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Responding to the Summons

The following is an excerpt from a homily of the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York:

Elie Wiesel, in his book Night, tells of the last hours before his father's death in a Nazi concentration camp. Elie, then just a boy, was advised not to waste soup and bread on his ailing father, but to take his father's ration for himself. For only a fleeting second Elie agreed in his heart, although he dared not admit it.

He says of this:

"Only for a fraction of a second I felt guilty. I ran to find a little soup to give my father; but he didn't want it. All he wanted was water. I brought him some water.... I laid down on the top bunk . ... I would not leave my father. There was silence all around now, broken only by groans.

"In front of the block the SS were giving orders. An officer passed by the beds. My father begged me, 'my son, some water, I'm burning, my stomach.' "Quiet over there!' yelled the officer.

"The officer came up to him and shouted to him to be quiet. But my father did not hear him and he went on calling me. The officer dealt him a violent blow on the head.

"I did not move. I was afraid. My body was afraid of also receiving a blow.

"Now my father made a rattling nose and it was my name, I could see he was still breathing, spasmodically. I did not move.

"When I got down, after roll call, I could see his lips trembling as he murmured something. Bending over him I stayed gazing at him for over an hour. Engraving into myself the picture of his blood stained face, his shattered skull. Then I had to go to bed. I climbed into my bunk above my father who was still alive. It was January 28, 1945.

"I awoke January 29th at dawn. In my father's place lay another invalid. They must have taken him away before dawn and carried him to the crematory. He may still have been breathing.

"There were no prayers at his grave, no candles were lighted to his memory. His last word was my name. A summons for which I did not respond."

I have come to know Professor Elie Wiesel very well. Well enough to ask him, after he had won the Nobel Prize: "You have spent your entire life in preaching about the Holocaust. Are you so driven because your father called your name when he was dying and you failed to respond?" And he answered, "yes."

May we never fail to respond to the summons -- the call of the vulnerable, pleading for life.

--John Cardinal O'Connor

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