Magazine article The Christian Century

Rome to Beatify Anti-Nazi Priests, but Not a Lutheran

Magazine article The Christian Century

Rome to Beatify Anti-Nazi Priests, but Not a Lutheran

Article excerpt

RESIDENTS OF the northern German city of Lubeck have long taken pride in four native sons--three Catholic priests and a Lutheran pastor--who were beheaded in quick succession on November 10, 1943, by the Nazi regime.

The commingled blood of Catholic priests Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange and Eduard Muller and Lutheran pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink spawned an ecumenical cooperation between the city's majority Lutherans and minority Catholics that still lasts.

The Vatican's decision to beatify the three priests on June 25--but not Stellbrink--is testing that ecumenical spirit, and some religious leaders worry that the event could drive a wedge between the two communities.

"People worry that the priests who are beatified will be seen as higher than Stellbrink, and that the focus will be on the three, not the four," said Constanze Maase, pastor of Luther Church in Lubeck. "We recognize that beatification is an important part of the identity of the Catholic Church. But there is a sadness, because it makes the ecumenical work more complicated," he said.

Prassek was a 30-year-old chaplain at Lubeck's Sacred Heart Catholic Church when he met Stellbrink, a 47-year-old pastor at the nearby Luther Church, at a funeral in 1941. They had a shared disapproval of the Nazi regime, and Prassek soon introduced Stellbrink to his two Catholic colleagues, Lange and Muller.

The four clergymen were active but discreet in their anti-Nazi activities, speaking out against the Nazis and distributing pamphlets to close friends and congregants.

That changed when the British Royal Air Force bombed Lubeck on March 28, 1942. After Stellbrink spent the night tending to the wounded, he went to his church to celebrate Palm Sunday--and attributed the bombing to divine punishment.

Stellbrink was arrested a few days later, followed soon after by the priests. All four were sentenced to death. Rather than fear their executions, the four were said to have died as happy martyrs, confident that they were going to be with God. "Who can oppress one who dies," Prassek wrote in a farewell letter to his family.

Many observers credit the four clergymen with spawning a German ecumenism that had been almost unheard of until then.

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"They didn't create a big movement, but they were very influential within their churches, and they planted the seeds of ecumenical cooperation in Germany," said Franz Mecklenfeld, a priest at Sacred Heart. …

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