Pope Honors 2 German Priests Who Died Opposing Nazi Regime
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Pope Honors 2 German Priests Who Died Opposing Nazi Regime

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Pope John Paul II told German Jewish leaders this week that too few Roman Catholics had resisted the Nazi regime.

Making his first visit to Germany since reunification, the pope met in Berlin with members of the Central Council of Jews in Germany after he beatified two German priests who perished during World War II while opposing the Nazis.

“Not enough of the faithful followed the example of the courageous ones” who dared oppose the Nazi regime, the pope told the Jewish leaders Sunday at the end of his two-day visit.

“Although many priests and lay people opposed this (Nazi) regime of terror, as historians have now shown, and many forms of resistance arose in people’s daily lives, they were still too few,” he said, according to the official text.

Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the German Jewish council, praised the 76-year-old pope for speaking out against anti-Semitism and for trying to strengthen Catholic-Jewish relations.

Bubis added that the Jews were aware that during the Nazi era thousands of priests resisted and suffered severely as a result.

However, both the pope and the Jewish leaders skirted discussion of the controversial role of Pope Pius XII, who is widely accused of being silent while 6 million Jews perished.

Instead, Jewish participants in the meeting said they underlined the need to educate people about the horrors of the past and the example set by the few who resisted the Nazis.

During his visit, the pope himself appeared to want to avoid controversy with Jews and other critics of the church’s role during the Holocaust by digressing on more than one occasion from his prepared remarks.

At Sunday’s open air Mass in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, attended by some 120,000 people, the pope did not read several passages in the prepared text.

One of the omitted sections said, “Those who don’t limit themselves to cheap polemics know very well what Pius XII thought about the Nazi regime and how much he did to help the countless victims persecuted by that regime.”

On Saturday, while celebrating Mass in the town of Paderborn, the pope omitted a passage from his prepared statement that said that “the whole church” had put up resistance against the Nazis.

Such remarks were in contrast to a statement made last year by German bishops that lamented the “profound failure” of Catholics to oppose anti-Semitism during the Nazi era.

Asked to comment on the omissions, Bishop Karl Lehmann, head of the German bishop’s conference, played down the issue.

“It really was a question of time,” Lehmann said. “It was just a coincidence that these particular passages were left out.”

But according to Vatican officials, the written version of the pope’s remarks remains the official record.

It was at the Olympic Stadium, the site of the 1936 Games at which Hitler had used to try to project the image of a racially superior Nazi Germany that also was open and tolerant, that the pope beatified two German priests who died during World War II while defying Hitler.

One of the priests was the Rev. Bernhard Lichtenberg, who condemned the Nazis’ treatment of Jews from his pulpit and died in transit to Dachau.

The other was the Rev. Karl Leisner, who was sent to a concentration camp because he was overheard expressing regret that Hitler had not been assassinated.

“Today, the two martyrs celebrate their victory right here in the place where 60 years ago the National Socialist regime wanted to use the Olympic Games as a triumph of their inhumane ideology, where the idealism of youth was profaned, where people were incited to hate and enmity,” the pope, speaking German, told the crowd during the beatification ceremony.

He then switched into Polish to pay tribute to all victims of the Nazi concentration camps.

“In my soul, we are kneeling down at the sites of death to pay tribute to all concentration camp prisoners and express our gratitude for the sacrifice of their lives and the magnitude of their suffering which became the foundation of a better future,” he said.

At a ceremony Sunday evening in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Chancellor Helmut Kohl praised the pope for his words of solidarity with the Jews and said Germany had learned from its past.

In their meeting with the pope, the Jewish leaders sought to enlist the pope’s support against a plan to build a shopping mall next to Auschwitz.

While the pope did not explicitly promise to take action, he agreed with the Jewish leaders that something should be done, said Jerzy Kanal, the leader of Berlin’s Jewish community and a participant in Sunday’s meeting.

Other participants in the meeting said the pope might be helpful in further contacts with the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church on this sensitive issue.

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