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: Haven’t signed to get the late-term abortion ban on the ballot? Now’s your chance

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If you haven’t had a chance to sign the petition to get Initiative 120 on the ballot this year, this weekend will present many opportunities to do so.

Initiative 120 is a ballot initiative that seeks to prohibit abortions after 22 weeks through birth, with the only exception being if the mother’s life is at risk.

See below for a full list of locations throughout Colorado so sign petitions for Initiative 120.

Sign the Petition | Drop off Notarized Packets | Notary on Site

Aurora – Queen of Peace Catholic Church
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
13120 E Kentucky Ave, Aurora 80012
In the Narthex

Broomfield – Nativity of our Lord Catholic Church
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
900 W Midway Blvd, Broomfield 80020
Reception Desk Lower Level

Denver – Catholic Charities Office
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
4704 N. Harlan St, Denver 80212 Suite 550

Lakewood – Colorado Christian University
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
8787 W. Alameda Ave, Lakewood 80226
Beckman Center – See Map
Enter campus off Garrison, go east on Cedar

Lone Tree – Panera Bread Atrium
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
9233 Park Meadows Dr, Lone Tree 80124

Windsor – Coffee House 29
11:00 AM – 2:00 PM
1039 Main St #K, Windsor 80550
Behind McDonald’s

CO Springs So Central – Pikes Peak Citizens for Life
9:00 AM – 1:00 PM
707 N Nevada Ave #R, Colorado Springs 80903

CO Springs North – Colorado Christian University Satellite
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
1125 Kelly Johnson Blvd. Suite 105 Co Springs 80921

Castle Rock – Calvary Chapel
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
1100 Caprice Dr, Castle Rock 80109
In the Lobby

Grand Junction – The Pregnancy Center
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
930 Main Street, Grand Junction 81501
970-241-7474

Saturday, 2/15 Signing Only Events**

Colorado Springs – David C Cook Foundation
10:00 AM – 3:00 PM
4050 Lee Vance Dr. Colorado Springs 80918 Upper/east parking lot
720-899-0897

Greeley – Centerplace Shopping Center
1:30 – 3:30 PM
2700 47th Ave, Greeley 80634
Enter off 47th Ave – Look for the sign east of the bank in the parking lot

** No notary at these locations

Sunday, 2/16 Signing Event**

Glenwood Springs – New Creation Church
8:30, 10:30 AM and 6:00 PM Services
44761 US-6, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601
217-891-6116

Ongoing Opportunities to Sign

Aurora – Iglesia Rey de Reyes Church
Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Saturdays 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
380 S Potomac Street #110 Aurora, 80012
720-899-0897

Boulder – Boulder County GOP Office
Weekdays (M-F) 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
619 Ken Pratt Blvd, Longmont 80501

Greeley – Farmers Insurance
Weekdays (M-F) 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM, Saturdays 9:00 AM – noon
2990 W 29th St. #1, Greeley 80631

Loveland – Loveland Glass
Weekdays (M-F) 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
630 W 1st Street, Loveland 80537

Windsor – Guardian Self Storage
Mondays and Thursdays 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM Through February 15th
760 E. Garden Dr., Windsor 80550

Colorado Springs – Eddington Eye Care
Weekdays (M-F) 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM (Exception, Thursdays, open 10-6)
6130 Barnes Rd. Suite 128, Colorado Springs 80922

Castle Rock – Calvary Chapel
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Wednesdays 8:00 AM – 3:00 PM
1100 Caprice Dr. Castle Rock 80109 (Reception Desk)

Ft. Collins – Larimer County GOP Office
Weekdays (M-F) 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM
4020 S College Ave #11, Fort Collins 80525

Woodland Park – Charis Bible College
Weekdays (M-F) 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM
800 Gospel Truth Way, Woodland Park 80863

Estes Park – Ponderosa Realty
Weekdays (M-F) 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
1751 N Lake Ave. Suite 104, Estes Park 80517

Pueblo – A Caring Pregnancy Center
Weekdays (M-Th) 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM
500 Colorado Ave, Pueblo 81004

Montrose – Life Choices Family Resource Center
Tuesdays & Thursdays 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM, Wednesdays 10:00 AM – 7 PM
155 Merchant Drive, Montrose 81403
970-249-4302

Pueblo West – Majestic Baptist Church
Sundays 9:30 – 11:30 AM
494 E Hemlock Dr, Pueblo West 81007

Julesburg – Benson Ag Land Realty
Weekdays (M-F) 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM, 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM
200 W 4th Street, Julesburg 80737

Denver – La Prensa de Colorado Newspaper
Monday – Thursday from 12:00 PM to 6:30 PM or by appointment
7290 Samuel Drive, #105 Denver 80221
303-287-4105