Category Archives: Holocaust

Chant and the oppressed

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As I read a very challenging article by Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis here, I thought of what I had written more than ten years ago after a personal pilgrimage to Palestine and Israel with a friend. Here is one part of the journal I wrote.


The night before I left for my pilgrimage, I watched a documentary film on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian, who was killed in 1945 for his role in resisting Hitler.

The failure of the Christian community to resist Hitler, especially the timidity of the Catholic Church in Germany, has played an important role in my commitment to justice since my early years in college in the mid-sixties.

One phrase of Bonhoeffer’s in the video particularly touched me that night. “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

I love chant and much medieval music. The music seems to give us a glimpse of the heavenly realm.

As I prepared to leave I wondered whether this statement might need to be expanded – “Only the one who cries out for the Jews and the Palestinians may sing Gregorian chant.”

But I wondered whether that might be pushing things.

The first day in Bethlehem, after visiting the Grotto of the Nativity, Omar and I went to St. Catherine’s, the attached Roman Catholic church. We passed into the crypt where we passed the tombs of the Holy Innocents and went to the chapel of the cave of St. Jerome, where he translated the bible into Latin.

It was almost noon and the Franciscan friars were preparing for prayer. We approached the grotto and were stopped by the door that led from the crypt. We turned, went upstairs to the church of St. Catherine’s and began to leave. As we left the friars were beginning to chant.

Truly, I thought, “Only the person who cries out for the oppressed – the Palestinians and others – may sing Gregorian chant.”

A few days later, visiting Jerusalem we stopped into the Church of Saint Anne in the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s an old Crusader church built in the twelfth century, on the grounds of the ruins of the pool of Bethsaida. It served for a time as a Muslim school but is now a church on the ground of the seminary of the Missionaries of Africa. As I entered the church I heard Omar humming and was astounded at the acoustics. I sang a few notes and realized that there is an incredible reverberation in the church, up to seven seconds someone later told me.

I wanted to sing a chant. All I could think of was the Regina Coeli, an Easter hymn in honor of Mary. This was quite fitting I later realized since this church was on the site of the house of Ann, the mother of Mary, and there is a shrine to Mary’s birth on the crypt.

As I sung, I heard my voice echoing in the vaults – my prayer continued by the stones. When I stopped singing, the sound continued. The prayer echoed in the church and it echoed in my heart.

That night in a conversation with the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem I shared my reflections on Bonhoeffer’s challenge.

But only a month later did I realize what I had done that day in East Jerusalem. In occupied land I sang chant. Had I, by singing chant, unwittingly committed myself to cry out for the Palestinians?

So I will continue to sing chant – but I will raise my voice even more for the oppressed and marginalized of the world. For only if you speak up for the oppressed may you dare to sing the praises of God.

May my chant and my cries of protest echo as forcefully as the hymn in Saint Anne’s.

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Liberation of Auchwitz

“Only the person who cries out for the Jews
may sing Gregorian chant.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Seventy years ago today the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated.

An era ended – an era of mass extermination of Jews, the handicapped, homosexuals, and others.

The failure of many, including the Church, to stand up against Hitler struck me deeply in the early sixties, when I was in high school.

I continue to look at those who did speak up and who paid the price, especially people like the Austrian peasant Franz Jägerstätter as well as Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose.

The stories of people who hid Jews and others touches me deeply, especially the story of André and Magda Trocmé and the village of Le Chambon in France.

The failure to speak out awakened me to the need to be a witness against all injustice.

The witness of those who did stand up for the Jews inspires me to do just that.

Gregorian chant and the Holocaust

“Only the person who cries out for the Jews
may sing Gregorian chant.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Today is the anniversary of the liberation in 1945 of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration- and death-camp where millions of Jews and others were killed.

Almost ten years ago, before going to visit to the Holy Land I watched a video on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazis and was executed for his involvement on a scheme to assassinate Hitler.

In the video I encountered the words that begin this post: “Only the person who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

These words struck me deeply.

How can we sing to the Lord, with the contemplative melodies of Gregorian chant, if we do not speak up for those who are oppressed?

Since learning about the Holocaust in the early 1960s, I found myself troubled by the lack of open resistance by leaders of the Catholic Church. There were some who spoke out. Others did help Jews escape the Nazis. But my impression, then and now, is that the Catholic Church was too careful, perhaps fearing persecution and losing political power.

How often do we fail to do what is right out of fear? How often do we fail to take risks because we don’t want to lose power or influence? How often do we speak “prudently” so as not to offend?

My visit to the Holy Land includes a visit to the church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem – the reputed site of the birth of Mary.

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

The twelfth century church has an incredible resonance. I noted that as I spoke quietly to my friend who had shown me the church and the nearby ruins of the Pool of Bethesda.

Almost without thinking I quietly and slowly sang the Regina Coeli, the Easter hymn in honor of Mary. My words resounded from the walls.

I later reflected that I had sung Gregorian Chant. But am I willing to speak out for the oppressed – Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land, as well as the people I now serve in Latin America?

Remembering the Holocaust moves me to recommit myself to stand firm and speak out for the oppressed – not matter now quietly.

Even our quiet songs can resound throughout the world – as my voice did in Saint Anne’s Church in Jerusalem.

What is important is that we speak.

Kristallnacht, the Berlin Wall, and St. John Lateran

Seventy-five years ago, on the night of November 9, 1938, Nazi storm troopers attacked Jewish communities throughout Germany, destroying 191 synagogues, thousands of Jewish businesses, arresting 22,000 Jewish men, and deporting about half of them to Buchenwald.

Few people, in either Germany or the world protested this “Kristallnacht” – the Night of Broken Glass. The Nazis took great comfort in the silence of the world.

A cross at the Berlin Wall

A cross at the Berlin Wall

Fifty one years later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. That year the movements for independence from Soviet control were growing throughout Eastern Europe. Finally on this day, following an announcement that East Germans would be able to pass through the wall into West Berlin with permission, thousands mobbed the border crossings and were finally let through. In following days the wall fell.

Today is also the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, the mother church of the whole world. The first building was dedicated in 324 and there have been many rebuilding and renovations of the structure.

St.  John Lateran, Rome

St. John Lateran, Rome

Saint John Lateran is a beautiful church which I found much more prayerful than Saint Peter’s. Its apse has a beautiful mosaic – with a small image of Francis between Our Lady and Saint Peter. A legend says that when St. Francis came to Rome to seek permission for his new band of followers of Christ, the Pope had a dream that the Lateran was falling down and a simple friar held it up. The pope identified Francis with this friar who was preventing the church from falling into ruin.

St. John Lateran - apse with the Pope cathedra

St. John Lateran – apse with the Pope’s cathedra

In the second reading for today’s feast in the Catholic lectionary (1 Corinthians 3: 9-11, 16-17), Paul tells the people of Corinth:

You are God’s field and building….
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Though Paul was writing to Christians, we ought to remember that each person is made in God’s image and should be loved and respected.

The failure of the world – especially the Christian Church – to respond to the violence of Kristallnacht is a failure to respect the presence of God in all people, a failure of the Church to love.

But this failure should be a challenge to us today, especially as we consider the feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran.

Will we build up the community of God in such a way that we break down walls that keep people apart and work to prevent crimes against humanity, such as the Holocaust? Or will we just admire the beauty of the churches, while we keep others out and permit the killing of others and the deaths of thousands daily from hunger?

It is easy to criticize the Church and other institutions, but, as St. Caesarius of Arles said (in a sermon found in Benedictine Daily Prayer),

Every time we come to church, we ought to make our souls be what we want the church to be…. Do you want a light-filled Church? God grant your soul not to be a dark place but alight with good works.

Let our lives be transparent like unbroken glass, letting the light of God shine through, breaking down walls and reaching out in love and justice to all the broken peoples of this world.

a candlelight of humanity

“There are some persons whose great gift, in a dark age, is simply to maintain a candlelight of humanity and so to guarantee that darkness should not have the final word.”

So does Robert Ellsberg begin his entry on Anne Frank in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, a truly amazing collection of lives of the great cloud of witnesses.

Today is the birthday of Anne Frank, 1929-1945.

Her diary details the life she, her family, and another family lived in an attic in Amsterdam, hidden by the courageous Dutch.

In one entry she notes that she will need “courage and cheerfulness” to live out her mission of working “in the world and for humanity.”

Let us pray for courage and joy, in the face of the sadness, violence, and injustice around us.

It is a wonder how, just before her arrest and eventual death in Nazi death camps,  she could write:

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart….I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right….In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

How can this be? Perhaps another entry in her diary sheds light on her spirituality of joy and gratitude. She ends her evening prayers thus:

I thank you, God, for all that is good and dear and beautiful….I am filled with joy….I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.

May we too be filled with joy, gratitude, and courage – to be candlelights for humanity







Defender of poor, women, and Jews

On April 2, 1945, the bishop of Györ, Hungary died from complications from gunshot wounds he had received two days before while preventing drunken Russian troops from taking away women refugees hidden in the bishop’s residence to be used sexually.

Bishop Vilmos Apor, declared blessed in 1997, also sought to defend the Jews during the Nazi era. He not only hid Jews in the bishop’s palace; he protested both privately and publicly to government officials against the deportation of Jews, which he labeled as genocide. He even sent a telegram to Hitler, stating “The divine commandments apply equally to the Führer. The time will come where he will have to account to God and to the world for his actions.”

In his 1944 Pentecost sermon, he bluntly stated: “He who assumes that men, whether Negroes or Jews, may be tortured, must be regarded as pagan, even if he boasts of being a Christian. Everyone who approves of, or takes part in, the torturing of human beings commits a sin.”

He was also known for his care for the poor, even though he came from an upper-class family. He also sought to maintain good relations with non-Catholics.

Here was a bishop who spoke out, when so many were silent, against torture and the violation of human rights, against anti-Semitism and the Nazi genocide of the Jews.

Here was a bishop who sought to prevent the rape of women whom he was sheltering.

Here was a bishop who cared for the poor, the refugee, the persecuted.

It was not easy and at times he was not able to speak as openly as he wished and lamented that the Reformed Church in Hungary was more openly critical of the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people than the Catholic Church.

Yet in the midst of the silence of so many, it is encouraging to hear of one who spoke up even a little and put his life on the line to defend those persecuted.

Would that we had more bishops willing to do the same.

Would that we followers of Christ find ways to defend those in need.


The Night of Broken Glass

On the evening of November 9, 1938, Nazis storm troopers went throughout Germany, wreaking havoc on the Jewish communities. Because of the broken shops windows, it became known as Kristallnacht, Crystal Night.

As Robert Ellsberg writes in All Saints:

One hundred an ninety-one synagogues were burned to the ground. Seventy-five hundred Jewish-owned shops were destroyed….twenty thousand Jewish men were arrested and places in “protective custody” with half of them shipped to the Buchenwald concentration camps. Nearly one hundred Jews were killed.

There was almost no protest in Germany or elsewhere.

What I consider significant is the silence of the Church in Germany. There were some voices that did speak out, but they were few. One reason for the relative silence some gave was the fear  that the Church would be persecuted.

Since I first read about the silence of the Church in Nazi Germany when I was in high school, I have been moved by the need to stand up for those who are persecuted and marginalized.

This moved me to support the civil rights and anti-war campaigns of the 1960s and beyond. This has moved me to speak out in the 1980s against the US support for Latin American regimes that repressed their people and to speak against war on numerous occasions. This has led me to be here in Honduras and to support the only diocese that spoke out against the 2009 coup.

We, who are the Body of Christ in the world, need to speak out boldly and clearly in the face of the sufferings of others. If we suffer, it should be the result of defending others. It’s for this reason that I am skeptical of the cries about the fragility of religious freedom in he United States.

The Church should be bold – not in its own defense, but in defense of the poor and oppressed. The real glory of the Church are those who stand up and suffer for them, as some did in Nazi Germany. Thus I am fascinated by the stories of people like Franz Jägerstätter, Father Alfred Delp, SJ, and the young members of the White Rose. And I’m anxious to read a new book, Ultimate Price: Testimonies of Christians Who Resisted the Third Reich.

These stories inspire me to continue to be present for the poor and oppressed.

Etty Hillesum – life in the face of death

The Lord will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is drawn over all the peoples
and the veil that is spread over all the nations.
He will destroy death forever
and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
Isaiah 25: 7-8

 On November 30, 1943, at Auschwitz, Etty HIllesum, a 28 year old Dutch Jewish woman, was killed.

Not much is know of her personal life but she kept a diary that reveals her inner struggles and longings for God in the midst of the horror of Nazi Europe. She sought to preserve “that little piece of You, God, in ourselves,” in the midst of the deportations of Jews to the Nazi death camps.

Yet there is a message of hope there – but a hope that needs to be realized, actualized, in our daily lives.

“I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts.”

In the midst of the tears of our world, we are called to live in hope, sharing in God’s work of destroying death, by living in love.