Of the many dark moments of human history, few compare with the rise of Adolf Hitler. The terror he waged on Europe and the echos of violence we endure to this day point to a sobering legacy of how deeply human nature can fall. Many have taken to writing these painful memories down in the hopes of bringing this legacy to an end. The new era of terrorism and the passing of holocaust survivors numb our cultural memory of this horror. Sadly, our current state of affirms is turning a plea made by Elie Wiesel into a foreboding prophecy. His plea was to do theology by telling the story of the holocaust to keep its memory alive. In light of this, we must ask, If the world is forgetting the holocaust, is theology doing its job?
Under the dark pall of these events are people and stories. Some stories read with a tragic nihilism that breaks the heart and darkens hope. Other stories read like a suspense novel filled with brave resistance movements, brushes with death, and a fight to keep the memory of a people alive. The story of Fr. Michal Heller, Catholic Priest and Cosmologist, fits well in the stories of oppression leading to freedom. At the time of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Michal’s father helped sabotage the chemical plant he worked at, keeping it out of Nazis control. This act led Michal’s parents to flee to the Soviet Union, escaping one form of oppression only to be met with another. The Soviets routinely rounded up Polish immigrants and would send them to work camps. The Heller family were victims of one of these raids, placing them in a Siberian work camp.
At the end of World War II, the Hellers returned to Poland. Michal entered seminary and began his studies for the priesthood. After ordination, Fr. Heller continued his studies in Philosophy. After completing a Doctorate, he served in many academic institutions in Karkow, Tarnow, Louvain, and Washington DC. Central to Fr. Heller’s development as a Priest and scientist was his involvement with a small of group of intellectuals that would meet at the residence of then Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II). This group consisted of scientists, philosophers, and theologians who freely exchanged their ideas on various topics.
In light of the Communist control of Poland at that time, these type of gatherings could be considered quite subversive. However, these free exchanges were one of the peaceful forms of resistance that kept the idea of Poland alive. These and other forms of peaceful resistance planting the seeds for St. John Paul II’s writings on religious freedom. The legacy of this gathering of Polish intellectuals lives on as the Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. This center was founded by Fr. Heller through a grant given to him as the recipient of the Templeton Prize in 2008. Below is a brief video of Fr. Michal Heller explaining the mission of the Center.
Fr. Heller’s scientific work is in the field of general relativity and its unification with quantum mechanics through non-commutative Geometry. However, from the standpoint of the relationship between faith and science, Fr. Heller is a living reminder of how intellectual freedom is a gift to be treasured. It is difficult for those who have grown up in a free country to think of a world that would seek to suppress intellectual and religious freedom. When we forget this gift, we begin to relegate an honest exchange of ideas and beliefs to the intellectual ghettos. To find true peace, true tolerance, and true pluralism, there needs to be an affirmation that the pursuit of truth can, at times, lead to moments of disagreement and tension. However, these moments are necessary, providing an opportunity to challenge our beliefs and come to a deeper sense of truth. Further, the gathering of intellectuals at the residence of a future saint reminds us that the free exchange of ideas in our homes, parish, and communities can truly change the world we live in for the better, affirming that where truth is pursued, regardless of the field of study, truth will eventually be found.
Spiritual exercise: Pray in thanksgiving for the gift of intellectual and religious freedom. Pray for those who do not enjoy this basic human right. May all of us work to protect this gift, allowing us the opportunity the pursue Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. And may the world remember not only the horrors of the holocaust, but also those who stand as living examples of confronting evil with truth, goodness, and beauty. Examples like Fr. Michal Heller and his family.
Enjoy this lecture by Fr. Heller on the relationship between science and religion.
* Source material for much of this post came from the Encyclopedia Britannica and The Templeton Prize website.