Heroism and priesthood, Dachau and Amazonia

George Weigel

In late June, I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, located in a wooded suburb a few miles from downtown Munich. The camp site struck me as rather too neat: virtually all of the huts in which hundreds of thousands of prisoners lived, starved, and died are gone, and the atmosphere, despite a blistering hot afternoon, was antiseptic. There was little of the miasma of raw evil that remains at Auschwitz and Birkenau, even though Dachau was the prototype for those extermination factories. The Dachau camp site’s Chapel of the Agony of Christ, built after the war, is touching. But, to my mind at least, its stark modernism somehow fails to register the suffering it is intended to commemorate — and transfigure.

Dachau was, for years, the “world’s largest rectory” or “the world’s largest monastery,” for it was there that the Thousand Year Reich consigned more than 2,500 Catholic priests: almost 1,800 Poles, over 400 Germans, more than 150 Frenchmen, as well as Czechs, Slovaks, Dutchmen, Belgians, Italians, Luxemburgers, Yugoslavs, and clergymen from 10 other countries. That these men managed to maintain forms of sacramental life — celebrating clandestine Masses, distributing holy communion surreptitiously and hearing confessions — while nursing and otherwise comforting prisoners being worked and starved to death is a story that should be told time and again in every seminary in the world.

As should the story of Blessed Karl Leisner.

A candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Muenster who worked with young people in defiance of the Nazis, Leisner had been ordained a transitional deacon before being arrested and consigned to Dachau in 1940. There, the tuberculosis he had contracted shortly after his diaconal ordination went active, and over the next four years he wasted away. Then, in late 1944, a new prisoner arrived at Dachau’s “priest barracks,” the French bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Gabriel Piguet. A secret exchange of correspondence ensued between the Frenchman, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of Munich, and Bishop Clemens von Galen of Muenster, with an eye to finding a way to ordain Karl Leisner a priest before he died.

The paperwork was completed and smuggled into the camp (along with the necessary holy oils) by Josefa Mack, the “Angel of Dachau,” who would later become Sister Maria Imma, SSND. The prisoners clandestinely fabricated everything else needed for the ordination, including the full (and complex) episcopal regalia of the time. The pectoral cross was made at the nearby Messerschmitt plant where Dachau prisoners worked as slave labor, and a beautiful wooden crozier was carved in the camp by a Trappist monk-prisoner.

Shortly before Christmas 1944, the priestly ordination of Karl Leisner was secretly conducted by Bishop Piguet, with a Jewish violinist in the camp providing music outside the hut-“chapel” to divert the attention of the camp guards. Father Leisner was too ill to celebrate a first Mass immediately after his ordination but managed to do so on the feast of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, December 26. A fellow priest who would later become auxiliary bishop of Munich, Johannes Neuhausler, later described the scene: “On this, the greatest day of his life, [Karl Leisner] stood at the altar [in the prison barracks], far from his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and his friends. He wept and we wept with him. Silently, behind closed doors, we took some photographs of this first Mass so that the parents could see at least the picture of their son celebrating his first Mass in the concentration camp at Dachau.”

Mortally ill when the Dachau camp was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 29, 1945, Karl Leisner died in a sanatorium outside Munich three months later. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1996, along with another priest-martyr, Bernhard Lichtenberg, the heroic, anti-Nazi provost of the Berlin cathedral.

Might that grainy picture of Father Hans Leisner, properly vested for Mass in a hellish death-factory on the outskirts of Munich, be displayed during October’s Special Synod for Amazonia, which will consider (among other things) the nature of the priesthood in the Catholic Church? Might the example of Blessed Karl Leisner inspire white, European-descended Latin American priests, historically reluctant to work with the indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin, to transcend their racial and ethnic prejudices in order to evangelize, catechize, and bring the sacraments to native peoples?

The heroes of Dachau’s priest-barracks found a way to keep sacramental life alive, in full fidelity to the Church’s tradition. Is that impossible in Amazonia? Or elsewhere?

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!