June 18, 1996
The Associated Press
By COLLEEN BARRY Associated Press Writer
BERLIN (AP) -- Making his first visit to the city that was the center of the Nazi world, Pope John Paul II is coming to Berlin this week to beatify two German priests who opposed Adolf Hitler.
The Roman Catholic Church has long defended itself against criticism that it did not do enough to save European Jews from the Holocaust. And the pope often has expressed horror that Jews were singled out during World War II.
He is focusing on that period of history by staging Sunday's beatification ceremony -- a step toward sainthood -- in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, built for the 1936 Games that Hitler saw as a triumph of his regime.
One of the priests to be beatified is the Rev. Bernhard Lichtenberg. After witnessing the Kristallnacht destruction of Jewish stores and synagogues on Nov. 9, 1938, he was moved for the first time to condemn the Nazis' mistreatment of Jews from his pulpit at Berlin's cathedral.
"Outside, a temple is burning. It is also a house of God," Lichtenberg told parishioners.
In the years that followed, Lichtenberg became one of the Catholic Church's most visible opponents of the Nazi regime, dedicating regular evening prayers at St. Hedwig's not only to Christian victims of the Nazis, as he had before Kristallnacht, but also to the Jews.
He was finally arrested in 1941. Sentenced to two years in jail, he was not released when his term expired. The 67-year-old priest, weakened by illness, died in transit to the Dachau concentration camp on Nov. 5, 1943.
The second beatification candidate, the Rev. Karl Leisner, was sent to a concentration camp a month before his ordination in 1939, because he was overheard expressing regret that Hitler had not been assassinated.
While in Dachau, Leisner was ordained by a fellow inmate, French Bishop Gabriel Piguet. Leisner survived five years in Sachsenhausen and Dachau, but was so weakened by tuberculosis that he died four months after being liberated by American troops.
The pope's three-day visit begins Friday in the old religious city of Paderborn, 120 miles north of Frankfurt. It will not only reach Germany's substantial Catholic population, but that of neighboring Poland.
Some 20,000 Poles, including many living in Germany, will be among the 125,000 people expected at the Olympic Stadium to watch the Polish-born pope celebrate Mass with a chalice used by Lichtenberg.
During his visit to Berlin, John Paul II will ride the "popemobile" through the Brandenburg Gate and meet privately with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a Catholic who told church newspapers recently that he personally disagreed with the Vatican's opposition to birth control.
As in previous visits to Germany, the pope will also meet with members of the Jewish community, including the leader of the Central Council for German Jews, Ignatz Bubis.
Although the Vatican has not gone so far, the German church acknowledges it did not oppose the persecution of non-Catholics strongly enough.
"Some blame the church, certainly not without reason, that it did not speak out clearly against the persecution of Jews early enough," said Rudolf Hammerschmidt, a spokesman for the German Catholic Bishops Conference.
Lichtenberg and Leisner were not alone among German Catholic clergy opposing the Nazis. Church officials say 8,021 priests were detained for activities viewed as a threat to the regime, 110 died in concentration camps and 59 were executed.
Bubis, the Jewish leader, said he had no objections to the pope focusing attention on the two priests.
"They opposed Nazism and deserve this honor," Bubis said. "'In general' is something else again, and that's why only two are being honored and not many more."