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Benedict visits Auschwitz


German-born Benedict XVI yesterday on the last leg of his Poland visit prayed at the Auschwitz concentration camp where Nazi occupiers killed as many as 1.5 million people.

The Guardian reports that Benedict's black-clad entourage kept its distance as he walked solemnly under the gate's notorious words: "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "Work Sets You Free."

Other than a brief greeting to the local bishop, Benedict kept silent, his lips moving in prayer and the wind tossing his white hair as he stopped for a full minute before the Wall of Death, where the Nazis killed thousands of prisoners during World War II.

Benedict then moved to the monument at the neighbouring Birkenau camp, praying under a light rain before plaques in the languages of the different nationalities who died there. As he prayed, a light rain stopped and a brilliant rainbow arched over the camp.

The Nazi occupiers who built the camp near the town of Oswiecim - Auschwitz in German - killed as many as 1.5 million people there, most of them Jews. Others included Poles, Roma - or Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war and political opponents of the Nazis.

At the Wall of death, a line of 32 elderly camp survivors awaited Benedict, most of them Catholic. He moved slowly down the line, stopping to talk with each, taking one woman's face in his hands and kissing one of the men on both cheeks.

Benedict then visited the dark cell in the basement of one of the buildings, the place where St Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar, was executed after voluntarily taking the place of a condemned prisoner with a large family in 1941. Kolbe was canonised by John Paul II in 1982.

Benedict stopped to pray again in the cell, standing before a candle placed there by John Paul II during his 1979 visit.

The visit, by a Pope who was enrolled unwillingly in the Hitler Youth and drafted into the German army, is heavy with significance for Catholic-Jewish relations, a favourite theme for Benedict and predecessor John Paul II.

This was the third time Benedict has visited Auschwitz and the neighbouring camp at Birkenau. The first was in 1979, when he accompanied John Paul, and in 1980, when he came with a group of German bishops while he was archbishop of Munich.

The visit to Auschwitz was the last stop on a four-day trip to Poland, during which Benedict has urged Poles to serve as a beacon of faith in a mostly secular Europe.

Earlier, he urged 900,000 singing, clapping Poles gathered in a rain-soaked field to share their faith with other countries, saying it was the best way to honour their beloved John Paul.

The enormous, exuberant crowd chanted "Benedetto! Benedetto!" and sang "Sto Lat," or "A Hundred Years," wishing him a long life.

"I ask you, finally, to share with the other peoples of Europe and the world the treasure of your faith, not least as a way of honouring the memory of your countryman, who, as the successor of St Peter, did this with extraordinary power and effectiveness," Benedict said as he concluded his homily during the Mass in the Blonia meadow.

Predominantly Roman Catholic Poland joined the European Union only two years ago, 15 years after the collapse of communist rule.

"He told us that we should remain ourselves, that we should stay as we were before, attached to our traditions and Christian values," said Jacek Radon, 37, a Krakow businessman. "We should carry into the European Union our attachment to faith and to Christ."

People in Krakow have responded warmly, giving him his first John Paul-sized crowds of the trip, with police estimating Sunday's crowd at 900,000 - on the order of the throngs who turned out for John Paul, and more than the roughly 300,000 who came to Benedict's Mass on Thursday in Warsaw on the first day of his trip.


SOURCE
German-Born Benedict Visits Auschwitz (The Guardian/Associated Press 26/5/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Pope Benedict XVI: Apostolic Journey to Poland

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Pope arrives in Poland (CathNews 26/5/06)

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29 May 2006