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Karl Cardinal Lehmann: Courage and Trust

Sermon on the 10th of November, 2003 in Lübeck

The 10th of November follows a date, which is of some importance in German history: The 9th of November played an important role four times in the last century: in 1918 overthrow of the Monarchy and proclamation of the Republic. In 1923 Hitler’s march to the Feldherrnhalle, in 1938 the pogrom (Kristallnacht) against the Jews, in1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 10th of November, already long being observed in Lübeck is thus arranged worthily in sequence and presents us with a lecture.

At this very hour, 60 years ago, four clergymen of two great Churches lost their lives. They were sentenced to death for the most part because of preparation of treason, broadcasting crimes, impairment of defence and treasonable aiding and abetting of the enemy. It has been, until now, been quite rare and exemplary that Christians of both Churches in one town stood up together to oppose the contemptible dictatorship and thereby had to lose their lives. Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, Pastor of the Lutherkirche, born in 1894, had changed from being a follower of National-Socialism to becoming a decided opponent. He thus did not really fit into the then prevailing spectrum of his minister-colleagues in Lübeck, because he belonged neither to the “German Christians” nor to the “Bekennende Kirche” (Professing Church). In his stubbornness and temperament he was much like Chaplain Prassek, born in 1911 and working in the Herz Jesu Kirche. Both were associating as friends. They interchanged opinions about Nazi crimes, the conduct of the war, advice about frequencies of “enemy” broadcasting stations and distributed pamphlets, among them sermons of the Bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen. Vicar Hermann Lange, born in 1912 and Chaplain Müller, born in 1911, joined them. After the arrest of Stellbrink, the three Catholic priests and a further 18 lay people were apprehended. They all stayed true to their Faith and ready to suffer for their convictions. I imagine, that some of them may still be among us.

Even this evening, the date of the death sentence by the “Peoples’ Tribunal” against the three Catholic priests, it is worth to again listen to the words of that sentence:

“You have been accused of having repeatedly listened to and distributed broadcasts of German-language enemy radio since 1940 or the beginning of 1941 and thereby having fostered enemy propaganda. Furthermore, you have organised, since the spring or summer of 1941 at the direction of your superior Church authority, regular group evenings supposed to strengthen the faith of the participants and which were, to the most part. attended by young men, who had been invited by the accused and some of which were members of the Wehrmacht who also introduced other guests, and you are also accused of having, by the distribution of writings, incited disobedience against the National-Socialist State during these group evenings, aided the enemy and did make preparations for treason.”

Today, we can hardly imagine in view of the liberties we enjoy, that one could lose one’s life on account of these indictments. Despite their young ages, only Pastor Stellbrink was aged 49, – the presented an almost imaginable strength and determination in their faith. Chaplain Prassek suffered most, because he had put his trust in a young Gestapo mole, who pretended to be interested in the Faith and often required help. Friends outside the prison wall feared for them. The steadfastness of the Four also yielded them the sympathies of some prison personnel. Eduard Müller, for instance, wrote these words after sentencing in his straightforward style:

“Therefore I have the expectation and the hope that I shan’t in any way be ruined, but that in all frankness, as always, Christ will be glorified through my body, be it in life, be in death. Because life for me is Christ and death but gain!”.

There is no farewell letter by Johannes Prassek. It was probably destroyed because of his strong criticism.1

There is no need for me to reiterate from the lives of the four clergymen. It is all well known in Lübeck. I am sure that you have, especially together with 18 arrested lay people and friends, collected and compiled in these 60 years all that could be brought back from memory. Now the time is right for a more extensive presentation.

The fact that four clergymen of the two great Churches lost their lives together on the same day, here, today remains unique. Therefore we should not talk about the three chaplains without naming their Lutheran brother Karl Friedrich Stellbrink in the same breath. With all their differences these four clergymen had something in common. They opened our eyes. They were filled with the confidence of being supported at all times, in all situations. Today, as then, we need the courage to recognise lies and injustices and act against them. We must not look away like cowards, but muster the courage to profess and intervene.

Suffering and persecution for the sake of one’s faith have always been experienced by Christians over time. During early Christendom the word “Martyr” was reserved for those who gave their lives for their Faith. Their examples were commemorated by annual memorials. They became the directive ideal of being a Christian. According to the words of Tertullian, the blood of those Witnesses of Faith became the seed for more Christians. The existence of a martyr is the utmost and most concrete expression of being a Christian and human being at the same time. By his suffering and dying for the Truth the martyr becomes close to the Son of Man. Thus, the martyr of the original and early Church became the centre of Christian matter of course. The martyr becomes simply the witness, who not just accuses the persecutor, but manifests a new reality. Thus, the martyr is simply the Saint, the highest form of a Christian existence.

It is a pity that this course of life up till now has not been brought to the fore because of the somewhat unfortunate categorisation of “Resistance”. One has classified people of the Resistance most readily, when they could be found within the conspiracy of the 20th of July, 1944. Quite often the concept of “Resistance” was also reserved for the act of conscious political revolt. That is why the names of the four Lübeck clergymen are missing from, for instance from “Lexikon des deutschen Widerstandes“ (Encyclopaedia of the German Resistance), or similar summarising works, or collections of personal portraits. These are unfortunate lapses. Sometimes their witness is downgraded by declaring that they didn’t really render active political resistance, but rather, were unfortunate in that they were denounced. Therefore it is good to regard witnesses for Jesus Christ as a separate category, which includes the political as well as the human dimension. This alters and broadens the classic, ecclesiastic concept of a martyr.

Pope John Paul II in 1994 initiated the compiling of a history of martyrs of the 20th century, encompassing all continents. The collection was to be concluded by the year 2000. On time in 1999, in time for the millennium, two volumes were published: “Witnesses for Christ. A German Martyrologium for the 20th Century.” on behalf of the German Bishops’ Conference and published by Helmut Moll. It is a delight and satisfaction to see the Lübeck Chaplains recorded here under the new Archdiocese of Hamburg. (see Vol. I, 249-257, Writer: Martin Thoemmes) This is an important memorial which should not be disregarded in its timely character. Pope John Paul II impressively described it in his Apostolic Letter “Tertio Millenio Adveniente”, by the way, exactly on the 10th of November 1994. It says there:

“The martyrs have returned in our century, often unknown, like “unknown soldiers” in God’s great cause. As much as it is possible their witness must not be lost to the Church. As was recommended by the Consistorium of the cardinals, the local Church must do everything possible by creating a collection of the necessary documentation to prevent that the legacy of those who have suffered Martyrium, falls into oblivion”.

Even if the world-wide collection of attestations recommended by the Pope could not be published in the result, there is, nevertheless, a great aid: Andrea Riccardi, Professor of Modern History at Rome University and founder of the Community of St. Egidio (which has built a global network of peace activism since 1968), has attempted the start of a global account of Christian martyrs of the 20th century. The book is also available under the title: „Salt of the Earth, Light of the World. Witnesses to Faith and Persecution of Christians in the 20th Century”, published in German (Freiburg i. Br. 2002). It is satisfying to see the Four Lübeckers mentioned together (P. 89). Thus, one has made a good start, which may yield world-wide resonance.

These investigations bring to our notice that, never before in history, have so many Christians globally become the victims of persecution and violent death because of their Faith as in the 20th century. Dictatorships of all kinds have engendered the resistance of courageous Christians, who followed their consciences and payed with their lives for the sake of justice. The collection of names reminds us of the harrowing barbarity of the past century. There are not just the many martyrs of early Christendom and later epochs.

Therefore our witnesses of faith are also proof of the staunch humanity, which time and again has been challenged by terror and horrors. Thus, the Lübeck clergymen were also “witnesses to a better world” in the dark of night.

Sometimes we feel ashamed because of our luke-warm, and bordering on complacency, “little-faith”. It becomes dangerous for today’s Christian faith, at least in Europe, that hardly anyone suffers or, worse, dies for the ideals of the Christian faith. There is an important note in Sören Kierkegaard’s diary of 1919: The only expression for, that something exists in reality, is to become its martyr or martyr because of it”. In any case, the Lübeck Martyrs raise this question in us: Is there anything in our lives, for the individual or us as a society, of such value, that is worth living for, big enough to die for? A Jewish philosopher and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, calls to us:

“We can only live the Truth, if we have the strength to die for it (…) a martyr is a witness of the Holy despite the Evil, he is witness for the transcendence and transcendent orientation of Man”

The Martyrs show us, that Faith must be rooted in a time in history, that Christian hope must not become immune to suffering, abstract and without a sense of history. In them hope can again prevail convincingly in the face of the power of hate and death. The Martyrs especially, are witness to the fact that power does not have the last word. Amen.

1) Prassek's farewell letters habe been lost at the time the sermon was held and appeared lateron. proceed



On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the execution of the Lübeck Chaplains Johannes Prassek, Eduard Müller, Hermann Lange and Pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink by the National-Socialists, Karl Cardinal Lehmann, chairperson of the German Bishops’ Conference, delivered this sermon in the Herz-Jesu-Kirche, Lübeck on the 10th of November, 2003.