As that familiar parody of bad fiction has it, “it was a dark and stormy night” – March 21, 2000, to be precise – when I made my way from the Jerusalem Hilton to the Notre Dame Center, to meet a Senior Vatican Official who had promised me a diskette with the addresses John Paul II would deliver during his epic visit to the Holy Land. The diskette was duly handed over, and back in my hotel room I browsed through the upcoming speeches, paying particular attention to what the Polish pope would say when he came to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem – a meeting about which there had been considerable controversy, involving considerable yammering.
The text, which could only have come from John Paul’s own pen, ended that untoward blather in four perfectly-crafted sentences:
“In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make sense of the memories which come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah…”
Later, I got a phone call from an Israeli friend, a distinguished soldier-scholar who knew the world of power well, and who had worked to find a realistic path to peace in situations where too many people were only interested in more murder. “I just had to tell you,” he said, “that my wife and I cried throughout the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem. This was wisdom, humaneness and integrity personified. Nothing was missing. Nothing more needed to be said.”
John Paul’s visit to Yad Vashem had a singular impact for any number of reasons: the fact that he was the first Bishop of Rome to visit the Holocaust Memorial; the fact that he had lost friends in the Shoah; the fact that so many of the deaths took place in his native Poland; the unique moral authority he had earned by his own witness to religious freedom and other fundamental human rights, for which he, too, had suffered grievously.
Still, while John Paul’s Yad Vashem pilgrimage was unique, Pope Francis’s visit to the eternal flame in that same Hall of Remembrance was not without its own extraordinary resonance. For in a remarkable address, too little reported in a world press obsessed with Mideast politics, Francis dared to take on the voice of God in the third chapter of Genesis, asking, “Adam, where are you? Where are you, O man? What have you come to? … Adam, who are you? I no longer recognize you. Who are you, O man? What have you become? Of what horror have you been capable? What made you fall to such depths?
“Certainly it is not the dust of the earth from which you were made. The dust of the earth is something good, the work of my hands. Certainly it is not the breath of life [that] I breathed into you. That breath comes from me, and it is something good.
“No, this abyss is not merely the work of your own hands, your own heart…Who corrupted you? Who disfigured you? Who led you to believe that you are the master of good and evil? Who convinced you that you were god? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god.”
Pope Francis’s profound sense of the mystery of evil continues to elude those who imagine him a papal powder puff. Yet the Holy Father’s constant preaching of the divine mercy is linked to his persistent reminders that the Evil One is at work in the world, and that his effects are all around us. Only when we recognize that can we say, as Francis did at Yad Vashem, “Remember us in your mercy. Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry, of having despised and destroyed our own flesh…to which you gave life with your own breath of life.”