Thought for the Day – 12 August – The Memorial of Blessed Karl Marie Leisner (1915–1945) Priest, Martyr – Ordained in Dachau Concentration Camp – A VICTOR IN CHAINS! VICTOR IN VINCULIS
An unimaginable event took place that Sunday morning, 17 December 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…
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 marvellously 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 4 June 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 6 September 1944, a convoy of French deportees arrived at Dachau, among whom was French Bishop Gabriel Piguet. Soon a rumour 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 23 September the sick young man asked for the necessary authorisation 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 authorise the ceremonies requested provided that they are done validly and that there remain of them definite proof.» This was followed by the signature of Blessed 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 mitre made out of silk and pearls and vestments made from purple fabric. Gaudete Sunday, 17 December 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 26 December 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.
On 29 June 1945, Karl received a visit from his father and mother. All three were overcome: «We are together!» On 25 July 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 8 August, his three sisters arrived. What a joy to be able to chat at length with them! Finally, on 12 August he began his death agony and expired peacefully to join the choir of holy angels in Heaven.
In proclaiming him Blessed on 23 June 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.»