January 31: Remembrance Day (4 B)

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Ps. 95

We listen to prophets’ voices such as Isaiah, Samuel, Daniel, Moses, and Jesus. Each speaks with moral courage and personal authority.

Early in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is in a synagogue in Capernaum where he confronts a man with an unclean spirit. Jesus says: “Quiet! Come out of him.” The gospel adds that all present were amazed. Again, this was at the outset of Jesus’s public ministry.

At a particular time, when we open our hearts, individual prophetic voices speak to us and make us act on behalf of the gospel.

The United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day was this past Wednesday, January 27. On this day, we recall those heroic souls who have spoken with their lives.

Several years ago, in January, I traveled to Northern Europe with my nephew Phil. We went to Sunday Mass at Saint Michael’s Church in Munich, Germany. It’s the parish church of Jesuit Father, the Blessed Rupert Mayer. During World War I, he had been a chaplain in the German army when he was severely injured and later was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery. In the 1930s, his preaching against the Nazis placed him in so-called “protective custody” at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. At the end of the war in 1945, he died at the age of 69.

The next day, a snowy and cold day, we went to Dachau Concentration Camp outside of Munich. There I learned that 2,700 priests and ministers were imprisoned during forced labor, and where many died. To the countless Jews who died at Dachau, we add priests and ministers, who are memorialized and are held in our memory.

At a particular time, when we open our hearts, individual prophetic voices speak to us and make us act on behalf of the gospel.

Blessed Rupert Mayer prayed:

“Because you [O Lord] will it, it is best. Because you will it, we are blest. Till in your hands, our hearts find rest.”

On Wednesday, the Holocaust Remembrance Day marked the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by Soviet troops. The Nazis and their allies killed some 6 million Jews and others in German-occupied Europe during extreme nationalism.

Pope Francis noted in his remarks: “Remembering is a condition for a better future of peace and fraternity.” For the pope, remembering these events is “an expression of humanity” and “a sign of civilization.”

He added: “Pay attention to how this road of death, of extermination, of brutality, began…Today we commemorate the victims of the Shoah and all people persecuted and deported by the Nazi regime.”

Among Pope Francis’s administrative measures has been the recent opening of Vatican archives to the scrutiny of historians faced with the task of fully comprehending how Catholics and Christians alike could remain silent in the face of the atrocities during World War II. The work of scholars continues.

Such painful catastrophes also give impetus to transform thought and behavior and mark a generation, especially those born in the war’s aftermath. Here are people whose tragic past had a profound effect on how they live their present lives.

One such man was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, an influential British moral philosopher, and writer who died of cancer this past November 2020.

Of Rabbi Sacks, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, said that he had “lost a friend; the Jewish community a great leader; humanity an eloquent spokesman.” Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said that the rabbi “had the rarest of gifts – expressing complex ideas in the simplest terms.” Blair called Sacks “a man of huge intellectual stature but with the warmest human spirit.”

Born in London in 1948, Jonathan Sacks was the first in his family to attend college. His father had emigrated from Poland to Great Britain and worked selling cloth and textiles at the age of 14.

Jonathan Sacks served as chief rabbi in the United Kingdom from 1991 to 2013. His profound voice was on war and peace issues, religious fundamentalism, ethics, and the relationship between science and religion. Sacks wrote more than 20 books.

In “The Dignity of Difference,” he wrote: “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims…God is the god of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.” Sacks concluded: “God is greater than religion. He is only partially comprehended by any faith.”

Sacks had his critics, and once, he told a reporter: “When extremists call you a heretic, that’s their way of giving you an honorary doctorate.”

Queen Elizabeth appointed Sacks to a knighthood in 2005 and a peerage in the House of Lords, where he spoke to issues of moral and political concern. In 2016, he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, previously won by the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.

Sacks had an insight into how religion can be misused. He wrote: “Human beings have both a propensity for altruism and a propensity for violence and evil. They are born at the same time they derive from the same source. We are altruistic towards the members of our group, and that makes us angels to the guys like us and demons to the guys not like us.” Rabbi Sacks was a builder of bridges among communities of faith.

At the Covid-19 outbreak, Sacks observed those people hoarding food and medicine and refusing to distance themselves. He responded: “They’re only concerned with their own interests. That’s what happens when you put ‘the I’ ahead of ‘the We.’ When you emphasize ‘the We,’ something extraordinary happens. You get the most heroic behavior – from doctors, nurses, and health care workers, from people who are stacking the shelves in supermarkets. These are people who live in ‘the We.'”

In our own time, in the face of this Covid-19 pandemic, we see so many acts of personal courage, and yes, sacrifice; these are witnesses of heroic love. Jonathan Sacks was a person whose memory of the recent past teaches us how to live our present lives.

We have listened to prophets’ voices — Isaiah, Samuel, Daniel, Moses, and Jesus. Each speaks with moral courage and authority. May Rabbi Sacks’ memory be a blessing!

Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.


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