It wasn’t the first-ever visit to a concentration camp by a Catholic leader, but it may have been one of the most moving.
Pope Francis prayed and spoke to survivors of the Holocaust during his visit to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz Birkenau on Friday morning.
Previous popes from Germany and Poland have also visited the site. But unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis spent much of the morning in silence, seen as a sign of respect but also lamentation for the 1.1 million people killed in the concentration camp during World War II.
Later, he spoke with survivors, and Polish people who risked their lives to hide Jews, protecting them from murder.
A merciful heart opens up to welcome refugees and migrants.
The pope also visited the death cell of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest and saint who took the place of a man condemned to death.
For Pope Francis, of Argentina, it is his first visit to an eastern European country. He is spending five days in Poland, celebrating 1,050 years of Catholicism in the country.
Earlier this week he attended World Youth Day in Krakow, and called on the 600,000 young attendees to be open and understanding of the troubles of refugees.
In his opening speech on Thursday, he also called on Poland to show compassion to migrants and to be open to them: “A merciful heart opens up to welcome refugees and migrants,” he said.
Last year, millions of people sought refuge in Europe from war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa. European countries remain divided on how to handle the influx of asylum-seekers.
Poland’s right-wing government, along with other eastern European countries, has refused to take in refugees, citing security fears. The PiS party in power in Poland won elections in 2015 on an anti-immigrant, euroskeptic platform.
The European Union is seeking to address the humanitarian crisis by calling on countries to either accept a quota of refugees or pay money that would be directed to other countries taking in higher numbers of people, such as Germany, Greece and Italy.
The pope met with Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, on Wednesday. Afterwards, he called on the Polish people to deal positively with economic and ecological issues as well as “the complex phenomenon of migration.”
Wisdom and compassion are needed in dealing with the latter, he said, as is “a spirit of readiness to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger, and solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety.”
In his address to young people, the pope also called on them to “join the adventure of building bridges and knocking down walls, fences,” in what many see as a reference to the fences and reinforcements built up amid the influx of refugees.
Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. Tagesspiegel’s Paul Flückiger contributed to this article. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org