Self-sacrifice and Mercy overcome evil: Catholic Education Week

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > Self-sacrifice and Mercy overcome evil: Catholic Education Week

I have just recently returned from Poland where I attended the World Youth Day together with 30 Tasmanian pilgrims. The WYD is held every three years. The Pope invites Catholic young people from across the world to meet with him at a designated city. This time the location was the city of Krakow in Poland.

For Catholics the city is famous for two things in particular. Firstly it is the city of St John Paul II. He grew up near the city. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Krakow and eventually became its Archbishop. He led the people during very difficult years under a repressive Communist government. Then, he became pope and one of the greatest popes in Catholic history.

The second reason for the importance of this city for Catholics was that in 1931 the Lord appeared to a young nun, Sr Faustina, and spoke to her about the depth of mercy in the heart of God for humanity. He asked her to have a painting made of what she saw in the apparition and to have the words, “Jesus I trust in you” placed at the bottom of the picture.

In 1931 Poland was in relative peace, however the year after her death Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and entered a period of unspeakable suffering.

We had the opportunity while on pilgrimage to visit two concentration camps just near Krakow – Birkenau and Auschwitz. In these places of darkness and evil where over one million people were systematically gassed and cremated, we were chilled by what we discovered happened there. We were reduced to a sombre silence in the face of such evil.

Auschwitz is a place of immense human suffering yet also the place of extraordinary self-giving. The story of a Franciscan Friar, Maximillian Kolbe, and his sacrifice to spare the life of another prisoner is now well known. After the escape of three prisoners, the Auschwitz guards chose ten men to be starved to death in retribution. After being chosen by random, a prisoner cried out for mercy saying he had a wife and children.

Fr Kolbe then stepped up, said he was a priest, and offered to take the man’s place. His offer was accepted. After being starved of food and water for two weeks in the cellar of the punishment block, he was killed with an injection of carbolic acid. In the midst of dehumanising suffering a saint was born: St Maximillian Kolbe was canonised by Pope St John Paul II in 1982.

In a place where human wickedness reached its height, self-sacrificing love was in evidence. And it is no coincidence that just nearby in the city of Krakow the Lord spoke of his great mercy towards mankind. Evil is overcome by mercy. In a simple image God offered the Polish people a sign that evil can be endured. In the midst of suffering a person can say, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

The Pope spoke to the pilgrims on four different occasions – at the ceremony of welcome, at the Stations of the Cross, at the Vigil and finally at the Mass on Sunday where more than two million young people had gathered. It was an awesome sight.

At the Stations of the Cross the Pope spoke specifically about evil – he himself had visited the concentration camps on the previous day. He said this: “In the face of evil, suffering and sin, the only response possible for a disciple of Jesus is the gift of self, even of one’s own life, in imitation of Christ; it is an attitude of service.”

Evil is overcome by self-sacrifice. This is the Christian way. It is the way of Christ. He challenged us at the end of his homily not to go back to our countries and forget the cross. 

The Gospel today speaks of workers in a vineyard. The Lord calls all of us as his disciples to be workers in his vineyard. The Pope spoke to the young people in his first address of the danger of young people “throwing in the towel” and not engaging in life in a productive way. He said, “It is hard and troubling to see young people who waste their lives looking for thrills or a feeling of being alive by taking dark paths and in the end having to pay for it… and pay dearly”. He said he was saddened when he witnesses young people chasing after what he called “peddlers of false illusions … who rob you of what is best in you.”

The Pope urged young people not become “couch potatoes” in life. He spoke about young people who just want comfort – the comfort of the sofa. He said, “God expects something from you.” He urged the young pilgrims to be a “protagonist of history” because, he said, “life is always beautiful when we choose to live it fully, when we choose to leave a mark.”

The World Youth Day was an extraordinary experience. Pope Francis spoke in a simple and yet challenging way to all of us. The city of Krakow offered us two saints – St Faustina and the message of Divine Mercy, and St John Paul II, one of the great popes of history. And nearby in the sombre places of unspeakable evil and suffering a saint was born, St Maximillian Kolbe offered his life so that another might live.

Self-sacrifice and mercy will triumph over evil. Let self-sacrifice and mercy be the hallmarks of our lives.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Wednesday, 10 August 2016