In 1989 I led a team of students to visit churches in Poland. The Iron Curtain had not yet fallen, none of us spoke either German or Polish, and we had no satnav or mobile phones. Despite these challenges we somehow made it to our hosts in Krakow.
On a rest day they took us to the town of Oświęcim. The name meant nothing, and it was only as we drew near that we realised we were going to Auschwitz, the concentration camp synonymous with the Nazi genocide. During the tour I remember feeling overwhelmed at the scale of the atrocity that had happened there – the millions slaughtered, the thousands gassed and cremated every day, the piles of left behind suitcases, glasses, and shoes.
But amid the remembrance of such horror was a beacon of hope. A cell occupied by a Roman Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe. A fellow prisoner, Franciszek Gajowniczek, had been chosen at random for execution when Kolbe stepped forward and offered his own life instead. The substitution was accepted. Kolbe was killed and Francis survived. It was an act of self-sacrifice reminiscent of that of Jesus who willingly gave his life to save us all. As John’s Gospel reminds us, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’