Updated: Apr 14
Fr Louis Reflection
Holy Week - 5thApril 2020
The world has always and will always experience times of tension, uncertainty and fear. One way or another, humanity is tested, either personally or nationally in every generation. Biblically one can attribute the cause of mankinds’ struggle to cope with misfortune because of the disobedience and indeed the vanity of man who sought to ‘out God, God’ in the beginning, whenever that was. As ever, it seems to be the lot of the massive majority of the people of this world to suffer because of the vanity, or selfishness, greed and arrogance of the ‘power-seeking few.’ Many of us who have been blessed with children are concerned in one way or another, about what the future holds for them. Besides the comic sideswipes our children have to cope with from their parents such as ‘God help the girl who marries you!’ or ‘God help the country when your generation is running it!’ despite the chiding, somehow, each generation does cope, and the gifts of genius God bestows on humanity are visible in every generation.
Mankind faces difficulties with a resilience which never seems to diminish. Often it’s the aftermath of conflict, either military or social, which takes longer to come to terms with or to resolve. I say that, because one of the topics of conversation my wife and I used to ‘chew’ over when children started to be delivered to the family with some regularity, was ‘how would we cope, or to be blunt, how would my wife cope should she be faced with the grave problems that hundreds of thousands of people on the Continent of Europe faced after WWII. The topic was the ‘displaced’ peoples in Europe, let alone all the other millions throughout the world at the end of that particular war, who were rendered stateless or homeless or both. Most have us have seen film footage of streams of the displaced traipsing seemingly aimlessly, tramping at crawling pace along dusty lanes or roads, their worldly goods piled on a rusty bicycle or a pram, or any mode of transport that relieved them of carrying their worldly goods, or because of lack of energy, the alternative of simply just dumping them in the ditch. The greater majority of the displaced were women, children and men too old to fight or had been wounded in conflict. All men capable of holding a rifle, even young boys were enlisted by the end of the war. Christ wept over Jerusalem: he must have wept buckets over Europe, the Far East, Japan and all theatres of war in 1945, and constantly ever since.
Two years after the end of the war in Europe, whether refugees or internally displaced persons, some 850,000 persons lived in ‘camps for the displaced’ across Europe: among them were Armenians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Yugoslavs, Jews, Greeks and Russians. Even before the end of the war, the great part of the German population of East Prussia had fled westwards, although thousands drowned on route in overloaded ships that sank in the Baltic Sea. Germans, who were expelled or who departed voluntarily from eastern Europe at that time numbered some 11.5 millions!
How long did this situation last? Well, it lasted until World Refugee Year in 1959 – 1960, a year that was designed as a final effort to clear the camps once and for all – some 15 years after the ceasefire in Europe. By the end of 1960, for the first time since before WWII, all refugee camps in Europe were closed. [For further information, check the BBC History website, or read ‘European Refugee Movements after WWII by Bernard Wasserstein].
Here, I add a personal comment which reflects on the impact these camps, their residents and the effect their incarceration had on their lives, some for as long as 15 years. Their distress hardly ever came to my mind. Why? Because as in many other instances, it was a question of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. What was the distraction in my life during some of those years while others were in distress?
Some of you may know, that in 1951, aged 10, my Father sent me and my elder sister to Germany, a voyage of discovery for both of us arranged by a family friend – a German lady – who had married a British soldier serving in the army of occupation in Germany. Both of us were to stay with a Catholic family. I stayed with Mr & Mrs Rolf, and their son Axel, who lived in a small town called Syke in the north, a few kilometres south of Bremen, and my sister stayed with a Catholic family in the Saarland in the south. I enjoyed my stay immeasurably; attended school, made many friends and willingly would have stayed as long as my parents would have allowed. Mr Rolf had been in the German Army; he was captured by the Russians in 1941, and was imprisoned in a gulag until he was released in early 1951. During my stay in his home, I never heard him say one single word.
After three months or so in the north, I travelled to the Saarland to join my sister, who also had thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Maybaum family: mother, father and six children. Mr Maybaum had fallen foul of the authorities at some stage during the early stages of the war, and had been sentenced to slave labour for the duration of the conflict. As for Mrs Maybaum she had to survive and feed and protect her family as best she could.
Both my sister and I understood what war meant from a child’s perspective. We were born in Coventry, and had witnessed the mess caused by bombing, and were aware of death, and yet even if we had any reservations about staying in Germany we needn’t have worried: we were treated with love and warmth as though we were family members. All this happened just 6 years after the war in Europe had ended. Eventually we had to return to England, as the Education authorities were applying pressure to our parents as we had missed the first few weeks of the Christmas term, and so our father had booked a flight from Dusseldorf (which to all intents and purposes was piles of rubble) to Northholt in West London, which acted as both an RAF base and a civilian airport. To sum up, during our stay in Germany, the war had never been an issue, despite the devastation it had caused, and our families remained friends for many years. [As far as my sister and I were concerned, the darker side of the Third Reich was never mentioned, although we were aware of it.]
What has that to do with Palm Sunday and Holy Week?
All the emotions experienced by people in war-torn Europe during and resulting from the war were experienced by Jesus, and continue to be experienced by countless numbers of people in many parts of our world: political power brokers manipulating the thought processes of nations; nations being swallowed by expanding empires; authority and subsequent punishment controlling the behaviour of those whose homeland had been annexed; religion being politicised. Today, as in Jesus’s time, those who challenged the ideals of the new regime, or were considered a threat were either imprisoned or executed. In the immediate aftermath of war, countries witnessed the spectre of vengeance, hunger, poverty, homelessness, statelessness and personal humiliation as happened during the final weeks of WWII.
Jesus coped with the fragility of human nature, not with harshness, but with understanding and gentleness. We read in John’s gospel how the crowds who had come for the festival of Passover, met Jesus with palm branches. Were they the same people who five days later were calling for his execution? As he began his suffering passion before this arrest, in his humanity Jesus could have walked away, but he didn’t. Oscar Romero made a similar choice in defending his people against a murderous and callous state and was murdered as a result. The Christian world welcomes every year ‘the Word’, Jesus who is – to quote St Andrew of Crete – ‘above all authority and rule and power and above every name that is named. Heh comes without display, without boast. He will not contend’, he says, ‘or shout out, and no one will hear his voice. He is gentle and lowly, and his entrance is humble’.
During Holy Week, we celebrate how Jesus behaved, not how mankind behaves. It is a lesson in self-control and love, of forgiveness and understanding, compassion and remorse for all our offences against God and against our fellow man. That is how we should behave, difficult though it may be. Jesus submitted himself to his Father’s will, and in his desire for all humanity to follow him, he asks us individually to submit to his Father’s will. St Andrew of Crete sums it up with these words: ‘So it is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not coats or lifeless branches or shoots of trees, matter which wastes away and delights the eye only for a few brief hours. But we have clothed ourselves with Christ’s grace, or with the whole Christ – for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ – so let us spread ourselves like coats under his feet.’
Palm Sunday and Christ’s Passion are a daily reminder of the sacredness of who we are, and to whom we belong.