Choosing life amid the Nazis

Choose life, that you and your children may live.
Deuteronomy 30: 19
Take up the cross and follow me.
Luke 9: 23

On March 2, 1945, a day after his thirty-fourth birthday, Father Engelmar Unzeitig died in Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp just outside Munich.

Blessed Engelmar wanted to be a foreign missionary. But his forceful sermons defending the Jews landed him in Dachau in 1941, after only two years as a parish priest in Austria.

Together with thousands of other Catholic priests and Protestant clergy, he spent four years there. He learned Russian so that he could give pastoral care for prisoners form eastern Europe, even dialoguing with Marxists.

In 1945 he and nineteen other priests volunteered to serve in a barracks for those who were dying of typhoid. He contracted the disease and died there.

For him choosing life meant taking up the cross, speaking the truth to the powers that be, defending those who were being persecuted. It also meant attending the dying.

Responding to God for Blessed Engelmar meant being truthful, forthright, and compassionate. He was an angel of mercy.

As he wrote to his sister from Dachau, he did this from his deep faith in a God of love and grace:

Whatever we do, whatever we want, is surely simply the 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 realize what God has in store for those who love him!

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.

He is a martyr, a witness, a sign for our times.

Will we speak up against persecution of Jews and Muslims?

Will we attend those who suffer from disease and poverty?

Will we, as Bishop Robert McElroy said so pointedly, be disrupters and rebuilders?

Blessed Engelmar was a disrupter, almost without wanting to be one, as he critiqued the Nazi regime and spoke up for the Jews. But he was also, I believe, a rebuilder as he attended the needs of other prisoners, dialoguing even with non-believers, serving even in the hideous barracks of the victims of typhoid.

May we be angels of mercy, messengers of truth, disrupters of all that is unholy, rebuilders with our sights on the Kingdom of God – a Reign of “justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit.” (Romans 14:7)

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