Dear friends in the Lord,
As I write this, I am spending some vacation days in Italy and will be traveling to Poland for about six days prior to returning to Orange County. These experiences in Italy and Poland have been very providential for me.
On the Vigil of the Assumption (Aug. 14), I spent some time at a sanctuary called the “Madonna Della Rocca,” or in English, “Our Lady of the Rock.” It is high on a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. As the sun was setting over the city of Monte San Biagio, the church bells below began to peal joyfully to welcome the great feast of the Assumption of Mary, which is beautifully celebrated here in Italy. I paused and remembered that it was the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was put to death by the Nazis in Auschwitz with an injection of carbolic acid, after days in a starvation bunker where he had offered his life in exchange for another prisoner. Fitting, I think, that Maximilian should meet the Lord on the Vigil of the Assumption, because his priestly and Franciscan life and ministry was dedicated to Our Lady.
At that time, I also remembered how I was blessed to attend his canonization Mass by Saint John Paul II in October of 1982, shortly after returning to Rome for my second year of graduate studies. That was a great blessing; I still have the booklet from that Liturgy in my office all these years later.
For us today, as has been attested to by Fr. Jeff Kirby and others recently, St Maximilian Kolbe stands as a great example of sacrifice and love for his fellow humanity in times of great evil and hate.
As I prepare to travel to Poland, one of my hopes and plans, in addition to visiting the places in the life of Pope Saint John Paul II, is to visit Auschwitz.
I mention all this background to reflect on the startling and unsettling reality of the KKK, neo-Nazi and “white supremacy” manifestations of violence in Charlottesville. I have been following this event while I am outside of the U.S. The very use of the Nazi salute would make my father (a WWII vet) “roll over in his grave,” as my grandparents used to say. The presence of the KKK should be chilling to Catholics, because (as in Anaheim, for example, years ago) they regularly targeted Catholics in addition to Jews and African Americans. The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange and the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose both had experience with the Klan in the early days of their missions here.
I am finishing these reflections here at the main entrance to Birkenau, having spent the afternoon here at the site of this concentration camp which in some ways is more stark and more powerful than Auschwitz.
It is a dark and cloudy afternoon here , which certainly compounds the sense of foreboding , evil and sorrow that is here. I saw pictures of families being separated , mothers holding their children and children being taken from their parents as they were headed toward the gas chambers.
We visited, on this dark and cold afternoon, the remains of the barracks and the halls and crematoria where the individuals were gassed and killed and their bodies burned .
All of this, whether the white supremacists and so called neo-Nazis know it, is the background and meaning of those torches, Nazi flags, Nazi salutes and swastikas that were carried in Charlottesville by the supremacists, KKK and others ; especially those that harassed the worshippers that Saturday in front of the Temple in Charlottesville.
One of the most horrific aspects of Auschwitz / Birkenau was that this was the location where the infamous, and frankly evil, Dr. Mengele performed experiments on living children and adults: a graphic example of the evil of eugenics which is extent today in many and “pseudo – sophisticated ” forms, which will be reflected on more in “Respect Life month.” Eugenics of today targets specific racial groups, children and people with disabilities , which I certainly came face to face with in Birkenau. The Bishop who is hosting me these days in Poland and is Bishop not far from these death camps, who also knows the United States, just said to me that such supremacist movements and demonstrations are “dangerous” for the United States.
There is nothing innately American, Christian or Catholic in the violent displays of the neo-Nazis, KKK and white supremacists and all that followed in their wake; no hope, only a cycle of violence, fear and revenge. These days were, sadly, a recurrent example of Nativism and xenophobia present here in the United States of America.
In his homily last Sunday, our neighbor, friend and Metropolitan Archbishop of Los Angeles, Archbishop José Gomez preached: “Let us ask for the grace to believe that God’s love can transform every heart that is hardened by hatred. And let us ask Mary our Blessed Mother to intercede for us–that we might have the strength to keep building the family of God and keep building a society where every person is treated as a child of God.”
Let us recall that racist tendencies provided the framework for the heinous policies of eugenics, many of which were embraced by Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. To this day, her work often targets specific ethnic groups.
At the same time, the radical response of Antifa offers no hope at all. There is nothing even remotely American, Christian or Catholic about these manifestations. The Christian responds in love and with love. We have much to analyze and discuss, but there can be no doubt that we must respond with concentrated and sustained prayer for our nation. And we must each ask ourselves what we are doing to build a civilization of love in which every human being is welcome.
It’s no accident that St. John Paul II recognized in St. Maximilian his tremendous witness of love and mercy.
+ Bishop Kevin Vann
Below are photos from my travels, each captioned below.