The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, September 27, 2010

A 20th Century Martyr's Beatification

When it comes to beatifications, most of the recent news has focused on John Henry Cardinal Newman, the 19th Century English convert from Anglicanism whose writings have had such a positive impact on the Church during the past 150 years. At a Mass in Birmingham on September 19, Pope Benedict declared the cardinal "blessed" and established his feast day as October 9, the anniversary of his entry into the Catholic Church in 1845. Blessed Newman's beatification received much deserved attention in both the religious and the secular press, not only because he was beatified by the Holy Father during his highly publicized visit to the UK, but also because the cardinal was so well known during his lifetime and afterwards.

But Blessed Newman wasn't the only person beatified on September 19. Acting for Pope Benedict on that same day, Joachim Cardinal Meisner, archbishop of Cologne, celebrated a beatification Mass in the cathedral at Munster for Father Gerhard Hirschfelder, a martyred German priest who died of starvation and illness in 1942 while imprisoned by the Nazis in the concentration camp at Dachau. Born in 1907 he was only 35 years old when he died.

Blessed Hirschfelder was one of those many brave priests who publicly resisted the Nazis, especially by urging the young people of Germany to ignore the government's incessant propaganda. Even after he was strongly denounced by the authorities -- a clear warning of things to come -- he continued to preach on the evils of Nazism in his homilies. In one of his last homilies he stated that "He who tears from the heart of young people their faith in Christ is a criminal." This was apparently too much for the Nazi authorities and he was arrested by the Gestapo while he was leading a youth meeting. He was sent first to Glatz prison, where he wrote a beautiful "Way of the Cross" along with a number of reflections on the priesthood, marriage and the family. On December 15, 1941, after four months at Glatz, Blessed Hirschfelder was sent to Dachau where he died on August 1, 1942.

In 1951, just nine years after Blessed Hirschfelder's death, my family was living in Heidelberg, Germany where, as a seven-year-old, I attended a one-room schoolhouse run by the lovely Frau Scharmer. We would often take road trips to different parts of Germany and during a visit to Munich, my parents took my older brother and me to the camp at Dachau so we could see first-hand the evil of which men were capable. I still recall that visit as if it were yesterday. Over the years some people have suggested that it was cruel of my parents to take such young children to a place like Dachau, but I disagree. Indeed, I have always been grateful for that day, a day that indelibly colored my worldview and taught me to trust not in men but in God alone.
Dachau right after its liberation by US Troops
Dachau inmates - slow death by starvation and illness
Ovens in  the Dachau crematorium - photo taken right after camp was liberated
Interestingly, Dachau contained a separate area where over 3,000 Christian clergy were imprisoned, including Father Hirschfelder. The vast majority of these clergy were Catholic priests. By isolating them the Nazis hoped to keep them from "infecting" the general camp population with their religious views. Father Jean Bernard wrote a wonderful book, Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, about his years spent imprisoned at Dachau. It is well worth reading.

On September 13, Pope Benedict, in an address to the new German ambassador to the Holy See, spoke of the beatification of Father Hirschfelder. In his address the Holy Father placed the martyrdom of this young German priest into its proper perspective and showed its relevance in today's world where so many have abandoned the Faith to the detriment of our culture and society. I have included below the Vatican's press release of this address by Pope Benedict (Zenit News Agency).

Pope's Address to German Envoy

"Marriage Is ... Between a Man and a Woman"

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 13, 2010 ( Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered today upon receiving the letters of credence of Walter Jürgen Schmid, the new German ambassador to the Holy See.

* * *

Mr. Ambassador,

I am pleased to take advantage of the occasion of the solemn handing of the Letters of Credence that accredit you as ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Holy See, to welcome you and to express my best wishes for your high mission. My heartfelt thanks for the kind words you addressed to me, also in the name of the federal president, Mr. Christian Wulff, and of the federal government. I am pleased to extend the greeting of blessing to the head of state, to the members of the government and to all the citizens of Germany, with the hope that the good relations between the Holy See and the Federal Republic of Germany will continue in the future and develop further.

Many Christians in Germany are looking forward with great attention to the imminent celebrations of the beatifications of several martyr priests of the time of the Nazi regime. This Sunday, Sept. 19, Gerhard Hirschfelder will be beatified in Munster. During the coming year ceremonies will follow for Georg Hafner in Wurzburg, in addition to those for Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange and Eduard Muller in Lubeck. Commemorated also with the chaplains of Lubeck will be Evangelical pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink. The attested friendship of the four ecclesiastics is an impressive testimony of the ecumenism of prayer and suffering, flowering in several places during the dark period of the Nazi terror. We can see these testimonies as luminous indications for a common ecumenical path.

Contemplating the figures of these martyrs, it seems ever clearer and exemplary how certain men are willing, given their Christian conviction, to give their own life for the faith, for the right to exercise freely their own creed and liberty of speech, for peace and human dignity. Today, fortunately, we live in a free and democratic society.

At the same time, however, we observe how among our contemporaries, there is no strong attachment to religion, as in the case of these witnesses of the faith. One might ask if there are today Christians that, without compromises, make themselves guarantors of their own faith. On the contrary, many show a general inclination toward permissive religious conceptions also for themselves. Instead of the Christian's personal God, who reveals himself in the Bible, they posit a supreme, mysterious and indeterminate being, who has only a vague relationship with the human being's personal life.

Such conceptions increasingly animate discussion within the society, especially in regard to the realm of justice and legislation. However, if one abandons faith in a personal God, the alternative arises of a "god" who does not know, does not listen and does not speak. And, more than ever before, does not have a will. If God does not have his own will, in the end good and evil are not distinguished, good and evil are no longer in contradiction to one another, but are in an opposition in which one is complementary of the other. Thus man loses his moral and spiritual strength, necessary for the complete development of the person. Social action is dominated increasingly by private interest or by the calculation of power, at the expense of society.

Instead, if God is a Person -- and the order of creation as well as the presence of Christians of conviction in society is a sign of this -- it follows that an order of values is legitimized. There are signs, which can also be found in recent times, that give proof of the development of new relations between the state and religion, also beyond the great Christian Churches which up to now were determinant. Hence, in this situation Christians have the task of following this development positively and critically, in addition to refining the senses for the fundamental and permanent importance of Christianity, in laying the bases and forming the structures of our culture.

However, the Church sees with concern the growing attempt to eliminate the Christian concept of marriage and the family from the conscience of society. Marriage is manifested as a lasting union of love between a man and a woman, which is also directed to the transmission of human life. One of its conditions is the willingness of the spouses to relate one to the other forever. Necessary, because of this, is a certain maturity of the person and a fundamental existential and social attitude: a "culture of the person" as my predecessor John Paul II once said. The existence of this culture of the person depends also on social developments.

It can be seen that in a society the culture of the person is lowered; often it is derived, paradoxically, from the growth of the standard of life. In the preparation and support of the spouses, it is necessary to create the basic conditions to build-up and develop this culture. At the same time we must be aware that the success of marriages depends on all of us, on the personal culture of each citizen. In this connection, the Church cannot approve legislative initiatives that imply a reappraisal of alternative models of the life of a couple and of the family. These contribute to the weakening of the principles of the Natural Law and thus to relativizing the whole of legislation and also to confusion on the values in society.

It is a principle of the Christian faith, anchored in Natural Law, that the human person be protected precisely in a situation of weakness. The human being always has priority in regard to other objectives. The new possibilities of biotechnology and medicine often put us in difficult situations that seem to walk on the razor's edge. We have the duty to study diligently to what point these methods can be of help to man and where, instead, it is a question of the manipulation of man, of violation of his integrity and dignity. We cannot reject this progress, but we must be very diligent. Once one begins to distinguish -- and this now happens often in the maternal womb -- between a worthy life and a life unworthy of living, no other phase of life will be safe, and even less so old age and infirmity.

The construction of a human society requires fidelity to truth. In this context, lately, certain phenomena that are operating in the realm of the public media make one reflect: being in an ever greater competition, the media feel driven to arouse the greatest possible attention. In addition, there is the contrast made by the news in general, even if it goes against the veracity of the report. The subject becomes particularly problematic when authoritative persons take a public position in this respect, without being able to confirm the aspects adequately. The attempt of the federal government to be involved in these cases, in so far as possible, in a pondered and pacifying way, is received favorably.

Mr. Ambassador, you have my best wishes for your work and for the contacts you will have with representatives of the Roman Curia, with the diplomatic corps and also with priests, religious and lay faithful involved in ecclesial activities who live here in Rome. I implore from my heart for you, for your distinguished consort, for your men and women collaborators in the embassy an abundant divine blessing.

Blessed Hirschfelder, pray for us.

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