Given at the Mass for the Closing of the Year of Consecrated Life during the Jubilee Year of Mercy at Westminster Cathedral on the Feast of the Presentation, 2 February 2016.
A few years ago, as part of my summer holiday, I went to Munich airport so that one of my companions could catch a plane home. Leaving the airport, the rest of us caught sight of a signpost for Dachau. So we went, even though it is hardly a holiday thing to do.
On the way I got a bit lost, so I stopped and asked an electrician, working on a shop front, if he could tell me the way. He did so, in excellent English and then said: ‘Have a nice day!'
Dachau was quite shocking. It really reduced me to silence. And that sense of shock and silence returned just a few days ago when I read that Pope Francis had declared Fr Unzeitig to be a martyr, killed in hatred of the faith. In 2009, Pope Benedict had declared him Venerable.
I had never heard of him: Fr Engelmar Unzeitig. He was a young priest with Czech roots serving in Germany and Austria. He was a member of the small Mariannhall Missionary Society, a religious, and therefore a man we do well to remember on this day.
Fr Unzeitig was arrested by the Nazis on April 21, 1941. His crime? Preaching against the Third Reich from his pulpit, particularly against their treatment of the Jewish people. He encouraged his congregation to be faithful to God and to resist the lies of the Nazi regime.
I read that as punishment, Fr Unzeitig was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Hence the return of my shock and silence. What I had not known was that Dachau has been called the ‘largest monastery in the world’ because of the large number of ministers and priests imprisoned within its barbed wire perimeter. The camp housed some 2,700 clergy, roughly 95 percent of whom were Catholic priests from Poland, making it one of the largest residences for priests in the history of the Church, hence the name.
Father Unzeitig was just 30 years old and two years ordained when he was sent to Dachau. Born in the Czech Republic in 1911, Fr Unzeitig joined the seminary at the age of 18 and became a priest for the Mariannhill Mission Society, whose motto is: ‘If no one else will go: I will go!’
While imprisoned at the camp, Father Unzeitig continued his dedicated life of prayer and study, learning Russian in order to be able to help the influx of prisoners from Eastern Europe. He had a reputation there of being a holy man.
Treatment of the priests and ministers at Dachau was unpredictable: sometimes they were allowed to celebrate Mass (if I remember rightly, there was even an ordination within the camp); at others they were severely treated. On one particular Good Friday, dozens of priests were selected for torture as a perverted way of marking the Holy Day.
For several years Fr Unzeitig remained in relatively stable health despite the poor treatment he received. However, when a wave of typhoid fever swept through the camp in 1945, he and 19 other priests volunteered to do what no one else wanted to: care for the sick and dying in the typhoid barracks, an almost-certain death sentence in and of itself. He and his companions spent their days bathing and caring for the sick, praying with them and offering last rites.
Despite his bleak circumstances, Fr Unzeitig found his hope and joy in his faith, as evidenced in letters to his sister from the camp.
He wrote: ‘Whatever we do, whatever we want, is surely simply grace that carries us and guides us. God’s almighty grace helps us overcome obstacles … love doubles our strength, makes us inventive, makes us feel content and inwardly free. If people would only realise what God has in store for those who love Him!’
In another letter he wrote: ‘Even behind the hardest sacrifices and worst suffering stands God with his Fatherly love, who is satisfied with the good will of his children and gives them and others happiness.’
Eventually, on March 2, 1945, Fr Unzeitig succumbed to typhoid fever himself, along with all but two of the other priest volunteers. Perhaps he died with the words of today's Gospel on his lips: 'Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace' (Lk 22.30). Dachau was liberated by American soldiers just a few weeks later.
I wanted to share this narrative with you today because it speaks so eloquently of the beauty and generosity which lies at the heart of consecrated life. When Fr Unzeitig writes of the effect of the love of God in his life, I am sure he touches a chord in the heart of each one of us.
Then, too, I wanted to tell his story because it is such a marvellous picture of mercy in action. As we continue to explore the greatness of God's mercy we do well to remember that the most eloquent account of mercy is to be found not in words but in actions. We think of the action of God in Jesus, choosing to give his all that we might live. We see the action of Fr Unzeitig, giving his strength, his effort, his life, willingly and joyfully, for the sake of others. In him we see the spiritual works of mercy: his praying with the sick, offering them consolation and spiritual strength. We see too the corporal works of mercy: bathing the sick and the dying, feeding them and giving them a dignified burial, as best as circumstances permitted. Surely his life, and the lives of so many other consecrated people, such as St Teresa Benedicta, also witnessed to the spiritual work of forgiving offences and bearing patiently with all who did them ill. What examples for us today who live in such comfort yet often find cause to complain!
Their outstanding witness helps us to ponder the countless actions of so many people, in our own lives, in the life of our communities, who day by day put other people first. Every time one of us makes that extra effort, summons up fresh energy when we are already tired, in order to respond out of love to the needs of others, then in our actions we paint a portrait of mercy to adorn our world.
I thank God for the mercy filling the lives of you all, of so many religious men and women, who today rededicate their lives to God. I salute in particular all who are celebrating jubilees of special dimensions: silver, golden and diamond. Thank you, thank you for your faithfulness, for the beauty of your souls and for the light of the Lord to whom you have been faithful, through thick and thin, reflecting in your lives. He gives us the mercy of the Father in full measure. Let us, each of us, pass it on to others, being consecrated messengers of mercy, in our world today.