“Our wholehearted paternal sympathy goes out to those who must pay so dearly for their loyalty to Christ and the Church; but directly the highest interests are at stake, with the alternative of spiritual loss, there is but one alternative left, that of heroism.” Pius XI from Mit Brennender Sorge
We Americans tend to be an outspoken lot. We give voice to our opinions freely and many of us enjoy raucous debate, as can be seen on most American blog sites, including this one. We are fortunate to live in a free society where there is no penalty for expressing ourselves. But what if we didn’t live in a free society? What if we lived in a vicious dictatorship where dissent is a one way trip to a concentration camp and then to an unmarked grave? How many of us would then have the courage to speak out, especially if almost everyone else were keeping their heads down and not saying anything? For many people throughout history this has not been a game of what if.
Born in Ohlau in the province of Silesia in Germany on December 3, 1875, Bernard Lichtenberg studied theology at the seminary in Innsbruck, Austria and was ordained a priest in 1899. He served as a priest in Berlin, becoming the parish priest of the Sacred Heart parish in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg in 1913. Ever an energetic priest, he laid the foundations for five parishes and a monastery in Berlin. Somehow he also found the time to be active in the Catholic Centre Party, and was for a time a member of the Berlin regional parliament after World War I. He also carried out missionary and charitable works among the poor of Berlin.
He was made a canon of the Cathedral Chapter by the first Bishop of the newly created diocese of Berlin, Christian Schreiber, in 1931. In 1932 he became pastor of Saint Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin. He also attracted the ire of the Nazis by his support of the pacifist Peace League of German Catholics, and was denounced by Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in the Nazi paper Der Angriff.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Father Lichtenberg attempted unsuccessfully to convince Cardinal Bertram, the president of the German Bishop’s conference, to protest against the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. In 1935 he protested to Herman Goering against the treatment of the Jews. Goering denied everything and demanded that Lichtenberg be taken into “protective custody” for spreading lies about the German state.
In 1937 Father Lichtenberg helped to distribute clandestinely throughout Germany copies of the blistering condemnation of the Nazis by Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge. After Kristallnacht, a Nazi led pogrom throughout Germany against the Jews, he said from the pulpit of Saint Hedwig’s: ‘we know what happened yesterday. We do not know what tomorrow holds. However, we have experienced what happened today. Outside, the synagogue burns. That is also a house of God.’ From that time forward, Father Lichtenberg prayed publicly during evening prayers, in the heart of Nazi Germany, for the Jews and Christians of Jewish descent.
While doing this, Father Lichtenberg was also taking other actions which ensured that he was a marked man as far as the Nazis were concerned. He of course was an outspoken critic of the Nazi program of murdering the mentally disabled and made yet another public protest on the issue in August of 1941.
Inevitably he was arrested by the Nazis in October of 1941. When the Gestapo searched this house they found a draft of a sermon that he was going to deliver the next Sunday denouncing a pamphlet written by Joseph Goebbels: ‘this pamphlet states that every German who supports Jews with an ostensibly false sentimentality, be it only through friendly obligingness, practises treason against his Volk. Let us not be misled by this un-Christian way of thinking but follow the strict command of Jesus Christ: “you shall love your neighbour as … yourself.”
During his interrogations, Father Lichtenberg steadfastly stated that he was opposed to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis because such treatment was opposed to Christian charity. He said that he agreed with Bishop Galen who had denounced the murdering of the mentally handicapped by the Nazis. He summed up his position by stating that Nazism was completely incompatible with the teachings and commands of the Catholic Church.
He was held for two years and then shipped off to Dauchau, where the Nazis sent 2,579 Catholic priests. Ill, he died in a cattle car enroute to Dauchau on November 5, 1943. His body was taken to Berlin where 4000 people had the courage to appear at his funeral. An onlooker observed, “I wonder if they know they are burying a saint?” He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 23, 1996. Here is the sermon of the Pope on that occasion. He began with this text which all Catholics should live by although it takes courage to do so: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt 10:28).