27 January 2009

Two Masses in Belsen Concentration Camp

Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, a large outdoor sculpture by Nandor Glid
commemorates Holocaust victims

Fr Patrick Brennan’s blog Humblepiety Fr Patrick Brennan of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England, reminded me that today is Holocaust Day. It is a day that, above all, commemorates the millions of Jews who died in the Nazi concentration camps.

British clean up Belsen, April 1945

Many others died in them also. I came across accounts of two different Masses celebrated in Belsen after its liberation. The first is one of the most poignant descriptions of a Mass I have ever come across and is from an article by Lord Molyneaux, former head of the Ulster Unionist Party, I witnessed the dead of Belsen: we must always confront tyranny, that he wrote for The Daily Telegraph on this date five years ago. I was astonished to discover that James Molyneaux, a young officer at the time in the British Army, had been educated in a Catholic school in Northern Ireland.

The most moving experience came on the second morning as I was walking from what had been the luxury SS barracks which our troops had transformed into a hospital. My attention was drawn to two packing cases covered by a worn red curtain. A young Polish priest was clinging to this makeshift altar with one hand, while celebrating Mass. Between his feet lay the body of another priest who probably died during the night. No one had had the energy to move the body.

I had no difficulty in following the old Latin Mass, having been educated at St James's Roman Catholic School in County Antrim, and, although an Anglican, I had gained a working knowledge of all the rituals. Still supporting himself against the altar, the young priest did his best to distribute the consecrated elements. Some recipients were able to stumble over the rough, scrubby heathland. Others crawled forward to receive the tokens and then crawled back to share them with others unable to move. Some almost certainly passed on to another - probably better - world before sunset. Whatever one's race or religion one can only be uplifted and impressed by that truly remarkable proof of the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

The other account of a Mass in Belsen after liberation was by an Irish Jesuit, Fr Michael Morrison, who was a chaplain with the group that liberated Belsen.

During his time in Belsen, Morrison witnessed many horrors but he also had times of great joy. After the first few days of total chaos, Morrison began to set himself up properly. When his work of anointing the sick and the dead began to lessen, Morrison decided to hold the first Mass to be said in the camp. However on the day he was supposed to hold the Mass, it poured rain. The rain was so bad that Morrison thought of canceling the Mass as he felt that no one would come. When he walked out on the makeshift altar he was stunned to see hundreds of people of many different religions waiting. He felt this to be one of the greatest moments of his life and so began to say Mass every day. This is from a BBC page.

Father Morrison clearly wasn’t aware of the Mass offered by the Polish prisoner-priest but both accounts surely are a testimony to the power of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to the presence of faith and hope in God and of the presence of God’s love in the midst of evil.

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