The Body of Christ and the ministry of historical reconciliation
The procession with the Blessed Sacrament at Soldier Field last month wasnt the only Corpus Christi procession I was privileged to be part of this Jubilee Year. On the morning of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, June 25, I celebrated Mass at Holy Trinity Church, which serves Polish-speaking Catholics, many of them immigrants. As I carried the Blessed Sacrament out of the church on Noble Street to Division Street, down Milwaukee Avenue, onto Ashland and back to the church, I heard the Polish hymns which reminded me of another Corpus Christi procession in 1978. I was in Markowice, in southern Poland, not too far from Krakow.
Even when Poland had a Communist government, the feast of Corpus Christi remained a national holiday, so strong was the faith of the people. The government limited the procession to side streets, but the people hung banners from their windows and the outdoor altars were beautifully decorated, as they were in the streets near Holy Trinity Church here. The peoples love for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament was palpable and, walking along with the priests in the procession before the Blessed Sacrament, I was deeply moved.
That afternoon, my hosts took me to visit Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp. Of the six million or more Jews exterminated under the Nazi regime, about three million were murdered and cremated in Auschwitz, along with the same number of Poles. As I walked through the camp and its now-decaying buildings, the contrast with the mornings procession was stark. The morning spoke of love; the afternoon of hate.
I attached myself to a group of German speaking visitors to Auschwitz to hear what the official Polish government guide was saying to them. The guide did what all guides do; she explained what each building housed and what its purpose was. Then, still speaking German to a group of Germans, she added: This is what the Germans did to us. Wouldnt it be just to do the same to them? In the context of Marxist ideology, which justified the creation of tyranny by fomenting hatred between classes, revenge would be just. In the light of faith, which tells us Christ gave himself to death for us and remains truly among us in the Blessed Sacrament, revenge gives way to reconciliation. Do this in memory of me.
St. Paul speaks of Gods self-revelation in Jesus as the foundation of the Churchs ministry of reconciliation (II Cor. 4:18). Reconciliation began even in Auschwitz when St. Maximilian Kolbe offered his life in exchange for the life of a fellow prisoner, and reconciliation was undoubtedly working there among other victims in ways that remain unknown except to God. Reconciliation continues each time forgiveness is offered and accepted: in the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, in exchanges between individuals, in the movements of history.
In Mexico, a new opportunity for historical reconciliation has opened up. In this past century of martyrs, Catholics in Mexico suffered terribly for their faith in the 1920s and 30s. The best known of the modern Mexican martyrs is Jesuit Father Miguel Pro. He died crying, Viva Cristo Rey, and that cry has been heard ever since when Mexican Catholics gather. Those interested in the historical details can read a new book by Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2000), pages 15-42. A visit to St. Francis of Assisi Church on Roosevelt Road brings one face to face with marvelous windows depicting saints killed by Mexican firing squads ordered into action by those who founded the political party finally turned out of office a few weeks ago after 75 years in power. In recent years, the anti-clerical and anti-religious provisions of the Mexican Constitution have been softened; but with the first genuinely free federal election in Mexican history, a historical reconciliation between the Mexican government and those who have been persecuted by it for their faith becomes possible.
About 300,000 Mexicans were killed in the struggle for religious liberty in the early decades of the 20th Century. Many of them were from western Mexico, where there is now an abundance of vocations to the ordained priesthood and religious life. Twenty seven of them were canonized as martyrs by Pope John Paul II on May 21 of this year. Two months later, the first openly practicing Catholic to be elected president of modern Mexico was described by The New Yorker magazine (July 17, 2000, page 26) as belonging to a party that traces its origins to the reactionary Catholic proto-fascism of the nineteen-thirties. Perhaps the writer used to be a guide at Auschwitz. Do we ever ask why there is anti-U.S. feeling in so much of Latin America? Do we ever wonder where North Americans get their sense of history, their terms of analysis, their simple-minded labels?
The Catholic sense of the history of this past century is stamped with the fact of martyrdom and the reconciliation it should effect. In his commentary on the so-called third secret of Fatima, recently made public, Cardinal Ratzinger explained that the vision to the three small children at the beginning of the 20th Century showed a place of action described in three symbols: a steep mountain, a great city reduced to ruins and finally a large rough-hewn cross. The mountain and city symbolize the arena of human history: history as an arduous ascent to the summit, history as the arena of human creativity and social harmony, but at the same time a place of destruction, where man actually destroys the fruits of his own work. On the mountain stands the cross, the goal and guide of history. The cross transforms destruction into salvation; it stands as a sign of historys misery but also as a promise for history. In the vision we can recognize the last century as a century of martyrs, a century of suffering and persecution for the Church, a century of world wars and the many local wars which filled the last fifty years and have inflicted unprecedented forms of cruelty. In the mirror of this vision we see passing before us the witnesses of the faith decade by decade.
Two thousand years ago, on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus heard the risen Christ ask him: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? And he said, Who are you, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. (Acts 9:4-5). The persecutor became an apostle of reconciliation, casting his life with those he had persecuted, together with them forming the Body of Christ. That ministry of reconciliation, personal and historical, defines the mission of the Church universal. It must shape the mission of this local Church, the Archdiocese of Chicago. Each time we thank God for the forgiveness of our sins, we must forgive those who have sinned against us and then ask forgiveness of those whom we have in any way persecuted. This is the dynamic of mission at the beginning of a new millennium because it is the dynamic of grace in every age. Do this in memory of me. God bless you.
God bless you.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI