Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Losing One's Life for Others -- Priestly Examples

I've been slow-reading (savoring) the Robert Ellsberg book, The Saints' Guide to Happiness.  Despite the title, the book explores the very real (sometimes messy) details of genuine, flesh-and-blood women and men who grew into their sanctity.  Some of the folks discussed in the book are recognized, canonized saints within the Catholic tradition.  Some have not been canonized and perhaps never will be, yet are wonderful examples of humans who ultimately ran toward, rather than away from, God's universal call to holiness, wholeness, and love.

Anyway, this morning Ellsberg had me reading about a dead priest whose name I had never encountered before:  Father Engelmar Unzeitig, who was ordained during the early 1940s and arrested shortly thereafter for preaching against the Nazis and in defense of the Jews.  Ellsberg describes Fr. Engelmar's time as a prisoner in Dachau:
In December 1944 the camp was hit with a terrible outbreak of typhoid.  More than two thousand prisoners died in the first month.  To stem the epidemic, infected prisoners were confined to a squalid barracks, where they were essentially left to die, alone and uncared for.  Within the hell of Dachau this was surely the inner sanctum.  Nevertheless, when a call went out for volunteer orderlies, twenty priests stepped forward.  Father Engelmar was among them.  Given the extremely infectious nature of the disease, the meaning of this gesture was clear to all; there was little hope that any volunteers would survive.  Yet into this void the priests brought their love and faith, doing what they could to bring some consolation and dignity to the place.  Simply caring for the sick and keeping them clean provided endless work.  But the priests also heard confessions, offered last rites, and recited prayers for the dead.  Because the SS would not enter this barracks, it afforded its own peculiar zone of humanity.
Ellsberg reports that Fr. Engelmar died of typhoid in March 1945, a few weeks short of the liberation of Dachau.  He willingly gave up his life for others, a wonderful imitation of what Christians believe Christ did.  Those in the typhoid barracks inevitably died, one must assume, but in their suffering their humanity was recognized and embraced.

There have been some bad priests set loose in the world; the files of too many dioceses are filled with their names, and the court papers, too.  Yet most priests, I'm convinced, try to represent Christ's love as well as they are able.  Some do so with a great deal of effectiveness and at some cost to their own health.  And a few, clearly, lay down their lives, so great is their love for the brothers and sisters God places in their midst.

I'm reminded here of not only Fr. Engelmar, but also Fr. Mychal Judge, the NYFD chaplain who went into the North Tower on 9/11, along with the firefighters he was there to minister to, when it was clear that a disaster was in the making.  Fr. Judge too gave his life in a most Christ-like manner.

In all likelihood, unfortunately, he will probably not be canonized in any of our lifetimes.  Mychal Judge was a self-described gay (and chaste) priest--a variety of priest the Vatican seems incredibly skeptical about (if not downright hostile toward) these days.  May Fr. Judge rest in peace, and may his holy priesthood serve as an example to every newly ordained priest.


Thom, sfo said...

Fr. Mychal is a patron of mine, and I know that he prays for me.

Steve said...

Thom, you're probably already familiar with this prayer, which evidently has come to be known as Mychal's prayer:

Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet who you want me to meet;
Tell me what you want me to say
And keep me out of your way.

I'm sure many of us could benefit from Fr. Mychal's intercession. (By the way--thanks for stopping by!)

Thom, sfo said...

Aye, I know it well. Have you seen "Saint of 9/11?"

Steve said...

No, hadn't heard of the film till you mentioned it. Just went and added it to my Netflix queue. (Also saw a recommendation there for a film about Bonhoeffer. Both films are available for instant play, I see. Thanks for the suggestion.)