Death of Pope Benedict XVI - New Year's Eve 2022 - Reflections on his visit to the Nazi Auschwitz - Birkenau extermination camp in May 2006
Funeral of Benedict XVI
|Pope Benedict XVI lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome (Getty Images)|
'Bells tolled and sirens wailed through the reconstructed streets of the Old Town at the final moment. It was 2 April 2005. Six days of official mourning followed. Bank websites were edged in black and everything was cancelled that smacked of pleasure. Consumption of alcohol and ice-cream was forbidden. Shrines began to materialize in parks and at war memorials. The infatuation of this society with death was at its most intense, the supermarkets piled high with funeral candles. Entire streets were lined with them enclosed in the characteristic glass funnels of red, yellow and white – the national colours of Poland and the Vatican. Knots of people, curiously lacking an air of expectancy, stood silently behind these flickering rows of light waiting for a procession that would never pass. Entire squares and window ledges shimmered in the darkness. Simply being together in the national family ‘nest’ at this moment appeared of overriding importance. This ‘Polish Pope’ was symbolically far more significant to Poles than simply head of the Church of Rome. He was a conspicuous example of that rare species, a successful Pole of world power and influence.
Polish eagles and the national flag, entwined with that of the Vatican, were draped in black ribbons. Established wartime traditions returned to life in this unprepossessing yet most courageous of capitals. SMS messages were sent in a mysterious and secret communication network. A directive for the population to meet at this or that place, line with candles this or that street associated with John Paul II, extinguish all the city lights at a particular moment. I obeyed my SMS message to switch off my home lights at 11.00pm.
His successor Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to Poland in May 2006 following in the footsteps of his mentor, the man he assured the assembled hundreds of thousands would very soon be canonized as a saint. Outside the Presidential Palace in Warsaw I found myself among a group of nuns bobbing about in the breezy showers like so many raucous gulls. All around me massive crowds of Poles were willing the German Benedict to be the reincarnation of John Paul.
At Oświęcim (Auschwitz) a grim, determined German in windswept robes of white and gold walked alone towards the infamous Black Wall where mass executions took place. This reluctant former member of the Hitler Youth was visibly straining to support an intolerable burden of history. In a formidable act of reconciliation, he kissed and caressed a group of survivors who were assembled in an orderly row.
Pope Benedict XVI prays with 32 survivors during a visit to Auschwitz on the last day of a four-day trip to Poland, May 2006
(Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)
At prayers in the extermination camp of Birkenau the rain ceased and a rainbow appeared over the barracks, the crematoria and the symbolic watchtower penetrated by the railway line leading to the loading ramp of death. The spring sun shone full upon him as he sat listening to the singing of the mournful Hebrew lament for the dead. The Middle Ages would have deemed it a miracle.'