Most of you have probably seen the epic movie Schindler’s List, in which a German man works to save hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. If you have seen it, or even if you have not, you can imagine or recall the character of the camp commandant, played by Ralph Fiennes. The officer is a very violent man, who willing undertakes the wholesale slaughter of those who are sent to his camp. If you have studied the history of the Holocaust a little, you probably will have heard the name Auschwitz before, since it was the largest of the concentration camps operated by the Nazis. If you think the commandant in Schindler’s List is a horrible person, then you should know the real-life commandant of Auschwitz.
Rudolph Höss was notorious for devising “better” methods for carrying out the extermination of the “unwanted people” in the camp. It was Höss who ultimately devised the method of using poison gas to kill the Jews and others who passed through Auschwitz, with almost mind-numbing and horrifying efficiency. It is because of Höss’ ingenuity that Auschwitz would become the largest concentration camp operated during World War II. But his work would eventually catch up with him, especially as the Allies closed in and brought about the end of the war.
Höss would be captured and put on trial by the Polish, accused of committing numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even then, he discussed these matters rather cooly and matter-of-factly. When accused of murdering three and a half million people during his time as commandant, Höss replied, “Only two and a half million - the rest died from disease and starvation.” Found guilty of these murders, Höss was executed in 1947 near the same spot where hundreds of Auschwitz prisoners were murdered for trying to escape.
But you’ve probably never heard the rest of the story. Höss had been raised Catholic, but had fallen away as a teenager. He had been one of the early members of the Nazi Party, and supported Hitler and the Nazis throughout the 30s and 40s. After his capture and trial, he was more afraid of prison than death. When asked about this, he replied that he feared what the Polish guards would do to him in revenge for his sickening crimes.
Yet he experienced none of this: instead, the guards, many of whom had lost family members at Auschwitz, did their duty without exacting any punishment, but treating Höss respectfully. Many of them were faithful Catholics, as are the majority of Poles even to this day. Though the wounds were still fresh, and perhaps some of them wanted to do so, none of the guards were ever accused of sneaky tricks or of inappropriate behavior. This, along with perhaps the impending threat of his death, sparked something deep within Höss’ soul. He began to realize something of today’s Gospel.
Soon, the prisoner was asking for a priest to hear his confession. The guards tried, but found it hard to find a priest willing to come and hear the confession of one who had committed such heinous crimes against Jews, Catholics, and others who passed through his camp. But a priest was finally found: a Jesuit priest whom Höss had spared from execution when the priest wanted to die with his imprisoned brother Jesuits. In fact, they found this priest serving as the chaplain at the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Krakow, the place where Saint Maria Faustina had received the message of divine mercy in the years before the war.
The priest came and met with Höss in his prison cell. The priest agreed to hear his confession. Höss poured out everything he had done: his abandonment of the Catholic faith, his service as a member of the Nazi Party, and his work as one of the engineers of the greatest slaughter of human beings in the history of the world. When all that had been done, when his whole soul had been laid out before this priest, he heard for the first time in many years, “I absolve you of your sins.” Rudolph Höss, one of the greatest mass murderers in history, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz, a pioneer of the Holocaust, was at that moment reconciled to God.
This is the scandal of God’s mercy, the scandal which we can see in our Gospel today. Anyone can be forgiven of their sins and restored to God’s grace and love. The woman caught in adultery in this Gospel was cast aside by the Pharisees for her sin, doomed to be stoned for her transgression of the law. Likewise, Rudolph Höss was to be cast away as a mass murderer, no longer fit perhaps to be considered human. But God does not leave these stories there. God transforms these two individuals by His mercy so that they may once more be His children, His people.
This is the gift which Jesus gives us through His passion and death. To each one of us, He offers to us the chance to become more than what we once were, to be better than our sinful past. The scandal of mercy is shown in Jesus declaring that He came not to call the righteous but sinners; Jesus is on this earth not to be some prognosticator of truth, but to be the spotless Lamb by whose stripes we are healed and by whose blood we are redeemed from sin. Each one of us can receive that mercy; each one of us can receive that healing touch; each one of us can be restored to the Father from whom we had strayed in our sins.
But we must come and receive that mercy by the means that Jesus has left us: through the confessional. God is willing to forgive each one of us, but we must come before Him and ask it of Him through His priest. Only in this way can we receive the merits of the Passion and be healed of our sins. Only in this way can we be restored to our Heavenly Father and truly live up to our calling to be the people of God.
During these last days of Lent, I ask one thing of you: go to Confession. Whether it is with me or another priest, come and receive that same mercy prefigured for the adulterous woman and won for Rudolph Höss and for each one of us. No matter what you have done, no matter how long it has been, God will forgive you, but you must ask Him for it. As we saw last week, He is a merciful Father who waits for us to return to Himself, but we must come to our senses and return to Him. It is only in recognizing our sinfulness that we can begin to answer the command of Christ this day: “Go and sin no more.” May we be receptive of God’s mercy as was Rudolph Höss and countless Christians before us, so that we may be prepared for “the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling” in the glories of Heaven.