Saint of the Day – 12 August – Blessed Karl Marie Leisner (1915–1945) Priest, Martyr, Marian devotee – born on 28 February 1915 at Rees, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and died on 12 August 1945 at Planneg, Bavaria, Germany of tuberculosis. Blessed Karl was interned in the Dachau concentration camp. He died of tuberculosis shortly after being liberated by the Allied forces. He has been declared a Martyr and was Beatified by St Pope John Paul II on 23 June 1996.
There was a priest, Blessed Karl Leisner, who heard his call to the priesthood during a Schoenstatt Retreat. The Apostolic Movement of Schoenstatt is an apostolate of the Roman Catholic Church, a Marian movement founded in Germany in 1914 by a Pallottine priest, Fr Joseph Kentenich (1885-1968). Members of the Schoenstatt were formed for a renewal in the Catholic Church. Fr Kentenich had been assigned the pastoral care of students living in Schoenstatt. He prepared the students to entrust their lives to Mary and to establish a chapel which would become a home where they could obtain the grace of welcome, interior transformation and a fruitful apostolate. In 1964, the group received formal approval.
Blessed Karl Leisner is a prime example of what dedication to Mary can do. He was the first of five children born to Wilhelm Leisner and his wife, Amalie, on 28 February 1915. Karl was born in Rees/Niederrhein, Germany, near the border with the Netherlands. On 3 March he was baptised in Assumption Catholic Church in Rees with the name Karl Marie since his mother had a great devotion to Mary.
When Karl was six years old the family moved to Kleve — about 20 miles southwest of Rees — so that his father could take a position as a civil servant. Karl continued attending school until he finished. Karl’s spiritual and doctrinal formation continued in the security of his family home. After he received the Sacrament of Confirmation on 20 July 1927, he began keeping a spiritual diary. The entries reveal what a great love he had for Christ, how his soul yearned for Christ!
At the age of 17 he wrote, “My whole life must be more deeply bound to God, connected with God, given to God it does not have to be but I want it to be so, humbly I ask, seek, make efforts and thereafter strive for it.”
As a youth he became an altar server and joined the local Catholic Youth Group. These groups combined prayer and study with recreational activities, including cycling, hiking and camping. Being a member of the group, his leadership skills quickly became evident. It was not long before he became the leader . At the time that he assumed the headship of the group, Hitler’s minions were recruiting young men to join the Nazis. To avoid the problem with the Nazis, Karl would organise camping trips to Holland and Belgium. During these trips, he and the boys would hike miles with camping equipment on their backs and Karl would play the bugle to keep them on schedule.
His singular devotion to Mary deepened when a friend invited Karl to attend a 5 day Easter workshop and retreat from in April 1933. The retreat was held at the Marian Pilgrimage Place of Schoenstatt in Vallendar, Germany, about 140 miles south of Rees.
He continued his regular education and when he finished high school he immediately made plans to enter the seminary — nearly 600 miles southeast of Kleve near the Austrian border. In 1934 Karl went to Munich where he entered the seminary.
Once again he was assigned the leadership role of the Diocesan Youth Leader by Blessed Clemens August von Galen (1878-1946), the bishop of Munster (read about Blessed von Galen “The Lion of Munster” and is fight against the Nazis here: https://anastpaul.com/2019/03/22/saint-of-the-day-22-march-blessed-clemens-august-count-von-galen-1878-1946/). As his formation continued, he faced the question of his vocation – To have a family or to become a priest? He knew well the high calling of the priesthood: “It’s beautiful to become a priest but difficult, almost too difficult and only those called by God’s great grace should become one.” Recognising this lofty vocation and the realisation that God might be calling him, he still considered the joys of becoming a father and having a family, “The beauty of family life — of having and raising my own children, such thoughts touch me deeply during my evening reflections. . . . But also the great heroism of the priesthood sets me aglow! I am secure in God’s hand, come what may.” Did he know what was coming?
As his seminary studies continued, he reached a spiritual crisis concerning his true vocation. Quickly he returned to the Schoenstatt shrine where he had received such comfort. For two days he prayed and meditated in silence before the image of Mother Thrice Admirable, seeking enlightenment about God’s will and strength to carry it out.
His tepidity left him as this time of prayerful surrender and once again stimulated his desire to be a holy and active priest in serving the King of Kings. On the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 Marc 1939, Karl was ordained a deacon in the Cathedral of Muenster. Sadly, just three months later his preparation for Ordination had to be postponed because Karl had been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Disappointed, Karl once again journeyed to Schoenstatt before going to the Lung Sanatorium in St Blasien in the Black Forest, near the Swiss and French borders. Once again Karl spent time in prayer — surrendering his entire will to Mary and begging her to help him become healthy again. If he would not be a good priest, then he asked her to let him die before being ordained. He placed all his trust in her.
The Nazis continued their suppression of religion and arrested more and more men, women and children. They considered them enemies of the state. As they tightened their stranglehold, the Nazis came to the sanatorium to arrest Karl. For three years they had been tracking his movements and activities. Because fellow patients reported him for speaking against Hitler, the Gestapo arrested him for “protective custody.” The Gestapo took him to Freiburg just north of the Black Forest. Then he was transferred to Mannheim for three weeks before they shipped him to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, near Berlin. Less than a year later on 13 December 1940 they took him to Dachau. Here he joined many other priests.
His tuberculosis worsened in the deplorable conditions of ill-treatment and hunger. Yet these hardships only increased his love of God and his devotion to Mary. Karl became a source of encouragement to his fellow prisoners. Fathers Heinz Dresback and Hermann Richarz testified that Karl had “a rock-solid trust in God.”
After persevering for four years in Dachau, Karl received a special gift. Another prisoner, Bishop Gabriel Piguet from France, ordained Karl a priest on 17 December 1944, Gaudete Sunday. The newly ordained priest only celebrated a single Mass and was so ill that he had to postpone his first Mass for over a week Nine days after his Ordination he celebrated that first Mass on the Feast of St Stephen the Martyr. Four months later the camp was liberated by the Allies but by that time his health had been destroyed. He died on 12 August 1945 surrounded by family and friends. He was Beatified by St Pope John Paul II on 23 June 1996.
Blessed Karl’s body was taken to Kleve and buried in a local cemetery on 20 August 1945. His remains were exhumed and re-interred in the crypt of the Cathedral of Xanten in 1966.
Throughout his life, the few but intense times of personal encounter with Our Lady in the Original Shrine in Schoenstatt remained the decisive milestones for Karl Leisner on his path of calling. “Christ, my passion” – led by this ideal, he worked in the diocesan youth and wrestled his way to a decision for a celibate life as a priest. In the Dachau concentration camp he founded, together with Josef Fischer, the first Schoenstatt group in Dachau, which had to end its meetings in the 1942 starvation year. From 1943 Karl Leisner belonged to the group “Victor in vinculis Mariae” (Victor in the Shackles of Mary) and thus to the circle of Schoenstaetters around the founder Josef Kentenich. From the ideal and the fraternity of this group, Karl Leisner drew the strength to accept his fate, which was burdened by the tuberculosis of the lung as well as the difficult conditions in the concentration camp, as the will of God and to offer his life as a martyr.
Dear Blessed Fr Karl, as Europe and the world are once again besieged by evil forces, pray that we Christians will continue with confidence and surrender to God. Amen.