Reflections for the Feast of Blessed Karl Leisner
“Priest of Jesus Christ, celebrate this Holy Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.”
I was thinking about and praying with these words this summer as I went on pilgrimage to the tomb of one of my favorite saints, Blessed Karl Leisner, in the German city of Xanten. Some of you might recognize this old adage which is often found in many sacristies around the world. The reason why these words were on my mind is simple: Blessed Karl only ever celebrated the Holy Mass once in his entire life.
Born and raised in the northern Rhineland, Karl served as an altar boy from an early age and as he grew up became a very active and passionate leader in youth ministry. As the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930’s they began to stifle any youth organizations outside their own and particularly wanted to destroy or corrupt church youth groups. To avoid this, Karl took his group on hiking and camping trips, sometimes even into neighboring Belgium or the Netherlands, so he could more freely teach the faith. In 1934, he was accepted into seminary formation for the cardinal bishop of Münster, Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen, who was charged with the care of youth ministry in the diocese. During this time the Gestapo began to watch Karl for a reason to arrest him and would harass his work and even raided his house. Nonetheless, Karl persevered and was ordained a deacon on March 25, 1939.
Unfortunately, shortly after his ordination he came down with tuberculosis which at that time had no cure. He was thus sent to a sanatorium to rest and recover. There another patient snitched on him and the Gestapo arrested him for criticizing Hitler and the Nazis. He was interned and shortly thereafter sent to the priest barracks in the Dachau concentration camp on December 14, 1940. Suffering from the gravely inhuman condition of the camp, forced labor, and severe beatings from guards, Karl’s health declined horribly and he was sent to the camp infirmary. But the worst was still yet to come as there he became the subject of cruel medical experiments.
As his health continued to decline and fearing his summary execution should he be found useless to the experiments, some of the other imprisoned clergy developed a plan to get Karl ordained. As providence would have it, the Bishop Gabriel Piguet of Clermont-Ferrand, France, had recently been imprisoned at Dachau. He agreed to ordain Karl should the appropriate permission be granted. With the help of the “angel of Dachau,” a local young woman who worked in part of the camp named Josefa Mack (later known as Sister Maria Imma after entering religious life post war), they were able to smuggle letters in and out of the camp. One letter was sent to Cardinal von Galen since he was Karl’s bishop and the other was sent to Cardinal von Faulhaber of Munich and Feising since Dachau was within his diocese. Both of the cardinals promptly responded affirmatively and so the plans for the ordination of Deacon Karl Leisner to the priesthood were finalized.
Many of the imprisoned clergy, both Catholic and non-Catholic, came together to help out. The ordination would take place in the camp chapel. (Perhaps unexpectedly, the camp had a chapel and the priests were allowed to celebrate mass despite frequent interruptions and harassment from guards.) The chapel was cleaned and decorated for the special occasion with flowers collected from various places. Some priests even made a complete high mass vestment set complete with a crosier hand carved by a capuchin. Some of the Protestant clergy volunteered to keep watch outside the chapel in case guards approached and a Jewish inmate played violin as a distraction. And thus on Gaudete Sunday, December 17, 1944, Karl Leisner became a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek!
And immediately Father Karl embraced the chalice of suffering (c.f. Matt 20:20-23). His health had declined to such a poor state that he was unable to celebrate his first mass until St. Stephen’s Day, that is, December 26. And although he would survive until Dachau was liberated on May 4, 1945 he died on August 12 before his health was restored enough for him to celebrate mass again. Thus his mass was indeed his first, last, and only mass.
Despite his illness and especially the cruel agony he suffered due to his enemies, Blessed Karl never lost faith nor hope nor love. In all these he persisted and in doing so ran the race well (c.f. 1 Cor 9) and lifted up his brethren to do likewise. And moreover, even to the end he loved his enemies. His last diary entry is a prayer for those who harmed and persecuted him.
The life of Blessed Karl Leisner teaches us many things such as how to persevere in times of trial and persecution, how to suffer well, and how to love our enemies. His life also teaches us and indeed challenges us to never forget that the Eucharist and the priesthood are gifts from God and indeed expressions of his salvific mercy. For Christ is the true high priest who offered himself once as a spotless victim for our salvation and he comes to us in the Eucharist celebrated by his priests during the Mass, which is a making present of that very same sacrifice. Yet far too often we take all of this for granted! We forget this all and the infinite mercy of God which did all this just for us even if we did not deserve it. But what if we did not forget? How might our lives as disciples of Christ Jesus and discerners of his priesthood be different if we did not take these gifts for granted?
Indeed, Blessed Karl is a reminder to all Catholics, but most especially priests and seminarians, of the pure gift of the priesthood. A priest is not his own nor is his priesthood his. The priest and his priesthood belong to Christ Jesus who is the only true priest. And yet out of his infinite mercy he has called certain men to himself to be his priests and as such to be dispensers of his love and mercy. It is remarkably easy to take the priesthood for granted even for those called to the priesthood. But where would we be without the priesthood of Jesus Christ? Nowhere worth going! For there would be no salvation otherwise.
Blessed Karl’s feast day is August 12. For those of us discerning the priesthood, let us take his feast as an opportunity to prayerfully reflect and recommit ourselves to following the Lord with renewed vigor and strength of heart. Psalm 42(43):4-6 says, “And I will go in to the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth. To thee, O God my God, I will give praise upon the harp: why art thou sad, O my soul? and why dost thou disquiet me? Hope in God, for I will still give praise to him: the salvation of my countenance, and my God.” Whatever might be keeping us from Christ, let us place it at the foot of the cross and have faith that Jesus will indeed guide us to where we need to go. Christ will nurture us and give us whatever we need. And he has all these gifts at the ready waiting for us to receive them.
But consider the words a daily mass regular told me this morning: Satan hates priests. This is so very true! The enemy will place all obstacles to waylay discerners and seminarians and will take every opportunity to attack and tarnish the priesthood. Satan hates the priesthood and hates us. We should expect attacks then. Surely Satan tried all that was in his power to stop the ordination of Blessed Karl. Think of this, if Satan could succeed anywhere we might suspect such a place to be a concentration camp, a veritable living hell, yet even there Satan was powerless. Christ was with his sheep making himself manifest in the Eucharist and in the priesthood.
Karl reminds me, as I hope he will for you, of the value of the gift of the priesthood. After all, there is really only one mass, which Jesus Christ offered himself, and which is made manifest at every mass. We the faithful are blessed to participate in the mass and encounter the living God with us in the Eucharist. Moreover, the priest is truly blessed to celebrate the mass and with hands and words bring God to his people. The priesthood can thus be seen as a fountain of God’s grace and mercy which will heal and nourish us always.
So if you are considering discerning the priesthood, do so! But do so only for the sake of Christ, that is to say, on his terms and not your own. I think that this is also one of the morals of Blessed Karl’s story. I doubt that Karl’s life and then priestly ministry went according to his expectations! I would imagine he expected a long life of parish ministry and probably had some great ideas to grow his beloved youth ministry. He moreover probably expected to celebrate many masses and certainly look forward to doing so. Yet this was not to pass. Something far more glorious and beautiful was at play and thankfully, truly thankfully, Karl did not place any such hopes or expectations before Christ. But imagine then the radical and jubilant joy that Fr. Karl had when he celebrated his first mass! Imagine how many souls were saved and will be saved through this one lowly priest’s sacrifice?
Blessed Karl Leisner pray for us, especially all priests, deacons, seminarians and discerners that we might always approach each and every mass as if it is our first mass, our last, mass, our only mass. Amen.