(Died 1945, 1943)
Many Catholic priests and seminarians were imprisoned in the Nazi prison camps, and not a few died of the intentionally harsh treatment they received. Two of these clerics were beatified by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Berlin on June 23, 1996.
One was Father Karl Leisner. In the mid 1930s Karl was studying for the priesthood in the western German diocese of Muenster. An apostolic young seminarian, he tried to organize the Catholic students into groups for discussion and recreation. He would take teenagers on “camping” hikes to Belgium and Holland so that they could talk freely about the contrast between what Hitler was teaching and what the Church teaches. However, when the Nazis began to demand complete control over all German youth, Karl’s efforts became less effectual.
The government next made Leisner serve for six months in agricultural work service. Despite the Nazi ban on religious activities among his fellow farmers, he arranged ways for them to attend Sunday Mass. On discovering this, the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) declared him a dangerous person. Searching his home, they made off with all his diaries and papers, and most of his books. Fortunately they saved all these documents, thus preserving data for a history of this young man’s heroic life.
As the end of his theological education drew near, Karl fell ill with tuberculosis. He passed the year 1939 in a mountain sanitarium. Having then recovered partially, he was put into jail. Then he was sent to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, and later transferred to Dachau. His tuberculosis worsening, he was lodged in the infamous Dachau infirmary, where patients were often selected for medical experiments.
Leisner arranged, nonetheless, to have Communion brought to him secretly. In December 1944 a French bishop who was imprisoned in the camp was able to ordain him to the priesthood. He was so ill afterwards, that he had to postpone his first Mass for a week. After that first Mass he never got to celebrate another. When the Allies liberated Dachau in April 1945, he was sent to a sanitarium, but he died a few weeks later of the rigors of disease and jail.
Provost Lichtenberg, an older man, had become a popular pastoral figure in Berlin before the Nazis came into power. As the leading priest in St. Hedwig’s, the Berlin Cathedral, he was in an influential civic position. When the Nazis began their tyrannies, he protested them in public. Deploring the regime of concentration camps like that of Dachau, he organized demonstrations against them outside certain camps. In November 1939, on the bitter “Krystallnacht,” when Nazi gangs destroyed so much Jewish property, he led public prayers for the Jews. He also dared to lodge an official protest with the government against euthanasia, which Hitler had approved for purposes of “ethnic cleansing.”
At length, Lichtenberg, too, was arrested for “misusing his official position,” and imprisoned for two years. Prison did not “convert” him, however. When released, he renewed both his priestly and his political efforts. Ordered, though ailing, to be transferred to the concentration camp at Dachau, he died en route in a cattle car, in November 1943. His tomb in the Berlin Cathedral became a shrine for those who had been heartened by his heroic faith. After the war, the main office building of the Archdiocese of Berlin was named after him.
When Pope John Paul II declared both of these priests blessed martyrs, it was at a Mass celebrated in the vast stadium that Hitler had constructed for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. In this arena, used so often for Nazi mega-spectacles, John Paul denounced the racism and the “absolute cruelty” that Nazism had so often demonstrated under the shadow of the swastika.
–Father Robert F. McNamara