January 14, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

The inspiring vocation of
a World War II prisoner

This week, with the permission of Bishop Peter Sartain of Little Rock, Ark., I borrow generously from his telling of a remarkable vocation story.

Karl Frederick Wilhelm Maria Leisner, prisoner 22356, died at age 30 on Aug. 12, 1945, barely three months after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. He had been imprisoned for five and a half years.

Born at Rees, Germany, Karl was the eldest of five children. He was bright, adventuresome, athletic and faith-filled—a natural leader. His teenage years were spent leading prayer, pilgrimages and camping trips. He was tapped by his bishop to serve as diocesan youth director.

Sensing a call to the priesthood, he entered the seminary. His seminary formation was interrupted by six months’ compulsory government service in a labor camp, which entailed back-breaking work in murky swamps. Despite Nazi opposition, he arranged trips to Sunday Mass for fellow Catholic workers.

Serious about all he undertook, Leisner went through intense soul-searching before petitioning for ordination to the diaconate. He was particularly troubled about whether he was called to marriage or the priesthood, having become enamored of a young woman whose family he knew well. She ultimately encouraged him to seek ordination as a deacon.

Six months after ordination, Leisner was diagnosed with tuberculosis, most likely contracted in the damp swamps. He was sent to a local sanitarium. After hearing of a failed attempt on Hitler’s life, he made an off-hand comment in a group of patients and was reported to the local police as anti-Hitler. He was taken directly from the sanitarium to jail and thus began five and a half years in the hands of the Nazis.

Youthful but frail, Leisner quickly became a favorite of other prisoners at Dachau. Though sick, he always presented a joyful exterior and offered encouragement to fellow internees. He scrounged bits of food for the hungriest and sickest, and shared his own meager rations.

Leisner lived as a deacon at Dachau, and everything he did was for the sake of Christ. He had been imprisoned just months before his ordination to the priesthood, and prisoners shared the unlikely hope that he could be ordained a priest, even in the camp. The unthinkable became possible when a French bishop was sentenced to Dachau for his collaboration with the Resistance.

The necessary Church documents were smuggled in and out of the camp. At great personal risk, a 20-year-old woman living in a local convent became an underground courier, using the alias “Madi.” In early December 1944, Leisner received a letter from one of his sisters, in the middle of which were these words, written in another’s hand: “I authorize the ceremonies requested provided that they are done validly and that there remain definite proof.” The words were followed by the signature of Leisner’s bishop.

Many prisoners participated surreptitiously in an intricate plot to prepare for the ordination. Vestments were tailored for the bishop and Leisner, a bishop’s ring was crafted by a Russian communist, and a crozier was carved by a Benedictine monk. Inscribed into the curve of the staff were the words, “Triumphant in Chains.”

Still weak with tuberculosis, his face red with fever, Leisner was secretly ordained a priest at Dachau on Dec. 17, 1944. He secretly celebrated his first Mass on Dec. 26, the only Mass he would ever celebrate.

When the Allies liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945, the gravely ill priest was taken to a hospital, where he died on Aug. 12 in the presence of his family. For most of his life, he had kept a diary, and the last entry, dated July 25, echoed the final words of St. Stephen: “Bless my enemies, too, O Lord. ‘Lord lay not this sin to their charge.’ ”

Pope John Paul II beatified Karl Leisner in 1996 in the Olympic stadium in Berlin, built by Hitler for the 1936 games. Holding the crozier used at Blessed Karl’s ordination, the pope said, “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 that leads to life. All other ways are detours or wrong paths.”

Present for the beatification were Blessed Karl’s brother and family, former inmates of Dachau, and an elderly Sister Josefa Imma Mack, once known as “Madi.” Fifty-two years earlier, she had risked her life so that a young man she never met could be ordained a priest in secret.

May Blessed Karl be a special patron for vocations to the priesthood. May the nun once known as “Madi” be an inspiration for courageous young women to seek the consecrated life. †

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