It was a cool July night when I first heard the story of the Commandant of Auschwitz. My group was nearing the end of a tour of the infamous Nazi death camp, and, in doing so, came to the place of the execution of Rudolph Höss, who had run the concentration camp for three years before its liberation.
One of the leaders of my group shared with us the account of the commandant’s final days of earthly existence (written in further detail here): how Höss was afraid of being maltreated by the Polish prison guards whose families and friends he had tortured; how he was surprised at the dignity and kindness with which the prison guards treated him; how this surprise led to a conversion and a desire for Höss to make sacramental confession. At first, the guards were not able to honor the request of the former commandant, as no priest could be found who was willing to hear Höss’ confession. Finally, a priest was found who was willing to offer Höss the sacrament – a Jesuit priest from the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Krakow. On the day of his execution, before he was hanged, Höss received Holy Communion from the hands of the same priest who had offered him reconciliation.
Standing in silence, I tried to be inspired by this account of the mercy of God. I felt, however, not inspiration but anger, frustration, and fear. Höss was a Nazi; he helped kill a lot of innocent people. I didn’t want him to receive mercy; I didn’t want to see him in heaven. As I left the concentration camp, I contemplated what that meant about me as a Christian.
Christ calls us to more
One of the core teachings of Jesus in the Gospel is an expansion of our understanding of love: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt 5:44-45).
It is this teaching of expansive mercy that Pope Francis hoped to instill within the faithful during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. As he said in his bull announcing the Extraordinary Jubilee, “Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” In other words, for me to call myself a Christian means an acceptance of this obligation of expansive mercy.
This imperative, however, is much easier when faced with small offenses, or with those actions which do not affect us directly. Mercy, however, must extend beyond those people to whom it is easy to show mercy. Throughout the Jubilee Year, Pope Francis has called for the faithful to practice the Spiritual Works of Mercy, one of which states that we should bear patiently those who have wronged us. This Spiritual Work reminds us that mercy is a requirement even, and especially, when the crime is personal, when it is close to our hearts, when it has wronged us directly.
Imperfect steps toward perfection
The prospect of desiring the mercy of heaven for somebody who has brought such immense pain is exceptionally daunting, but the challenge should not be a surprising one. Christ Himself instructed us that we should “be perfect, just as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), an exceptional and impossible standard for us.
Author Leah Libresco Sargeant, public speaker, blogger, and Catholic convert, once offered advice on how to grow in that perfection from our imperfect state: to be honest in prayer. In a catechesis session at World Youth Day in Krakow, she shared stories of times where she recognized her desires as being contrary to what God wanted her to desire. Knowledge of deviance from the will of God isn’t always enough to change our will, especially when confronted with deeply felt pains and emotions.
In those moments, Leah shared that she is often tempted to lie to God – to say “God, I desire Your will” and pretend as if that prayer would trick God into thinking we were conforming with His perfection. Rather, it is better to honestly say: “God, I do not desire Your will, but I know that I should. Help me to want what You want.” In making this prayer, we recognize that we are not yet perfect as God is, but invite and allow Him to perfect us.
Do I want to see the Commandant of Auschwitz meet the mercy of God? No. But I know that God desires His mercy for everyone, and so, in these last days of the Year of Mercy, I ask that God grant me the grace to desire it.