Wednesday 16 March 2022

When to speak

It takes courage to speak out against injustice and violence, unless everyone around you is in total agreement with your cause. We are surely all pretty much united in our thoughts about what is happening in the Ukraine and can air these feelings with impunity. But what of those Russians who wish to protest against their president’s war against their neighbours? We see protestors being carried away by policemen, and who knows what may happen to them when out of sight of the world’s cameras? It takes courage to speak out, especially when you are well aware of what reprisals there may be.

This brings to my mind a hero of mine — Fr Bernhard Lichtenberg, an exemplary and hard-working German priest, who happened also to be the Dean of St Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin. Fr Bernhard was asked by the Cardinal Archbishop to do all he could to assist the Jews when persecution by the Nazi regime began to get more aggressive. As early as 1935, he had registered a protest to Hermann Göring about the treatment of the Jewish people in the camp at Esterwegen, to be told that the Office had heard that such things had occurred there. Nothing was done. Thereafter, Fr Bernhard was watched very carefully and threatened with arrest.

The real turning point came on Kristallnacht. It became the driving force of his daily prayers for the next three years. Up until November 1938, he had confronted the Nazi Regime in the manner that was safest for him by writing letters (even once to Hitler). Now, he knew he would have to speak out in defence of the Jews and in direct opposition to the Führer. He instituted daily evening prayers for the Jews in the Cathedral. On the night of 10 November, he stood in the pulpit in St Hedwig’s and preached (there were Gestapo men present): “What happened yesterday, we know. What will happen tomorrow, we do not know. But we have experienced what happened today. Outside, the synagogue is burning and that too is a house of God.” Then the Dean prayed, “I know I must die. I know not how, I know not when, I know not where. But one thing I do know — Jesus Christ, yesterday, today and forever.”

Although he knew he was a marked man, Fr Bernhard continued his relief work for the Jews and amid endless harassment, also protested against the increasing attacks on the Church. In May 1942, after having publicly criticised the “euthanasia” murders, he was condemned to two years imprisonment, by the end of which, his health was seriously impaired. When asked what he intended to do after his release, he replied: “I intend to fulfil the will of God and remain true to my priesthood until my last breath.” The Nazi officials, having realised that they had not managed to break the spirit or resolve of the Dean of Lichtenberg, decided not to release him but send him to join the Jews, in whose defence he had spoken and acted, in a death camp. On 5 November 1943, while being transferred to Dachau, he died from the ill-treatment he had received.

Most mornings, I read a little passage from the notes which Fr Lichtenberg wrote while in prison:

Begin my soul, to say slowly and mindfully upon waking in the morning, “Today, I intend to regard everything in the light of eternity — anything that happens to me, joyful and painful, uplifting and depressing.” In a few weeks, I may perhaps add a second resolution, may even be forced to do so, as I have already come to realize my impediment: It is my impatience. Therefore, in future, I will say slowly and mindfully after the first resolution, “Today, I intend to take possession of my soul through my patience.” I know I will lose patience a thousand times, but I will renew my resolve of patience again and again. Perhaps after several months, I will know why I lose patience so quickly: I speak too readily, my heart is on my tongue, I am too quick to show my displeasure – and I will add a third resolution: “Today, I will not sin with a single word.” And because a word always presupposes a thought, I will reformulate the third resolution and say, “Today, I will not sin with a single thought and a single word.”

This is a challenging agenda, though one we might all aspire to and attempt to practice, for such attentiveness to pleasing God and a sincere desire to come closer to Him will make us better Christians and better people — saints even? Fr Bernhard Lichtenberg was beatified as a martyr by Pope St John Paul II in Berlin on 23 June 1996. May his prayers help to discern when to speak and when to remain silent.

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