An Encouraging Word — God gives strength to the weak

God gives strength to the weak
Father J. Ronald Knott

We have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Hebrews 12:1

One day after my first birthday, the infamous Nazi prison camp at Dachau surrendered to American troops. Located about ten miles from Munich, I had the chance to tour it in 1971 on one of my backpacking trips around Europe while I was still young.

Dachau is a sad place where 25,613 people were murdered by the Nazis. Most people walk through it in whispers or silence out of respect for those who died in the worst example of man’s inhumanity to man.

I knew that many people had died there, but what I did not know was that 2,771 clergymen were inmates in Dachau, and 2,579 of them were Catholic bishops, priests, seminarians and brothers. A disproportionate number were the 1,780 from Poland. Eight-hundred sixty-eight bishops and priests perished, 300 in medical “experiments” or by torture.

The remaining bishops, priests and seminarians came from 38 nations. Besides the Poles, the largest groups were 447 Germans and Austrians, 156 Frenchmen and 46 Belgians.

3,000 additional Polish priests were sent to other concentration camps. In addition, 780 priests died at Mauthausen, 3,000 at Sachsenhausen and 5,000 in Buchenwald. With the Nazi conquest of Western Europe, hundreds of priests were shot or shipped to concentration camps, many dying en route. Many nuns were also imprisoned or shot.

At Dachau, facing constant beatings, starvation and medical experimentation, a few priests committed suicide by throwing themselves onto the electrified fence that surrounded the camp. Some priests despaired or gave up, but most clung tenaciously to their faith. They either prayed in private or held clandestine group prayer meetings. They set up a secret makeshift chapel in the corner of the barracks. Most tried to ease the suffering of their inmates.

The film, “The Ninth Day,” based on the book Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, is a moving account of their situation and the response of Father Jean Bernard in particular.

In one moving scene, the priests sing the familiar Catholic hymn “Pange Lingua” as one of their fellow priests agonizes on a cross outside their window. In another scene, they celebrate Mass with a pinch of bread and a few drops of wine.

Seminarian, Karl Leisner, whose seminary was interrupted, was secretly ordained in Dachau by one of the imprisoned bishops. Because he was so weak from tuberculosis, he had to celebrate his first Mass in secret nine days later. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1996. His feast day is August 12.

Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan Friar, now a saint, volunteered to take the place of a married man with a family when 10 were selected for starvation at Auschwitz. The last one of the 10 to live, Maximilian was finally injected with carbolic acid.

In times like these, when so many of us priests are reminded every day of our weaknesses, it’s good to remember that “God chooses the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness to him.”

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