Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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December 12, 2001
Our Lady of Guadalupe

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

An unimaginable event took place that Sunday morning, December 17, 1944, in Camp 26 of the Dachau concentration camp—Karl Leisner, the prisoner who was always smiling, who for five years had been the consoling angel to his fellow sufferers, was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ. Seriously ill, he was near exhaustion. On the cross he received priestly anointing. His beautiful eyes—calmed, matured by suffering, consumed by fever—proclaimed the undying joy of Christ Jesus. He had but nine months to live…

Karl Leisner was born on February 28, 1915 in Westphalia, a western state of Germany. In 1921, his family moved to Kleve, a small city nearby. Herr Leisner, a judicial treasurer, a very organized man, deeply attached to the Catholic faith received from his ancestors, possessed an energetic, even impetuous, nature. His wife, pleasant and kind, always calm and conciliatory, made love shine in her home. A bright, mischievous child, brimming with life, Karl first attended grade school, then entered the state high school in 1927. A good student, he completed his studies with ease. His curiosity was inexhaustible; he was constantly seeking to know why things were as they were. His beaming smile opened hearts to him. After meeting the high school chaplain, Father Walter Vinnenberg, who had a gift for arousing enthusiasm, Karl developed his talents as a youth organizer and leader. He was twelve years old when the priest suggested that he create a youth group, the Saint Werner Group. He agreed to do so, and began taking down records of their meetings. His minutes became, in May 1928, the journal of his soul, which allow the reader to follow the young man's spiritual ascent.

«Give me the strength, Lord!»

Bicycle excursions played a large part in the Saint Werner Group's activities. Karl related them in detail and with humor. A Mass was held before their departure, and, when the chaplain accompanied the young men, the Holy Sacrifice was the high point of each day. Karl and his friends spent exhilarating hours pitching tents, discovering cities and countrysides as well as men and their trades, overcoming obstacles, surpassing themselves by leading other youths in the light of God. Of a generous nature, Karl adapted to every situation. During breaks, members played the flute and guitar, and sang popular songs. They likewise made fervent acts of devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Soon, Karl was named the leader of the Catholic Youth Movements in the Kleve district. He was also interested in civic life and politics.

The adolescent displayed an amazing level of maturity. Grieved by his falls, he quickly regained his composure. After committing a sin, he wrote, «I have fallen once again... That's it! Death to sin!... Remain calm and brave, in spite of all the trivialities and all the voraciousness of the senses! I want to esteem myself—I am an image of the Triune God who is One God. Reestablish in myself the unity between will and actions.» Karl was not a superman, nor a hallowed saint fallen from Heaven. He fought a difficult spiritual battle. At a yet tender age, he decided to purify his mind and heart, and to regulate his behavior. His resolutions can thus be summed up: order (in the soul, in outwardly comportment, in activities), discipline, piety, and love. In 1933, he wrote, «My heart wanders here and there, until it rests in You, O my God! You, Lord, are order, beauty, the deepest peace. You give the peace that the world cannot give... Without the love of God and joy in my soul, I will accomplish nothing. With God, I will have everything in me! Give me the strength, Lord!» At Easter 1933, before beginning his final year of high school, Karl went to Schönstatt for a spiritual retreat. At the heart of the Schönstatt apostolic movement's spirituality was the covenant of love with Mary, by which one is led by the Blessed Virgin towards Christ, who takes His disciples to the Father. Retreatants also made their way on the path of holiness, abandonment to Providence and spiritual childhood, while fulfilling their daily tasks as perfectly as possible and with love, no matter how simple and insignificant they might seem to human eyes.

Resisting the pull of the times

However, in January 1933, National Socialism had come into power in Germany. The following July 2, the authorities closed the buildings used by Catholic organizations and confiscated their property. Karl wrote, «At school, the confrontations are becoming more and more harsh... We are castigated as Catholic activists, enemies of the State... We are all the more proud for it. In spite of the many dark moments which inspire fear, we are holding very high the Catholic banner of the youth movement.» Very soon, the young man was singled out and put on file by the Gestapo (political police). He strove to be more prudent in his words, but this does not mean that he hid his Christian faith, or gave up his commitment to the state. Every day, he made the effort to get up early enough to go to Mass and receive Communion. His serious scholarly work kept his high school officials from expelling him; he even graduated with honors.

In the silence of a retreat, in December 1933, Karl examined the question of which career to choose. «Solitude has strengthened me; it has given me the definitive courage to dare to take upon myself the burden of a priestly vocation.» This decision gave the young man peace, but he would subsequently have to endure many battles on this matter. On May 5, 1934, he entered the Borromäum in Münster, a house which brought together students who intended to enter the priesthood. For two years, he studied philosophy and theology at the University of Münster. He was a mature young man who stood out for his tactful behavior. Bishop Clemens von Galen, whose heroic resistance to National Socialism would earn him the nickname «the lion of Münster,» appointed him the diocesan head of Catholic Youth. «Karl's faith and enthusiasm for Christ should be an encouragement and example, especially for the young people who are living in an environment greatly marked by unbelief and indifference. For it is not only political dictators who limit freedom; courage and strength are also needed to resist the pull of the spirit of the times, oriented to consumerism and self-centered hedonism, or occasionally flirting with enmity towards the Church or even with militant atheism» (John Paul II, homily for the beatification of Karl Leisner).

«Throw all hate into the fire!»

In the June 1934 issue of a Catholic monthly for young people, Karl wrote, «We burn with love for Christ and for every human being, and even more for every brother and sister of our German nation! We throw all hate into the fire... May we see grow flames of love and the eternal longing of the heart of Germans—a great and powerful people Christianly united by love and mutual respect.»

On Easter 1936, Karl, who was required to continue his studies for two semesters in a university of his choice, left for Freiburg im Breisgau. From there, he had the good fortune to visit Rome, and to be received in an audience by Pope Pius XI, who in the space of five days, had condemned National Socialism (Encyclical Mit brennender sorge, March 14) and Communism (Encyclical Divini Redemptoris, March 19, 1937). At Freiburg, Karl stayed with the Ruby family, where he oversaw the studies of their nine boys. With the harmonious life of this family before his eyes, Karl asked himself whether he might not also be called to found a Christian family. He felt his affection grow for Elizabeth, the Rubys' eldest daughter, but he kept his secret to himself and did not confide this to the young woman. Thus began for him a long and painful struggle between the desire for priesthood and that for family life. At the beginning of 1938, Karl passed the seminary entrance examination. However, the struggle between his vocation and the attraction to marriage, always latent, returned intensely to his soul, up until the end of June, when a letter from Elizabeth, to whom he had confided his affection for her, inclined him not to abandon his priestly vocation. On March 4, 1939, Karl was ordained a sub-deacon, and on the 25th, he received the diaconate from Bishop von Galen.

For some time, he had been in a state of exhaustion, and attributed this condition to his vocational crisis. But his coughing fits, increasingly frequent, had another origin. A medical examination led to a formidable diagnosis—advanced tuberculosis. Karl was appalled. Very quickly, however, he recovered his composure: «I have to get well.» He was sent to a sanatorium in the Black Forest. Little by little, his docility in following the medical directives contributed to the improvement of his state of health; recovery seemed to be in sight. But during this time, war broke out. Europe was in flames.

A fatal anger

On November 9, 1939, the news of an attempt against Hitler in Munich spread through the sanatorium. Karl was in his room when a friend, who shared many Germans' illusions about a «Third Reich,» joyfully announced to him that Hitler had come through the attempt unharmed. «Too bad he made it through,» replied Karl, who guessed at the horrible tragedy into which the Führer's pride would lead Germany and Europe. The friend left the room, furious. Without ill intent, but pressed by the questions of patients gathered not far from him, he made Karl's feelings known. Soon, Leisner was informed against to the police and, that same day, he was locked up in the Freiburg prison. Wrapped up in a coarse blanket, laid out on an iron bed, shivering from the cold in a dark cell, he felt alone, abandoned, doomed to an inescapable death. The first days were terrible. But little by little, he pulled himself together and drew from his faith the strength to accept his situation. He made his «fiat» and wholeheartedly forgave those who had done him wrong, seeking comfort from the Most Blessed Virgin and the communion of saints.

On March 16, 1940, Karl was committed to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin. His name was taken away—from then on, he was called by his number, 17520. His head shaven, clothed in the striped pajamas of internees, «rejected from among the German people,» he no longer had any rights. In the camp reigned fear of the whip and of the superhuman work imposed, as well as nagging hunger and a continuous dread of the future. Nevertheless, Karl, animated by an interior joy, shone on his companions with his smiling optimism. In December, in the face of pleas from the German episcopate, Himmler, the head of the SS, decided to gather the clergy together in one camp, at Dachau, and to subject them to less inhumane conditions. The camp at Dachau, close to Munich, initially designed for 8,000 detainees, held as many as 50,000; 15,000 prisoners died there each year. The number of priests detained rose to more than 2,600, a thousand of whom died there. However, they had—an immeasurable consolation—the opportunity to attend Mass. The year 1942 was harsh, with a frigid winter and a rainy spring. Each morning, the SS prolonged the call of the freezing prisoners, who were often soaked to the bone, outside on the parade ground. Karl's health could not withstand it. During the night of March 15, a pulmonary blood vessel ruptured, causing a hemorrhage. He was admitted to the infirmary, where he stayed two months. Three times he returned there, after short stays in the priests' quarters.

The angel of comfort

The «infirmary» was a death ward, where, in indescribably cramped quarters and a poignant despair, men confronted death. The gasping and dry coughs of the tuberculosis patients continued night and day. Karl took refuge in the Sacred Heart of Jesus through prayer and supplication. He drew his peace and the strength to smile from Holy Communion, which was brought to him regularly in secret. As soon as he was able to get out of bed, he went from one bed to the next, dispensing words of encouragement and consolation, brightening hearts with his beautiful smile. He was soon known as the angel of comfort, and the sick came to confide their distress to him. Under his pillow, he always hid a box of consecrated Hosts which he distributed, as a deacon, to his brothers in the Faith. His presence was particularly comforting to deported Russians, whom death was wiping out in great numbers. Thanks to the rudiments he had been able to learn of their language, more than one heard for the first time of Jesus' agony and of the Good News of the Father who loves us and waits for us. «The Lord does not demand of His disciples a compromise with the world, but a profession of faith that is prepared for the sacrifice of oneself. Karl Leisner made this profession, not only with his words, but also with his life and death. In a world which had become inhuman, he acknowledged Christ who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life» (John Paul II, homily for beatification).

As a sick prisoner, Karl was counted among the «useless mouths.» In October 1942, he appeared on the list of inmates who should be exterminated in the gas chambers. Two priests succeeded in getting his name crossed off the list. «Each day, I offer myself to the Blessed Virgin, my Mother,» he wrote. «She has led me marvelously during three years of captivity.» At the beginning of 1943, there was a typhus outbreak in Dachau, which claimed some 6,000 victims. Karl escaped the epidemic, because the tuberculosis ward was isolated from the rest of the camp. On June 4, he wrote to a friend, «Looking back, I am very thankful to the Lord and to His Blessed Mother. If I listened to the pettiness of the human heart, I would like to hope for a speedy return to see you again. But the Lord knows what's best.» In the complete distress of his situation, he expressed an heroic thought: he thanked God for having configured him to the Passion of His Son by means of these trials.

Unthinkable, but true!

On September 6, 1944, a convoy of French deportees arrived at Dachau, among whom was French Bishop Gabriel Piguet. Soon a rumor circulated among the prisoners—«Why doesn't the bishop ordain Karl a priest?» On his bed of suffering, Karl protested, «Ordained at Dachau? Unthinkable! And besides, my parish has a right to my first Mass!» But the idea slowly gained ground and, on September 23, the sick young man asked for the necessary authorization in a letter to his own bishop. At the end of 1944, the Third Reich was losing ground to Allied advances; the SS's surveillance of the mail was relaxed. A 20-year-old woman guaranteed, at the risk of her life, the connection between the prisoners and the outside world. At the beginning of December 1944, Karl received a letter written by one of his sisters, bearing in the middle of the text these words, in someone else's handwriting: «I authorize the ceremonies requested provided that they are done validly and that there remain of them definite proof.» This was followed by the signature of Bishop von Galen, whom Pius XII would not delay in making a cardinal.

From that point on, the clandestine ordination was prepared under great secrecy. Thanks to the complicity of numerous inmates, a brass episcopal ring was prepared, as were a crosier carved out of oak, a miter made out of silk and pearls, and vestments made from purple fabric. Gaudete Sunday, December 17, finally arrived. The bishop was dressed in pontifical vestments. Karl, strengthened by an injection of caffeine, donned the white alb and the deacon's stole. He carried on his left arm the folded chasuble, and in his right hand, a lit candle. Indeed, such was the planning that nothing was left out, down to the last detail. Red cheeks gave away the fever that was devouring the sick man. The emotion of three hundred witnesses, with whom the 2,300 other priests at the camp were united, was indescribable. During the ceremony, a Jewish prisoner played the violin outside, to divert the guards' attention. At the end of the Mass, Bishop Piguet and Karl gathered around a breakfast prepared by the group of Protestant ministers. What complicity and ingenuity were needed to prepare this spread: white tablecloth, porcelain service, coffee and cake... «Karl Leisner's priestly ordination was a big event for the group of Protestant ministers,» wrote their senior member, Dr. Ernst Wilm.

Back among the tuberculosis patients, Karl continued his way of the cross. On December 26, he was able to celebrate his first Mass. He 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.» While his tuberculosis reached its final stage, the new priest testified to total abandonment to Divine Providence.

The end of the war was approaching. On April 29, 1945, the Americans seized the Dachau camp. At last, freedom for the survivors of the terrible internment! At the beginning of May, Karl was transported to the sanatorium in Planegg, close to Munich. He jotted down, «Bursting with happiness! Thank you, thank you... Alone, in a room of my own, what bliss!... In the silence, God speaks, even though I am exhausted.» But it was too late to save Father Leisner. From then on, it would be intense suffering until the end. United with Christ on the Cross, he offered himself to God for the expiation of sins and the salvation of men. In spite of his pain, he remained joyful as always, scarcely thinking of himself. He wrote down, «Do not lose courage or patience...»

Return to the springs

On June 16, he flipped through a splendid illustrated book on Europe. Then a prayer burst forth from the bottom of his heart, summing up all his love for European soil. He had lived five years in a suffering Europe. He knew the evil that consumed her. But he also knew the remedy for it, which brought forth this cry: «O poor Europe, return to your Lord, Jesus Christ! There will you find the source of the most beautiful values you display. Return to the cool springs of the true divine strength!» This appeal is echoed in our time by the letter written by Pope John Paul II, December 14, 2000, on the occasion of the twelfth centenary of Charlemagne's coronation: «It is only by acceptance of the Christian faith that Europe became a continent that, over the course of the centuries, has succeeded in spreading its values to nearly every part of the world, for the good of humanity... The ideologies which were the cause of so many rivers of tears and blood during the twentieth century appeared in a Europe which had wished to forget her Christian foundations... It was the denial of God and His commandments which created, in the last century, the tyranny of idols, expressed in the glorification of a race, of a class, of the State, of the nation, of the party, instead of the true and living God. Indeed, it is by the light of the misfortunes poured out upon the twentieth century that we may understand to what degree the rights of God and of man together are either strengthened or fall.»

On June 29, 1945, Karl received a visit from his father and mother. All three were overcome: «We are together!» On July 25, Karl was able to celebrate a second Mass. That day, he ended his spiritual journal with these words: «Also bless, O Most High, my enemies.» He had eight days to live. He told his mother, «Mother, I have to tell you something—but don't be sad. I know that I am going to die soon, but I am happy.» The evening of August 8, his three sisters arrived. What a joy to be able to chat at length with them! Finally, on August 12, he began his death agony, and expired peacefully to join the choir of holy angels in Heaven.

In proclaiming him Blessed on June 23, 1996, Pope John Paul II offered him as an example: «Karl Leisner encourages us to remain on the way that is Christ. We must not grow weary, even if sometimes this way seems dark and demands sacrifice. Let us beware of false prophets who want to show us other ways. Christ is the way which leads to life. All other ways are detours or wrong paths.»

Let us receive this recommendation from the Pope with confidence. Saint Benedict, the father of monasticism and the patron of Europe, also guides us in the same direction. «See,» he says in the Prologue of his Rule, «in His loving kindness, the Lord Himself shows us the way to life.» Let us ask Our Lady to lead us towards the eternal Light in the peace and joy of Christ.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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