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Bishop Franz-Josef Bode: Challenged

Sermon on the 10th of November, 2001 in Lübeck

Readings: Wisdom 3, 1-9 
Gospel: Luke 6, 17-23

Dear Sisters and Brothers!

We are still numbed by the horrors and shock of the events of the 11th of September. The unsettling, frightening and omnipresent dimensions of the war and the truly poisonous communications, when letters become the contagions of serious illnesses instead of good news, are always with us.

Especially unsettling in this regard is the increasing number of suicide assassins, who see terror as a means of Holy War. They are prepared to die for it and are then venerated as martyrs by many in a mistaken fanatical religiosity. They are “martyrs”, where destruction and terror are mixed with their self-sacrifice, leading to a perverted martyrdom, which deeply appals us again.

Therefore it is all the more important and necessary today, to look to and remember people, who gave their lives against ideologies which brought violence and death, who gave their lives not to drag others to death or to knit a net of calamities which covers the entire world right up to our front doors, but who gave their lives to create a net of salvation and justice, a net which catches men to live. On the 11th of September we had to deal with “martyrs” on the side of perpetrators who turned religion into an ideology. On the 10th of November we have martyrs on the side of religion and victims, who unmasked an ideology. They are the real martyrs, who far beyond their deaths shout to our world: Whoever lives just for himself cannot bear fruit, cannot create a future; only those willing to sacrifice themselves, to play their part, to intervene , are able to fashion life and future.

The Lübeck Chaplains Johannes Prassek from Hamburg, Hermann Lange from Leer, Eduard Müller from Neumünster and their Lutheran brother Karl-Friedrich Stellbrink were executed 58 years ago to the day. “Their parting from us counts not as annihilation but their hope is replete with immortality”, so it says about them in today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom.

These executed, who stood up for countless people then, demand today, and especially today, through the acceptance of the reality of life and non-violent resistance to injustice, threats to life, violence and self-glorifying arrogance, to not just remain on the sidelines and be compliant, but to be totally dedicated to a life worthy of a human, and to set, in a variety of ways, signals for a different, greater life that no guillotine nor noose can kill.

Time and again I take that small, worn, almost well-thumbed New Testament of Herman Lange’s, which was always with him, into my hands with deep emotion and shock. The cold sweat of fear and the tears of his last hours cling to this book as do the consolations and strengthening he received from the Holy words. The texts have been redacted, underlined by him; they were „nourishment“ in his most difficult hour, as is written in Jeremiah: “If there were words from you, I devoured them. Your word was bliss and heart’s delight”.

In his farewell letter Hermann Lange writes about Paul’s Letters: “Open, if you will, 1 Cor 15, 43 and 55, or Rom 14, 8: What is sown is paltry, what is awakened, glorious. What is sown is weak, what is awakened strong” and “Death, where is your victory?, Death, where is you barb?” or “When we live, we live the Lord, when we die, we die for the Lord. Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord”. “Alas, look closely wherever you will, you find the jubilation about mercy of God’s kinship. What is it that could happen to a child of God? Of what shoud I be afraid then?” – Hermann Lange thus lived by the word, and the others no less, the Lutheran pastor well versed therein.

Thus, the Four Martyrs challenge us today, to create a new kind of “witnessing” against the fanaticism of perverted martyrdom, the temptation of fundamentalism, they challenge us to avoid all violence against violence, but they also challenge us to “witness” against the inability of conviction, arbitrariness and non-committal of a religiosity which has become toothless and benign, which has lost face and engagement, no longer challenges, does not “provoke”, has lost commitment, passion and fire and thereby fewer vocations, vocations by people who will stand up for Christianity in our society, without excuses.

The contemporary, in time and fate, P. Alfred Delp asks in a sermon on the Feast of Peter and Paul, 1941: “Church, are you alive or at the end? Are you ready or do you celebrate new beginnings?” And the he uses the words, which are just as current now as they were then:

“Are we still enthusiastic people? Is there still in our soul a passion, for which we ourselves will stand up? Or has everything been rearranged so soberly, shallow and neatly, that it no longer inflames the heart?. The zealous person! Not the fanatic! The fervent person, who lets us feel that he has been blessed a thousandfold, who has touched on things which are not lying in the dust. He is the person the Church has built on……This is the answer to the question: Church, will you live or die?, thus: The Church will live, when we again have come to God, have been touched by and filled with Him, so that we are prepared to also die for Him. To go from Death to life, that shall be our secret. If we cannot manage this readiness, if we cannot win the space for our Lord God, then nothing can help us. The basic question is: Shall we be mature enough again, to perform what is meant by Church. The Church will live when we once again like our Lord God, like him personally that much, that we are prepared to die for him, to offer up our lives”. (Alfred Delp, The Church in Man’s Hands, Publ. Roman Bleistein, Frankfurt 1984, P.77-79)

The Four Martyrs challenge us to:

  • Return to the essentials – against all dispersal and segmentation of our realities into all kinds of possibilities, where no-one wants to miss anything, because he sees this life as the last chance;
  • Return to what exists – against pure opportunism, against a Christendom practiced by the large majority, towards a personal and emphatic passing on of Christian belief based on a personal decision.
  • Return to togetherness – against the inability to relate to others and egotism towards a „together“ in a personal sense, the exchange talents and abilities of individuals and communitis, between the Churches in the Oekumene, and in dialogue with other religions, especially Islam.
  • Return to the Whole – that means to totally recognise the person in body and soul and to live a wholly Catholic existence, and in that sense to go all out, instead of just a personal fretful-egocentric view of things.
  • Return to Trust, instead of constantly doubting and questioning in order prefer the negation more than the affirmation, it is important to develop positive, constructive Resistances from experience of important matters, not egotistical trivia.;
  • They challenge us to return to solidarity – from non-committal to solidarity with the poor and those who have slipped through the mesh of society towards a faith devoted to people.
  • They challenge us to return to prayer, to a new language about God, and more with God – against „tabooing” and speechlessness in Faith; our faith will only regain that strength which heals through touch, through experiencing human contact and devotion, heals from inner or outer illness, obsession, that is from dependence of any kind, as the Gospel tells us.

When we wonder a lot today in Churches and parishes, how to believe in future, how to celebrate divine service, how to act in solidarity and shapr our community, it comes down to the types of the Lübeck Martyrs, who are the future for us, because we can shape the future following their actions, they are our future, because their deaths were not defeat but potential life, like birth pains are of a new, better future in the dignity of man and just peace – that is why we shall go on struggling with their example, their provocation and intercession.

Especially because we are threatened today by the temptations of the so-called “Bio-Sciences” to the feasibility of life-discovery, the temptation of violence and the destruction of men and the world – threatens thus in life and in peace – especially because of this is the message of the life of the Martyrs a thorn in the side. It’s a thorn which keeps us awake for the future, awake against the new totalitarianism of the market and consumerism, the exaggerated ideals of youth, of progress, of mobility, the culture of fun and experience, of individualism and egotism. It keeps us aware, that maybe, violence and war will destroy the haters, but alas, not hate itself. They challenge us to not just give part of us (Money or some talents) but to bring ourselves fully, as Paul says in his Firdt Letter to the Thessalonicans: “I did not want you to share just the Gospel of Christ, but my whole life”. Only through our sympathy with the people can we show concrete fervour for God. Let us nurse not the mysticism of the closed eyes, but the mysticism of the open eyes. (Metz)

Dear Sisters and Brothers: This place of remembrance, this relatively plain place of prayer of the Lübeck Martyrs, the annual memorials, reflection and deliberations of their message will yield more in the future of the Church than many a planned concept and announcements. Dear Sisters and Brothers, the Lübeck Martyrs through their deaths have become true, genuine means of hope. They give us hope, because they – to find an echo in the words of Marie-Luise Kaschnitz – open our eyes, so that we may see in that “opaque sack named future”, which we think we can hardly shoulder, there is still a lot to enchant us“. Amen.



On the 10th of November, 2001 the Bishop of Osnabrück, Franz-Josef Bode, held this moving sermon in Lübeck on the occasion of the anniversary of the execution of the Lübeck clergymen.