Saturday, July 12, 2014

On Hell's Doorstep

Battlefield Mass: Korean War
When I saw For Greater Glory a couple of years ago, I was struck by the scenes showing the Cristeros at worship in their desert hideaways.  The priest at the altar was like a general leading his troops into battle -- onward and upward to Calvary, where the titanic battle for the salvation of the world was fought and won upon the Cross.  Reason number 454,823,231 to put an end to facing the priest toward the congregation at Mass.

Battlefield Mass: Iwo Jima
The Tridentine Mass on the field of battle, amid death and destruction, is simple, stark, masculine and beautiful.  Here, hell is crushed underfoot.  There is no room for the decadent displays that most of us are forced to settle for Sunday after Sunday, with their narcissistic accretions, beneath which the August Sacrifice is almost totally undetectable.

Fr. Willie Doyle, S.J., the "Trench Priest" of the First World War, describes offering Mass in the trenches during the Battle of the Somme in October of 1916:
By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench, I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit tin supported by two German bayonets. God's angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice - but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed to Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.
What could be more fitting than Holy Mass on hell's very doorstep?  Did not St. Paul say that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more?  Where is the Blood of Christ more needed than those places lashed by the fury of demons?  There is nowhere that Blood has not penetrated.  Not even Hitler's death camps.

In 1941 Karl Leisner, a young deacon of the Diocese of Münster, was thrown into Dachau for his opposition to the Nazi regime.  Already tubercular, his health deteriorated further, until it seemed that he would never fulfill his dream of becoming a priest.  But Divine Providence had other plans.

Here indeed is a subject for meditation.  Picture the young deacon lying awake in his hard bunk, staring up into the darkness.  He imagines himself at the altar, holding his Eucharistic Lord in his hands; or in the confessional, freeing souls from the bondage of sin; or at a sickbed, bringing the comfort of Extreme Unction to the dying.  But now he himself is weak, and sinking toward death, and cut off from his bishop, and apt to be put to death as an unproductive prisoner at any moment.  It seems as though God does not want him for His priest after all.  

Then, one day, a group of French prisoners is brought to Dachau.  Among them is a bishop.  Here is a man who can confer the sacred priesthood on Karl!  But bishops cannot act without jurisdiction.  Permission from the local ordinary is needed.  With the aid of the other prisoners in his block, all clergy, and the intrepid Sister Imma Mack, who regularly visits the camp, Karl petitions the local cardinal for permission to receive ordination at the hands of his fellow prisoner.  Imagine Karl struggling to be patient as he awaits the cardinal's response.  Finally, the following week, it comes.  Not only does the cardinal grant his permission; he also sends along chrism, a stole, and the book containing the Rite of Ordination, all of which are to be returned after the ordination, along with credible documentation that it has taken place.  

Now the camp is abuzz with activity.  Secret preparations are afoot for the ordination that is to take place right in the heart of Hitler's extermination complex.  Imagine prisoners -- some Catholic, some not -- in various parts of the camp, risking their lives and sacrificing precious spare moments and hours of sleep in order to work on vestments for the bishop and for Karl.  The angels must have doubled their vigilance, for no hint of what is going on reaches the enemy.  At last, all is ready, and on Gaudete Sunday, December 17, 1944, Karl becomes Father Leisner.

A unique photo: Blessed Father Karl Leisner, moments after his ordination at Dachau.
Here was a thing unheard of inside a death camp and, so far as known, absolutely unique.  Imagine the bishop and the newly ordained priest in their simple yet lovingly-made purple vestments; the candle-lit faces of the other prisoners; the Litany of the Saints being sung; the smell of holy chrism pervading the air of Dachau itself.  Here, surely, is a little taste of what the Harrowing of Hell must have been like: when Christ descended into hell to liberate the souls of the Just; whereupon, in that moment, that part of hell ceased to be hell.  Now Christ stooped down to hell on earth to raise up a priest out of its depths.  

But Father Leisner's ministry would consist mainly in suffering.  His health would not permit him to offer his first and only Mass until December 26th -- fittingly enough, the feast of St. Stephen.  Meanwhile, the fortress of death where he was consecrated to God was doomed.  Only a few months later, on May 4, 1945, the Allies liberated Dachau.  On August 12, 1945, Father Leisner -- now Blessed Karl Leisner -- closed his eyes forever on this fallen world that had been his battlefield.

When we find ourselves wondering where God is in the midst of our trials and tribulations, perhaps it would pay to think about Holy Mass on the battlefield, and the priestly ordination at Dachau.  The God Who has never failed to make His presence known and felt on the very doorstep of hell is surely with us now in our own troubles.


  1. No comments? What a shame. There are a great many examples of Catholic Priests heroism. Fr. Capodanno comes to mind. I have several books by Fr Raoul Plus S.J. who served with the French in WW1. These chaplains are remarkable fellows.

    One of my favorite memories of my Father (now gone home) are his stories from WW2 and attending Mass on the flight deck of the carrier he served on. Wind whipping and howling but the priest's dignity as he said the Mass.

  2. I love Father Capodanno too; I will have to look in to Father Plus, of whom I have never heard before. Did you know that since the American Civil War, five chaplains have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor? Every single one was a Catholic priest.