Saturday, November 6, 2010

Deacon at Dachau -- UPDATED

I, along with others, have written extensively about the influence the priest-prisoners at Concentration Camp Dachau had on the renewal of the (permanent) diaconate by the Second Vatican Council.  For those who are not familiar with this history, you might want to check out some of the books listed on my "bookshelf" to the right.

But what many people don't realize is the fact that there was a deacon incarcerated at Dachau.  Deacon Karl Leisner, now Blessed Karl Leisner, was ordained a (transitional) deacon in 1939, expecting ordination to the presbyterate shortly thereafter.  However, he was such an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime that he was arrested and sent to Dachau.  There he was imprisoned with priests and other religious leaders in the infamous "Priesterblock".  He became very ill with tuberculosis and gave up hope that he might ever be ordained to the priesthood.  However, a French bishop was incarcerated in the same cell block in 1944, and he requested ordination even though he was terminally ill with TB.

Fr. Otto Pies, SJ, the unofficial leader of the priest-prisoners, smuggled letters out of the camp via a young woman candidate of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sister Imma Mack.  Sister Imma would later be referred to as "the angel of Dachau" because of her efforts to smuggle bread into the camp (Sister Imma passed away in 2006).  Pies gave letters requesting authority for the French bishop to ordain Leisner to the priesthood.  Sister Imma hand-carried the letters to Cardinal Feldhauber, who not only gave a "dimissorial letter" (permission for another bishop to ordain one of his seminarians), but also an ordination ritual book and chrism needed for the ordination; Sister Imma was to return these items, along with written documentation of the ordination if they were able to celebrate it.  Meanwhile, a number of prisoners, including a couple of non-Catholics who worked in different work areas of the camp, made full sets of vestments for the bishop and Deacon Leisner (including a biretta for the new priest to wear!).  The ordination was celebrated in 1944 in secret, and the documentation was smuggled to Sister Imma who delivered it all to the Cardinal.  Here's a video in Italian (but with English and Spanish subtitles that gives some of the details).

Father Leisner was so ill that he only celebrated one Mass while incarcerated.  Shortly after the camp was liberated, he was sent to a hospital for the terminally ill, where he died in 1945.

I think it's important that these kinds of stories remain current in our minds and hearts as we consider what ministry today should look like!  We take so many things for granted!  And yet, it was from experiences such as these that the dream of a renewed permanent diaconate was brought forth in concrete terms.  It was thought, by men like Leisner and Pies, and women like S. Imma, that deacons could help create a world where this kind of madness might no longer exist.

Now, let's talk again about "doing diaconate right."


  1. Thanks so much for refocusing the discussion this way. A few weeks back, I was talking with the candidates in my formation class about Franz Jägerstätter, beatified just 3 years ago. Jägerstätter was very involved in the life of the church as a lay Franciscan and as sacristan of his parish. It strikes me that if the permanent diaconate had been an option, he would have been an ideal candidate.

    I would hate to think he would have been turned away because he lacked the education and polish of the local clergy, most of whom discouraged his courageous refusal to serve in Hitler's army. I think it is important that men in training for the diaconate be capable of reading their course materials with understanding, but I am very bothered when I hear (as I did at a recent gathering of the formation faculty) that our ideal candidates should write like graduate students.

    I would vastly prefer to work with less polished candidates who entered formation with hard-won holiness and commitment to serve God whatever the cost.

  2. Thanks, Ron.

    I have to admit, I'm rather surprised that there has been no other comment to this posting! Maybe no one else thought it had anything to say to us today; I hope not, but. . . .

    While I agree with what you say, I try to steer a middle path. I have never supported efforts that would REQUIRE a certain academic level for deacon candidates (and neither the Vatican or the USCCB imposes such a requirement, although many folks mistakenly think otherwise). At the same time, the educational level of the people we serve is quite high, and since deacons also serve as official preachers and teachers, they need to have competence in speaking to all people in the church.

    One of the finest deacons I've ever known was a man in my own formation class who never finished fourth grade. Not only was he a deeply spiritual man, he was also a gifted pastoral theologian and competent across the board. I would never want to see a formation program that would not have him as a part of it.

    The good news is that I have only rarely seen any diocese impose an ABSOLUTE academic requirement; even when one is imposed, there are always exceptions made. Even when the occasional bishops has started out with an absolute, he usually finds that he has to reverse himself within a couple of years.

    God bless,

  3. We here in the Archdiocese of Mobile are in the second year of a four year formation. It was only restarted after the installation of Archbishop Rodi whereas our previous Archbishop Emeritus Lipscomb deferred to his successor as stated in previous posts. This resulted in an 8 year lapse in our program and thus we have had to start from scratch. Only with the hard work and assistance from those at the USCCB and NADD have we a viable program in place. Academic credentials are not a criteria for our formation program as we try and evaluate the whole person and discern the Holy Spirit's intentions.

    Being able to work at the college level is a plank in our evaluation process, but it is not nailed down to the detriment of the individual or the Church of Mobile.

  4. Please give my regards to your Archbishop! Had the occasion to work with him following Katrina/Rita as part of the bishops' task force on hurricane recovery efforts.

    God bless,


  5. My view on the education is a bit of a middle ground. I think that an educational prerequisite is a very bad idea. You could limit out some very qualified candidates. However, I think that there should be reasonably rigorous standards for academic/intellectual formation. I think this is a balanced approach that doesn't unreasonably close the door, but still produces fully formed / well-rounded deacons.