Lent and the modern martyrs

Last September, on a lovely afternoon during what Poles call “Golden September,” a friend took my wife and me to Jamna, in the forests of southern Poland between the Beskidy Mountains and Cracow. You won’t find Jamna on many maps — it’s that small. Despite its obscurity, though, Jamna is indelibly imprinted on the spiritual map of the twentieth century.

The men of Jamna were active in the Polish anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. On September 25, 1944, the Germans wreaked a terrible revenge. While the men of the village were hiding in the woods so as not to endanger their wives and children, German troops rounded up the women, children, and old people of Jamna and murdered some forty of them in cold blood, in and near their church. One mother held up an icon of Our Lady, to shield the three children clutching her breast and her skirt; all were killed. The villagers’ wooden huts were then burnt. Jamna, the Germans thought, was no more.

Father Jan Gora, a Polish Dominican, was determined that Jamna’s sacrifice and the faith that sustained the villagers in their trial by fire not be forgotten. With great persistence, he rebuilt the church in Jamna and surrounded it with a retreat-and-conference center; on a hill above the center is a two-story wooden hermitage for those who wish to make a silent retreat.

Near the original church, Father Gora erected starkly modern, locally carved wooden statues, one for each of the victims of Nazi barbarism: small statues for the children, bent statues for the elderly, the mother and her three children together in memoriam, all where they fell. Father Gora also commissioned a set of four panoramic paintings for the old church’s interior: in the first, a local priest says Mass for the resistance fighters in the forest; in the second, bullets strike the icon-shield being held in front of the children; in a third, Pope John Paul II (who supported Father Gora’s passion for Jamna), blesses a re-creation of the icon once shattered by bullets; in the fourth, Our Lady looks over the now-peaceful clearing in the forest where embodied evil once thought itself triumphant.

I remembered my afternoon at Jamna recently while watching two films: The Ninth Day and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

The Ninth Day tells the true story of a priest from Luxembourg who is temporarily released from the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp and sent home on “leave” — so that the SS can tempt him to become a turncoat, who will pronounce Nazism and Catholicism compatible. Cunningly enough, the moral and spiritual fulcrum of the film doesn’t have so much to do with the priest’s wily SS tempter (a former seminarian with a gift for argument), but with the priest’s sense of his own imperfections and faults, which have been magnified under the brutal conditions of Dachau.

Sophie Scholl (which is distributed by Ignatius Press) is set in Munch in 1943, where the young students of the White Rose resistance movement are trying to alert their university colleagues to the catastrophe that the Nazis are bringing upon Germany. The scenes of the interrogation of 21-year-old Sophie Scholl offer some brilliant acting, based on the actual interrogation transcripts. Even though one knows that this is going to end grimly, with Sophie and her friends beheaded after a mock trial, the moral drama of a young soul trying to wrestle with the demands of conscience in a world gone mad is nonetheless riveting. The film is not without flaws: it underplays the Christian dimension of the White Rose resistance; Sophie’s last cellmate is morphed from the evangelical Christian she was into a kindly German communist who avers that, “You have to believe in something.” But by the end, it is clear what Sophie Scholl believed in: the truth of God in Christ, which reveals the truth about human dignity – truths that made resistance to neo-pagan tyranny imperative.

Jamna, The Ninth Day, Sophie Scholl: three reminders of the modern martyrs who walk the way of the cross with us, this Lent and every Lent.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash