Friday, 28 April 2006

A Secret Ordination at Dachau

Back in February, I visited the former concentration camp of Dachau, just outside Munich. It's not widely known in Catholic circles that, between 1941 and 1945, Dachau was the main camp for priest prisoners. Over 2,500 Catholic clergy were held there during the war – many of them Poles, but also priests who were considered 'anti-Nazi' from Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Holland and other countries. Many of these died through ill treatment, including some who have been beatified.

One of the most remarkable Dachau stories relates to Blessed Karl Leisner. Born in the Lower Rhine in 1915, he became Diocesan Youth Leader in Münster, began training for the Priesthood and was ordained deacon just before the outbreak of war. However, tragedy soon struck. His priestly ordination was postponed when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and Karl went to the Black Forest to gather his strength in a sanatorium. Some unguarded comments about an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler led to his arrest and eventual internment at Dachau from December 1940. Indeed, there were some thirty seminarians in the camp, and the priests looked after them, concentrating especially on their spiritual and intellectual formation. Many of them went on to be ordained after liberation.

Given the state of his health, it is surprising that Karl survived five years of imprisonment. He exercised his diaconate by serving his fellow prisoners, especially from his sickbed in the camp infirmary.’ He even managed to bring his guitar with him to Dachau and, even though it was confiscated, he managed to get it back and arrange song-fests for his comrades.

It remained his dearest wish to be ordained a priest. In September 1944 a French bishop, Gabriel Piguet of Clermont-Ferrand, joined the ranks of prisoners, and the idea began to circulate that Karl could be secretly ordained priest at Dachau. At first, Karl resisted the idea: ‘Ordained at Dachau? Unthinkable! And besides, my parish has a right to my first Mass.’ Shortly afterwards his home parish church was destroyed in an air-raid and, as things looked increasingly desperate, plans were made for his secret Ordination.

The Ordination was due to a remarkable young woman, who was training to become a School Sister of Notre Dame. Her name was Josefa Mack, though she used the alias ‘Madi.’ Between May 1944 and April 1945 she made weekly visits to Dachau, ostensibly to buy flowers and vegetables from the camp’s market garden. The little shop was supervised by Fr Ferdinand Schönwälder and through Madi’s regular meetings with him, messages and secret supplies were passed over. At great personal risk, Madi got permission from Karl’s bishop, Clemens August von Galen (himself recently beatified) and also from Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich, who gave her the necessary liturgical books and Holy Oils. Meanwhile, various prisoners were busy preparing for the big day: a brass episcopal ring, a crozier carved out of oak, a silk mitre (made by the one English priest prisoner, Fr Durand), and purple vestments.

On 17th December 1944, Gaudete Sunday, Karl, strengthened by an injection of caffeine, was ordained priest. The emotion of the priest prisoners as they welcomed their new brother was indescribable. During the ceremony, a Jewish prisoner played the violin outside, to divert the guards' attention.Nine days later, on the Feast of St Stephen, Fr Leisner celebrated his first and only Mass. The new priest wrote: ‘after more than five years of prayer and waiting, days filled with very great happiness... That God could, through the intercession of Our Lady, answer our prayers in so gracious and unique a manner, I still cannot grasp.’Fr Karl lived to see the liberation of Dachau. He was taken to the convent hospital in Planegg outside Munich, where he died on 12th August 1945, aged 30. The last words in his diary read, ‘O God, bless my enemies!’ He was beatified by John Paul II on 23rd June 1996 at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, which had been built by Hitler for the 1938 Games. The Pope used the same crozier at the beatification ceremony that had been used at Karl’s ordination, with the inscribed words ‘Triumphant in Chains.’ Karl had indeed been triumphant in chains. He was called to be a priest; he never lost hope of Ordination. He eventually achieved his goal and lived out his Priesthood in a way that he never expected.

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