They Witnessed to Life in a Culture of Death

Author: John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

Beatification of Bernhard Lichtenberg and Karl Leisner on 23 June 1996 at Berlin's Olympic Stadium

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

1. "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul" (Mt 10:28).

The words which Christ once addressed to his disciples in the Holy Land apply to all Christians down the centuries. They are valid for all latitudes and longitudes. They take on a special meaning for these disciples of Christ whose beatification we are celebrating today in Berlin: Bernhard Lichtenberg and Karl Leisner.

This celebration is a moment of grace for the Churches of Berlin and Munster. It is also a moment of grace for the whole German people. In the Church's great act of thanksgiving, the Eucharist today we can offer an additional, special thanks. It is a thanksgiving to God, who has given his Church and the world two men who gave their witness of the unconditional following of Jesus Christ for the victory of the faith.

History put them both to a difficult test, but they were not afraid of "those who kill the body". The frightful totalitarian system condemned to death, on an unparalleled scale, those who did not submit to the system. In this manner they sought to dominate souls. Our blesseds, however, drew from Christ's words the certainty that they "cannot kill the soul". This is how their victory is to be understood. They achieved this victory because they acknowledged Christ before others: "every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven" (Mt 10:32).

This Christ whom they acknowledged before men was their strength. Even in martyrdom Christ was also faithful to them. He is their witness before the Father, and this witness contains the "judgement of their holiness", this "judgement" which the Church publicly proclaims today in the Olympic Stadium of Berlin. In the very same place in which 60 years ago the Nazi regime wanted to use the celebration of the Olympic Games for the triumph of their inhuman ideology, where the idealism of youth was abused, where people were goaded into hatred and enmity rather than living in peace with one another, today our blessed martyrs are in triumph.

We salute you, fearless servants of Christ, the King with the crown of thorns. May this city, the witness of Bernhard Lichtenberg's struggle against the power of evil and which became the witness of imprisonment, torture and death, be today the witness of your elevation in the Church of the living God.

God delivered them from evildoers

2. In order to understand the circumstances in which today's two blesseds fought their spiritual struggle, the liturgy goes back to the prophet Jeremiah: "I hear many whisperings. Terror is on every side! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!" (20:10). These words were written 2,500 years ago, but they sound as if they could apply to the most recent events. The system used the method of "terror on every side" in order to change free people into informers.

Jeremiah is the figure of Christ and, through Christ, the figure of all those who do not let themselves be deceived (cf. Jer 20:10), of all those who relied on God's power and thus won victory. "The Lord is with me, as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, they will not overcome men" (Jer 20:11). The Lord rescues "the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers" (Jer 20: 13).

In the text from the prophet Jeremiah we find a sufficiently clear reference to today's two blesseds: Bernhard and Karl. They lived in a time of systematic terror. By their faith and their confession of it they were victorious.

It is not the world's applause but the faithful confession of Jesus Christ that is the sign of an authentic disciple of Christ. The Lord does not demand of his disciples any kind of confession, but a confession of faith that is prepared to make sacrifices as well. Bernhard Lichtenberg and Karl Leisner made this profession, not only with their words, but also with their life and death. In an inhuman world they acknowledged Christ who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

3. Christ is the Way. Bernhard Lichtenberg and Karl Leisner bore witness to this at a time when many people had lost their way and, because of opportunism or fear, had gone astray. Whoever observes the way of the two martyrs knows that their martyrdom was no accidental stroke of misfortune along life's journey, but the final and inevitable consequence of a life lived in following Christ.

Even in their youth both of them set out on the way to which God had called them and on which he wanted to accompany them. "Christ, you have called me. I say decisively and with conviction: 'Here I am, send me'", wrote Karl Leisner at the beginning of his theological studies. He, who was very early to recognize the anti-Christian nature of the ruling party, felt called, through his desired service as a priest, to show people the way to God and to make no concessions to the so-called "popular world view". Even before he was imprisoned in Dachau he developed a deep Marian devotion, to which he was directed by Fr. Kentenich and the Schonstatt movement.

The courage of his faith and his enthusiasm for Christ should be an incentive 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 Zeitgeist, oriented to consumerism and self-centred hedonism, or occasionally flirting with enmity towards the Church or even with militant atheism. Service to men demanded of Bernhard Lichtenberg total commitment and total dedication. His unshakable faith gave him the strength for it: "He stood with every fibre of his being behind every word: he preached through his very person.... He had the faith that moves mountains", one of his contemporaries wrote later about him.

Human dignity suffers

Bernhard and Karl encourage us to remain on the way that is Christ. We must not grow weary, even when many times 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.

4. Christ is the Truth. Bernhard Lichtenberg bore witness to that to his last breath. Against the lies of Nazi ideology Lichtenberg courageously confessed: "My Fuhrer is Christ!". Every day during the intercessions at Vespers he prayed "for the oppressed non-Aryan Christians, for the persecuted Jews, and for prisoners in the concentration camps...".

The fact that our new blessed was a saint of intercessory prayer is apparent not only in his prayer for Jews and prisoners in concentration camps, but is also shown in his prayer for ecclesial vocations. He was a tireless promoter of the apostolate for priestly vocations. His beatification should be an invitation to commit ourselves with new dedication and confidence to the World Day and monthly days of prayer for vocations. I would also like to encourage you in your parishes, and especially in the Pontifical Society for Priestly Vocations, to support the Church's concern in the spirit of Bernhard Lichtenberg.

Bernhard Lichtenberg knew quite well that wherever God's truth is no longer heeded, human dignity also suffers. Wherever falsehood reigns, false and evil behaviour also rules. "A person's actions are the consequences of his principles. When his principles are false, his actions will not be correct.... I fight against false principles, which necessarily give rise to false actions", he wrote in the minutes of his first appearance before the Nazi judges. And he clearly and emphatically called some of these false principles by name: "The elimination of religious instruction in the schools; struggle against the Cross; the secularization of marriage, deliberate killing of those whose lives were supposedly not worth living (euthanasia), persecution of the Jews...."

On the basis of his clear principles Bernhard Lichtenberg spoke and acted independently and fearlessly. Nevertheless, he was almost overcome with joy and happiness when his Bishop, Konrad von Preysing, upon his last prison visit at the end of September 1943, relayed to him a message from my predecessor Pius XII, in which he expressed his deepest sympathy and paternal appreciation. Whoever is not hampered by cheap polemics knows full well what Pius XII thought about the Nazi regime and how much he did to help the countless people who were persecuted by that regime.

For Bernhard Lichtenberg conscience was "The place, the sacred place, where God speaks to man" (Encyclical Veritatis splendor, n. 58). And the dignity of conscience always derives from the truth (cf. ibid., n. 63).

Dear brothers and sisters, the example of Bl. Bernhard calls us to become "co-workers in the truth" (3 Jn 8). Do not be led astray if, in our day too, God and the Christian faith are denigrated or mocked. Remain faithful to the truth that is Christ. Speak out courageously when false principles again lead to false actions, when the dignity of the human person is offended, or when God's moral order is called into question.

In this connection the second reading from the Letter to the Romans shows us, in a certain sense, a deeper dimension of the reality in which the life and the vocation of the two blesseds was rooted. It is a question of the roots of evil itself in the history of Adam's race ("as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin" [Rom 5:12])

"But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many" (Rom 5:15).

We are called to bear witness to life

At a time in which "sin" set itself up as master through the system of absolute brutality and horror, these two witnesses of Christ, who drew the strength for their victory from his grace, acquire a special significance. Today's beatification is a sign of that. It is an expression of the Church's "memory": Do "not forget the deeds of God" (Ps 77 [78]:7). With God's help, then, we will be able to say to the coming generations, like Bernhard Lichtenberg and the Apostle Paul: "to them we did not yield submission even for a moment, that the truth of the Gospel might be preserved for you" (Gal 2:5).

5. Christ is the Life: this was the conviction for which Karl Leisner lived and for which he ultimately died. His whole life long he sought intimacy with Christ in prayer, in the daily reading of Scripture, and in meditation. And he ultimately found this intimacy in a special way in the Eucharistic encounter with the Lord. The Eucharistic sacrifice which Karl Leisner was able to celebrate as a priest after his ordination in the concentration camp of Dachau was for him not only an encounter with the Lord and source of strength for his life. Karl Leisner also knew that whoever lives with Christ shares the Lord's destiny.

Karl Leisner and Bernhard Lichtenberg are witnesses not of death, but of life: a life that extends beyond death. They are witnesses to Christ, who is the life, and who came so that we may have life and have it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10). In a culture of death they both bore witness to life.

Like the two blesseds, we are all called to bear witness to life. Therefore hold fast to the life which is Christ. Resist the culture of hatred and death, regardless of the guise which it may assume. Do not grow tired of dedicating yourselves to those whose life and dignity is threatened: the unborn, the terminally ill, the elderly and the many needy people of our world. By their death Bernhard Lichtenberg and Karl Leisner made visible the life that is Christ, and which Christ gives. The Church will always honour them and their witness.

6. The witness that the two blesseds gave was ultimately possible for them only because of the shining example given to them by their own Bishops: Konrad von Preysing in Berlin and Clemens August von Galen in Munster. Particularly in a time and place in which people no longer can or will acknowledge the value of the Christian faith, such a witness is necessary. Yet, it is not only a question of a witness in word, but the witness of a life which has its basis in the Word of God, as Karl Sonnenschein the urban apostle of Berlin, expressed it in 1927: "For the heathen people of the metropolis verbal apologetics is fruitless.... Only one thing reaches these people who no longer know Christianity from their fathers' stories or the Rosary from their mother, or even the religious instruction of their own schooldays.... Those who in their own body, in their own soul, in their own need, experience the goodness of this religion in its representatives". With great faith Bishops and laity have given this witness of word and life not only in this city so long divided, but also in the territory of the former German Democratic Republic. I recall with gratitude the Bishops of Berlin, Wilhelm Weskamm, Cardinal Julius Dopfner, Cardinal Alfred Bengsch and, lastly, I thank Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who is here among us. Today I also express my heartfelt thanks to the many lay people, men and women, children and young people, who remained faithful to the Catholic faith and to their communities during the decades of oppression.

7. Dear brothers and sisters, our task in the world does not require us Christians to become conformist and complacent people of our times and thereby sacrifice our identity. It demands much more, that we remain Christian that we preserve and live our faith, and bring it to bear as an essential part of human society. We must not allow ourselves to be impeded in this task by anyone, not even the State. By maintaining reciprocal freedom and independence, the relationship between Church and State in Germany is marked by co-operation, not division. The relationship that has grown over time requires the State to protect institutions which fulfil tasks that are important to society, and forbids every form of State intrusion. In this regard care should be taken that the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution is completely observed in the new federal states. In consideration of the State's function of service, freedom of religion is to be ensured, especially in the field of education and religious instruction. The State is neutral, but religious instruction is not!

Thank you for coming and participating

8. At this time I would like to express my special solidarity with the Archbishop of Berlin, Cardinal Georg Maximilian Sterzinsky, as well as with the other Cardinals present, the Bishop of Munster, who is the Bishop of Karl Leisner's homeland, the President of the German Bishops' Conference and the Bishops from Germany and the neighbouring countries, and all the priests, deacons and religious. I cordially greet the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, the President of the German Parliament, the Federal Chancellor, the Ministers of the Federal Government the Mayor of Berlin with the Members of the Senate, the Prime Ministers of the States of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Saarland and the Free State of Thuringia, as well as the representatives of the state governments and parliaments, the other constitutional offices and the many members of the diplomatic corps.

Finally, I greet all of you, the countless faithful, and I thank you for coming and participating. I especially greet the relatives of our two new blesseds, as well as the group of former prisoners men and women of the concentration camps.

Above all I greet the great number of young people. You spent last night in prayer and vigil, and today you came to this stadium very early, bringing the Holy Year Cross, which has become the symbol of World Youth Day. I cordially thank you for this courageous profession of your faith! At this time how could I forget that I would like to go in August of next year to another meeting with the young people of the world in Paris. Today I cordially invite all of you to this great celebration. Come yourselves and bring your contemporaries along. The World Youth Days are a time of exceptional grace for all those who attend.

I also greet the great number of my compatriots. Your presence in Berlin today and our common celebration is an eloquent sign of the reconciliation between Germans and Poles, to the achievement of which the Bishops and faithful of both lands have contributed. It would make me very happy to be able again to greet my many sisters and brothers from Germany next May in Wroclaw on the occasion of the International Eucharistic Congress.

9. I would like to encourage the whole Church in Germany to remain true to our Christian mission and always to look to the example of our two blessed martyrs Bernhard Lichtenberg and Karl Leisner. "Mater habebit curam" our heavenly Mother will take care of it! With these hopeful words of Karl Leisner I commend you to the intercession of Mary, who was the first Christian to give her consent to the inscrutable will of God.

I cordially bless you all in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ; to him be thanksgiving and honour forever.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 June 1996

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