“Our wholehearted paternal sympathy goes out to those who must pay so dearly for their loyalty to Christ and the Church; but directly the highest interests are at stake, with the alternative of spiritual loss, there is but one alternative left, that of heroism.” Pius XI from Mit Brennender Sorge
We Americans tend to be an outspoken lot. We give voice to our opinions freely and many of us enjoy raucous debate, as can be seen on most American blog sites, including this one. We are fortunate to live in a free society where there is no penalty for expressing ourselves. But what if we didn’t live in a free society? What if we lived in a vicious dictatorship where dissent is a one way trip to a concentration camp and then to an unmarked grave? How many of us would then have the courage to speak out, especially if almost everyone else were keeping their heads down and not saying anything? For many people throughout history this has not been a game of what if.
Born in Ohlau in the province of Silesia in Germany on December 3, 1875, Bernard Lichtenberg studied theology at the seminary in Innsbruck, Austria and was ordained a priest in 1899. He served as a priest in Berlin, becoming the parish priest of the Sacred Heart parish in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg in 1913. Ever an energetic priest, he laid the foundations for five parishes and a monastery in Berlin. Somehow he also found the time to be active in the Catholic Centre Party, and was for a time a member of the Berlin regional parliament after World War I. He also carried out missionary and charitable works among the poor of Berlin.
He was made a canon of the Cathedral Chapter by the first Bishop of the newly created diocese of Berlin, Christian Schreiber, in 1931. In 1932 he became pastor of Saint Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin. He also attracted the ire of the Nazis by his support of the pacifist Peace League of German Catholics, and was denounced by Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in the Nazi paper Der Angriff.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Father Lichtenberg attempted unsuccessfully to convince Cardinal Bertram, the president of the German Bishop’s conference, to protest against the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. In 1935 he protested to Herman Goering against the treatment of the Jews. Goering denied everything and demanded that Lichtenberg be taken into “protective custody” for spreading lies about the German state.
In 1937 Father Lichtenberg helped to distribute clandestinely throughout Germany copies of the blistering condemnation of the Nazis by Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge. After Kristallnacht, a Nazi led pogrom throughout Germany against the Jews, he said from the pulpit of Saint Hedwig’s: ‘we know what happened yesterday. We do not know what tomorrow holds. However, we have experienced what happened today. Outside, the synagogue burns. That is also a house of God.’ From that time forward, Father Lichtenberg prayed publicly during evening prayers, in the heart of Nazi Germany, for the Jews and Christians of Jewish descent.