But forgiveness I have learned is difficult. I am sure I am not alone in that. I was once asked in a catechism class for adults this question: “Do we forgive Hitler?”
My response? “Forgive Hitler? What about trying to forgive a person at your work who you have been mad at for years or a wayward child or a particularly annoying mother-in-law. Start there. That is hard enough.”
Then a few weeks ago I read a piece by Fr. Dwight Longenecker on Crux, an online Catholic magazine. The story concerned Rudolf Höss, who commanded Auschwitz for several years in the 1940s. Höss was responsible for the murder of three million people, many of them infants and little children.
Longenecker wrote about how in April 1947, before his execution, Höss received the Sacrament of Penance. The article made clear the horrible crimes Höss committed but finished on a hopeful note.
“In the disturbing story of Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz also reminds humanity that God’s mercy can reach even to the master murderer of Auschwitz,” wrote Longenecker, a pastor in South Carolina.
Bothered by the article, I posted the following comment beneath the article on the web site: “I just read your piece on Rudolf Höss. And I have to say that it made me sick to my stomach. I am a Catholic. And I believe in the Church and forgiveness. But do we really have to celebrate this?”
The word “celebrate” was not really fair. It was intended for others who were also commenting on the story, many of whom seemed thrilled that Höss had returned to God.
But Höss was not just some functionary or a soldier. He believed Jews, Slavs and other so-called unter menschen were a form of bacteria to be erased. If Germany had won the war Höss and his kind would have continued their grotesque spree until all their enemies were destroyed.
Germany lost, thank God, and Höss was sent to face the gallows. But how do we know his confession was sincere? Perhaps he was just playing the odds. “What could it hurt to ask for forgiveness and perhaps end up one day in Heaven?” Or perhaps it was a way to allay fear as he went to his execution.
I had a short e-mail exchange with Longenecker. It brought me to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, I could accept Höss’ act of penance in my head but not my heart. To that, Longenecker replied: “The longest journey is from the head to the heart.”
This has not calmed my agitation, especially with those who felt that through repentance Höss was somehow relieved of all guilt and his story represents an example of Christian charity. I know there is forgiveness in the Church and that saying sorry does not preclude justice, on Earth or in the next world. I am sure that Höss has not escaped divine punishment. For if he were not punished then who would be?
Imagine for a moment being a victim of the Holocaust or a victim of a murderous rampage under Stalin or Mao, or being caught up in events in Rwanda or the Islamic State jihad in the Middle East. Then imagine someone telling you the Church has forgiven one of the main perpetrators, a Catholic, of crimes that took away everyone you ever loved. Then this same person tells you how happy they feel knowing that forgiveness has occurred. How would you feel at that moment given all that you had witnessed: your children murdered, your wife raped, your husband hanged, your parents’ shot?
Longenecker’s purpose was to show there are no limits to God’s forgiveness, a lesson that should be reinforced as so many of us refuse to forgive others and ourselves. But although what we do as Catholics in terms of forgiveness is real, it does not have to be proclaimed from the rooftops.
We are told to love our neighbours. Some of our neighbours do not want to hear about forgiving their tormentors. Let a priest work it out with his penitent. And then the rest of us should have the grace to be quiet.
(Lewis is a Toronto writer whose column frequently appears in The Catholic Register.)