On Sunday I attended a concert at Auschwitz. The former Nazi extermination camp was host to over ten thousand people, including dozens of bishops, rabbis and politicians all assembled to listen to the orchestra and choir of the Neocatechumenal Way perform a symphonic-catechetical in memory of and in solidarity with the suffering of the innocents.
The Neocatechumenal Way, founded in Spain in the 1960’s in the aftermath of Vatican II is dedicated to Catholic renewal and to improving Judeo-Catholic relations. This particular piece of music, performed by one hundred musicians and eighty choral singers, honours the memory of innocent Jewish victims of the holocaust by invoking the image of Mary crying along with Jewish mothers at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
The Spanish artist and theologian who composed the music, Kiko Arguello described it as an act of love and reconciliation and a musical gift to the Jewish people. In a Vatican Radio interview Rabbi Dr David Rosen Honorary President of the International Council of Christians and Jews said “This concert has been an example of fantastic solidarity; it has expressed a profound understanding of the historical suffering of the Jewish people. From this point of view it helps us to overcome the wounds of the past.”
I had never previously been to Auschwitz. I am unfamiliar with Catholic sacred music and more importantly Catholic theology. I went partly because my instinct told me this was going to be a meaningful event and partly because the indefatigable Lorenzo Lees, one of the key organisers who invited me, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I arrived early and under a blazing sun, I trekked in silence across the vast and bleak expanse of Auschwitz – Birkenau unable to grasp the magnitude of this former death factory. Later in the afternoon a cool breeze brought relief as I listened attentively to the strange and beautiful music of this extraordinary concert.
In many ways it was foreign to me; musically, liturgically and theologically. Orthodox Jews eschew orchestral music in worship, we speak to God in Hebrew not Latin and Jews and Catholics have very different views when it comes to interpreting suffering. Yet across this vast audial and conceptual divide I was able fleetingly to appreciate, if not entirely grasp, what these compassionate and thoughtful Catholics were trying to communicate to me in their own language. Often when it comes to building bridges of understanding and reconciliation, be it religious, political or personal we expect the other to conform to a prearranged script that we have in our head. We expect them to use our language and terms of reference. This is often just not possible and it is rarely desirable. We are all shaped by our own perspectives and cultural contexts. Authentic and constructive communication is not about compelling the other to speak in our language but it is rather to listen carefully to the language of the other and to discover within the unfamiliar and discordant notes a deeper commonality that transcends language. For a brief moment I grasped this elusive sense of commonality as Catholics and Jews stood together in the former gates of hell listening to sublime music invoking solidarity, compassion and the universal yearning for heaven.