Living inside our preferred social media bubble has its up-side as well as its down side.
On the up-side, you get to read things sent you by people who share your values, and discover things you weren’t familiar with. So I have come to like ‘Catholic Twitter.’ It’s reassuring to find there are people out there a bit like me.
But over the weekend I was sent links to an article which deeply moved me. It was about human transformation, or the melting of the human heart. Beyond the secular chocolate and the rustic rebirth of nature, if the Christian festival is about anything, it’s about experiencing and living forgiveness.
The start of the story did not look promising. It described the arrest and the sentencing of the Kommandant of Auschwitz, a German officer called Rudolf Hös. He had organised the deaths of 2.5 million Jews and other prisoners in the concentration camp he ran. He was described by those who had encountered him as being an implacably hard-hearted ruthless bastard.
At one point during the war, the SS rounded up a whole Jesuit community in a small town in Poland. They were sent straight to Auschwitz. Their Superior however was away and so by accident avoided capture. But when he found out what had happened, he di something most unusual, and either rash or stupid. He went to the camp to request their release directly from the Kommandant.
Unsurprisingly Father Władysław Lohn failed; they were gassed, but to everyone’s surprise, almost miraculously, he himself was allowed to leave alive by the Kommandant Hös. He survived the next couple of years and came through the war.
Hös was arrested when the Germans surrendered. Defiantly he explained he had no fear of death, but he was however very anxious indeed about being imprisoned and tortured as an act of revenge for his own brutality, which he fully expected. Why should what he had done to others not be done to him?
When instead he was treated with humanity and simple courtesy by his guards, something deep within him ‘gave way’. He had experienced something he had never encountered before, let alone believed in; he experienced mercy. Wholly taken aback, and not knowing how to handle this thing that was happening to him, asked to be able to re-connect with the Catholic Church of his childhood. He wanted to make his confession and receive Communion before he was hung.
But there was a problem. No priest could be found that was willing to go and hear is confession. There may have been a suspicion that he was just trying to use and manipulate the Church for some unknown purpose.
Hös remembered the man he had inexplicably let go, Fr. Lohn. He entreated the guards to try to track him down and find him. Providentially he was now living only 30 miles away. He came and heard Hös‘s confession. It lasted a long time. He was given absolution at the end of it, and one of his last acts on earth was to kneel and receive Communion.
One of his guards who was present, said off it later, that despite or even because of the horror of what the man had done, the sight of his kneeling in sorrow and penitence and receiving the gift of the bread of life, was then most moving sights he had ever seen.
There was nothing to be gained by a false act of piety by a once proud man. Indeed, many senior Nazis died with the defiant shout of Heil Hitler on their lips. But defiance in Hös had been melted by mercy.
It was the descriptions of this transformation of murderous hatred and pride as we celebrated Easter that left me so dissatisfied by the reports of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon which has caused a few ruffles over the weekend.
There was always been an uneasy relationship between the ambitions of Christian belief and the priorities of the body politic.
There were many people in the first century, including a group called the Zealots and their para-military branch called the Sicarii, who believed they had a religious duty to take political action against the Romans.
Political action always has a tempting side. You feel you are doing something rather than nothing. But one of the most striking aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus was his concentration on deepening and clarifying the relationship of his listeners with the God as their Father. Like the prophets before him, he prioritised a new heart over a new state.
There has long been a view that the reason Judas betrayed Jesus was in order to pressurise him to save himself from judicial execution by launching the political movement of resistance against the Romans. It would certainly have commanded widespread popular support.
And actually, that did in fact happen forty years later. The political activists got their way. But, as Jesus foresaw and warned, instead of gaining its political independence, Jerusalem was wiped out.
After Jesus death his followers were so taken aback by their experience of the resurrection and forgiveness of sins that flowed from it, that that they launched a new religious movement in response. It became the Catholic Church. It made a number of mistakes along the way, but it was at its best in melting and changing peoples’ hearts with the promise and experience of mercy.
The Roman Empire collapsed before it, not by being overcome by a better political system, but by an experience of the reality of the effect of risen Christ in the hearts of the new believers. It created an astonishing liberation in the discovery a forgiveness that overflowed into the love of enemies and an onward cascade of forgiving.
When the Church plays politics, it fails just like politicians do. When it lives forgiveness, it transforms lives. Memo to Canterbury. Stick to ‘mercy’ next year.