ask very uncomfortable questions. How many times have we used our own neediness to excuse our inaction? How many times have we cut corners so we can gain undue advantage over others who do it the right way? How many times have we used our office to enrich ourselves and how often do we justify this in our minds? How many times have we done violence on other people by using our education, office, status, race, and even our religion, to feel and become superior over others?

His cross is an indictment of a social order that needed a virus to tell us who among our workers are essential. His cross is an indictment of a culture that looks at people as numbers and statistics, or even as votes in elections.

The barbwire reminds us that if we are to embrace Christ and all that he stands for, and are serious about living the faith we profess, we surely need to be asking very uncomfortable questions. And while these questions may not have ready and clear answers, they need to be asked just the same. May the barbwires remind us of our sins of omission. But may we also see the love and mercy despite everything.

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