He died on August 12 1945. His last diary entry reads as follows: “Bless also, Almighty One, my enemies!” This was the famous Karl Leisner. By who was precisely Karl Leisner?
Born in Rees in the Lower Rhine area of Germany on February 28 1915, Karl was brought up in the town of Kleve. Whilst at the grammar school he joined the Catholic youth movement where he enjoyed the company of people of his own age and participated on exciting trips. Above all, Karl became familiar with the Holy Scriptures as well as the liturgy, and, particularly, with his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Thus, both the Bible and the liturgy helped him greatly to further deeply his love for the Eucharistic Christ. Karl’s spiritual life grew constantly as he struggled daily to gain self-control and being willing to make himself available to serve God and other people generously. Slowly slowly Christ started being the dominant role model in his young life.
Karl became a leader in the Catholic boys movement. The young people who were under his guidance were wisely led to Christ. Karl did his best to protect these youngsters from becoming infected with the deadly ideology of the Third Reich. In one of his diary entries he wrote: Christ, you are my passion! When he left school in 1934 Karl was determined to become a priest. As a matter of fact he went to study in Münster, where the Bishop placed him in charge of the Catholic boys groups in his diocese. During his studies in Freiburg and compulsory labour service Karl was torn by a difficult interior stuggle: should be become a priest or else get married and raise up a family?
Before he became a sub-deacon on March 4 1939, he was able to write in his diary: It was a fight to the death, but I have been called to become a priest and for this I am going to sacrifice everything. On 25 March he was ordained a deacon. And, a few months later, he should have been ordained a priest. But things turned out differently. Unexpectedly, Karl was found to have tuberculosis and was sent to a nursing home in Sankt Blasien in the Black Forest to have treatment. There he was arrested on November 9 by the Gestapo due to a comment he made after hearing of the failed attempt to assissinate Adolf Hitler: “That’s a shame!” Karl was imprisoned in Freiburg and from there they first sent him to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen then to Dachau in December 1940.
In 1942 his illness reappeared. He was coughing blood and was moved to the camp sick bay, barracks where between 120 and 150 terminally ill prisoners with lung diseases were crowded together and doomed to die. The young deacon treasured the Sacred Scriptures and secretely reserved the Blessed Sacrament to take it to the dying. He felt secure in the love of his Holy Mother Mary. He lived according to the words of Saint Paul when he wrote to the Colossians:
In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col 1:24). Thus, Karl was able to hold out as his illness worsened for the four long years until the end.
Then another unexpected event occurred in Karl’s life when he was ordained to the priesthood by the French Bishop Gabriel Piguet from Clermont-Ferrand who had recently been brought as a prisoner to the camp. Those attending the ordination ceremony were threatened with death but it took place nonetheless in Block 26 on December 17 1944. The concentration camp was liberated on 29 April 1945. Karl spent his last weeks in the Planegg nursing home near Munich He now only had two aims, love and atonement. His life was accomplished in the love of God in whom he had believed and for whom he had borne witness.
After his death, on August 12 1945, he was buried in the crypt of the Cathedral in Xanten. On 15 March 1980 Pope Saint John Paul II approved the opening of Karl’s beatification process whereas on October 8 1988 he presented Karl Leisner as an example to some 42,000 young people assembled in Strasbourg from all over Europe. On June 23 1996, precisely in Berlin, Saint John Paul II beatified Karl Leisner. In his sermon the Holy Father quoted from Karl’s diary and spoke about his relationship to the international family at Schoenstatt. He said: “Even before he was imprisoned in Dachau he had developed deep devotion to Mary, to which he was inspired by Fr Kentenich and the Schoenstatt Movement. His faith, courage and enthusiasm for Christ can be an incentive and example to young people who are living in a world largely marked by lack of faith and indifference.”
Some interesting quotes from Karl’s diaries help us deepen our faith in Christ. A 1934 entry says: In chains, a servant held in fetters and yet free – I stand before you, Lord and dare to ask humility and with courage, “Lord, what do you want of me? For me in the fire of the Holy Spirit into a tool of Your Almighty Hand”. Christ, you are my passion. Salvation! The following year Karl wrote: Christ, you have called me. I speak with modesty and certainty, manly and strong: Here I am, send me! Give me your strength for your mission. In 1936 he wrote: I am writing it down here: I want to live for love, I want to live love, I want to live through and with love. Whereas in 1937 he wrote: Lord, show me the way and give the right holy guidance as to where I should go. I don’t know the way any more, I am sick to the bottom of my heart. In 1938 Karl confessed: This is the ultimate meaning of my life: To live Christ in this time. Christ, if you did not exist, then I would not like to exist. You exist. You live. Take me there, dispose of me. Let your actions and your conduct through me and us all to be turned into deeds today. Jesus Christ, my life, I will follow you in devout, magnanimous, heroic obedience wherever you order me to go. Finally, in 1939, Karl expressed his life commitment to Christ: Christ, for you my life unconditionally. Whatever you do with me, you alone shall decide. May it happen!
In this beautiful, fascinating and totally Christ committed life story of Blessed Karl Leisner I am simply and humbly led to pray with my heartfelt conviction, as it is written and prayed for after the Eucharistic Benediction in The Divine Praises: Blessed be God in his Angels and in his Saints. Amen.
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap