Rudolf Hoss, not to be confused with Rudolf Hess, was the long serving commandant at the infamous concentration Camp Auschwitz- Birkenau. Born into a Catholic family, Rudolf left the Church and was committed to the ideals of the Nazi party and became an SS Officer committed to the ‘Final Solution’. He was given the responsibility of making Auschwitz an efficient death camp and this he did. Sometime between 1943 and 1945 the Jesuit community in Krakow were arrested and taken to Auschwitz, the then Superior, Fr Wladyslaw Lohn escaped arrest because he was out on business.
How Fr Wladyslaw managed is a miracle, but he went in search of his community and got into the camp and found them. He too, however, was discovered and was taken to the Commandant Rudolf Hoss. Everyone thought they knew what would happen. To their surprise Hoss allowed the German speaking Polish Jesuit to go free. Just before the war came to an end Rudolf Hoss was transferred to Germany and then went into hiding but was found.
He was put on trial and his crime was clear, the murder of three million inhabitants of Auschwitz, among whom were the Jesuit community from Krakow, Maximillian Kolbe and Edith Stein. The only time that he spoke during his trial was to correct the Judge. He said that he was only responsible for two and a half million deaths, the other half a million died of disease. He was of course found guilty and sentenced to death. The verdict was that he would be sent back to Poland, to Auschwitz to be hung on the gallows that he had erected.
In his letters to his family he wrote that it was not death that he feared but the possible torture at the hands of the Polish and British troops that were guarding him. Four days before he was executed, he wrote:
“My conscience compels me to make the following declaration. In the solitude of my prison cell I have come to the bitter recognition that I have sinned gravely against humanity. As Commandant of Auschwitz I was responsible for carrying out part of the cruel plans of the ‘Third Reich’ for human destruction. In so doing I have inflicted terrible wounds on humanity. I caused unspeakable suffering for the Polish people in particular. I am to pay for this with my life. May the Lord God forgive one day what I have done.”
On April 4th, 1947, which happened to be Good Friday he asked to see a Catholic priest. No one who was approached would come to see the ‘Beast of Auschwitz’ as he was called. Eventually he remembered Fr Wladyslaw Lohn and asked if he could be found. As it turned out Fr Lohn was about 30 kilometres away in Lagiewniki, Krakow at the Shrine of Divine Mercy. He came and heard Rudolf Hoss’s confession and the next day returned to give him Holy Communion before his execution.
In memorable words Fr Wladyslaw wrote: ‘In all my years I have never seen anyone receive Holy Communion with such devotion. I have no doubt that Rudolf Hoss in in heaven. I now pray for those priests who refused to give to him the supreme gift of God’s mercy.
Why do I tell that story?
What you and I begin today in this sacred liturgy of Palm Sunday is not a series of carefully choreographed performances. These are not empty rituals. Today, as every day, we enter the powerful story of our redemption – the supreme gift of God’s mercy. The extraordinary extravagance of God. Isn’t that one of the special features of Mark’s Passion narrative. The account of this woman who does this extraordinary extravagant act of breaking open the alabaster jar of oil to anoint Jesus.
It is after all not reasonable to do this, nor is it reasonable to forgive a man who has murdered three million people, but that is the God we worship. That is the God who rode into Jerusalem, the God who is hanging on this Cross.
When Jesus instructed the disciples to go a borrow the colt that no one else had yet ridden, he knew exactly what message he was sending out to the crowds that had gathered for the feast of Passover. The people walked on pilgrimage – only the King – the Messiah would ride as in the prophecy of Zechariah 9: 9f:
‘Look, your king is approaching, he is vindicated, and
Victorious, humble riding on a donkey, on the colt, the foal of a donkey’.
That is why the crowds recognised him they knew exactly what he was saying by this gesture. He was fulfilling the prophecy and so proclaiming himself not only as the new David but the new Solomon, who kingdom would stretch from sea to sea.
Now what would the King do once he had entered the Holy City? He would go to the temple and offer sacrifice on the altar. Here it is Jesus is not just the Messiah, the new David, the new Solomon but the new priest with an offer of a new Covenant – a new relationship based on mercy.
The story that we immerse ourselves in once again this Holy Week, the story played out in the life of Rudolf Hoss, is the truth that God wants each and every one of us to encounter. Redemption is always possible; it is within our grasp. The ocean of mercy never runs dry. Do you remember those beautiful words that Pope Francis wrote in Misericordiae Vultus? He wrote:
‘From the heart of the Trinity, from the depths of the mystery of God,
the great river of mercy wells up and overflows unceasingly.
It is a spring that will never run dry, no matter how many
people approach it’. (n25)
Whoever you are who may be listening at this moment, whatever tangled mess you may find yourself in, the Word of God that we have listened to, from Isaiah, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and the very Passion narrative, speak directly to you, to our hearts and lives: ‘I know I shall not be shamed’, the suffering servant cries out. Why, how could he be so confident? Because our God is not remote – he enters the very confusion of our world. He empties himself and become like us except sin. I love that description in the book by William Young called ‘The Shack’, the story of a man caught up in tragic loss and darkness where God explains that having created human being the Trinity knew that we would probably make a mess of things, ‘so we rolled up our sleeves and entered the mess’. That’s the Incarnation that is the point Paul is making in this glorious passage. That is the power of the Cross as we will see.
So here we are entering once again the Passion drama, but it is no piece of stage theatre. This is life and it is life that we are being offered. Like the young man who is yet another strange feature of Mark’s passion narrative who goes at night and in the cold dressed only in a white sheet. That young man had to make a decision, do I stay or do I run and every time you and I are faced with this tremendous mystery of our faith that same choice faces us: Do I stay with Him who humbled himself to be like me or do I run for safety and further confusion? The choice is ours.
Abbot Robert Igo, OSB
28 March 2021