Formed by God’s Word from Dachau
The faith of priests and seminarians imprisoned continues to inspire
“So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me achieving the end for which I sent it.” — Isaiah 55:11
Jesuit Father Tadeusz Pelczar was a seminarian in Poland when he was arrested by the Nazis and eventually sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. Gathering Catholic priests and seminarians into a concentration camp appeared to be a way to silence God’s voice. It did not. Instead of weakening the Church, the Church was reimagined by the holy men inside the camp as they discussed the possibility of restoring the permanent diaconate.
As the priests of Dachau lived the Gospel in the camp, they continued the formation of seminarians such as Father Tadeusz, who one day would form me.
More than 30 years after his experiences in Dachau, I encountered Father Tadeusz in a New Jersey Catholic high school. He was my religion teacher, and he went by “Father Ted.” I never imagined that I would end the year being deeply affected by this man. He became incredibly influential in my spiritual development, in being my mentor as a religious educator and in my call to the diaconate.
Father Ted’s speech was distinctive due to his Polish accent. He preferred to wear long-sleeved shirts to hide the concentration camp number tattooed on his arm. He rarely spoke of his experiences at Dachau except for the year that I had him as a teacher. I do not know what motivated him to share so much of his story, but it captivated me, and religion class was not a course that typically captivated me in high school. I remember thinking to myself that when Father Ted was roughly my age, he experienced humanity at its worst and still chose to become a priest.
There was something about him that intrigued me. His faith had a depth not even a concentration camp could destroy.
‘How Many Similar Victories Were Here’
In June 1979, less than a year into his pontificate, Pope St. John Paul II visited the concentration camp at Auschwitz in his home country of Poland. During his homily at a Mass held there, he said the following:
“In this site of the terrible slaughter that brought death to four million people of different nations, Father Maximilian [Kolbe] voluntarily offered himself for death in the starvation bunker for a brother, and so won a spiritual victory like that of Christ himself. … However, there is no doubt that many other similar victories were won. I am thinking, for example, of the death in the gas chamber of the concentration camp of the Carmelite Sister Benedicta of the Cross, whose name in the world was Edith Stein. …
I do not want to stay only with those two names, when I ask myself, was it only he or she alone…? How many similar victories were here? These victories were made by people of different faiths, different ideologies, certainly not just believers. “We want to embrace with a feeling of deepest reverence each of these victories, every manifestation of humanity. They were the negation of a system of systematic negation of humanity.
“In the place of terrible devastation of humanity and human dignity — there is victory of humanity!”
He told us that he and his fellow seminarians would save some of their bread to make rosaries and that they would distribute both the rosaries and Eucharist to fellow prisoners around camp. This was highly dangerous and punishable by death. Yet the seminarians continued; death was not feared. Father Ted shared that he felt the most spiritually free when he was in the camp because the Nazis controlled his body but did not have his soul. His soul belonged to God.
When Father Ted taught us about the power of God’s love, he shared that he encountered three types of people in the camp: those who lost hope, those who grounded themselves in hate and those who rooted themselves in love. He frequently saw people walking near the fence to die. They lost hope and gave up. When my family visited Dachau, we saw the strip of grass in front of the fence. Prisoners who stepped on the grass were shot dead by the guards in the towers. It was a powerful moment for me as I recalled his words and thought about the people he witnessed stepping on the grass because their lives were too much to bear. They lost all hope. Those living on hate awaited revenge on their enemies. Years after the liberation, Father Ted shared that those who survived on hate ended up living broken lives. They could never move beyond the injustices and pain that they endured. Their lives came to a standstill, trapped in Dachau. Father Ted said he made a deliberate decision to root himself in love — God’s love. He shared that the people he knew who rooted themselves in God’s love were not crushed by the experiences in the camp, and their lives moved forward. So when he read to us John 1:5 — “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” — I began to realize he proclaimed words that he used as the foundation of his life. He built his house on rock, not on sand, and he withstood the torrents that battered his life.
Models of Christ
Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I started my religious education at the end of the Baltimore Catechism era, in which we memorized and recited lists of religious information. By the early ’70s I found myself sitting on a shag rug in a circle of students for religion class with a lit candle in the middle of the circle as we talked about how Jesus was our friend. The shift from content-intensive instruction to relationship-intensive instruction was so swift and dramatic that I could not make sense of what I was supposed to understand regarding my faith.
As I entered Catholic high school, religion class was just that — a class — and teachers imparted content. I anticipated that my time in Father Ted’s Scripture class would be more of the same, simply learning content for a grade. I was not expecting transformation. For Father Ted, God’s word was not mere content. God’s word is living and active. As he wove his Dachau experiences into our discussions, Father Ted made God real and credible to me. He spoke with a conviction that conveyed a deep personal experience with God, and I found myself wanting what he had. Father Ted became a catalyst in my spiritual life.
I am deeply moved by how diaconal the priests and seminarians were in Dachau. As they talked about the restoration of the diaconate, they lived it in their daily lives through the harshest conditions. They sacrificed the little bread they received so that rosaries could be made and given to others. They continued to minister to people and distribute Eucharist under the penalty of death.
When an outbreak of typhus occurred, Polish priests volunteered to go into the barracks and care for the sick and dying, knowing they most likely would die of the disease as well. While self-preservation would appear to be the ultimate goal under such duress, these holy men focused their attention on the needs of others and not on themselves. In an environment engineered by the Nazis to strip away a person’s dignity, freedom and sense of hope, the priests and seminarians of Dachau rooted themselves in God’s love and never surrendered their dignity, freedom or hope to the darkness surrounding them. They were heralds of the Good News.
Continuing to Inspire
These formative memories resurfaced during the 2018 National Diaconate Congress in New Orleans. As I listened to Dianne Traflet’s wonderful session at the World War II Museum entitled “Called Out of Darkness — Building the Body of Christ from the Barracks of Dachau,” I was stunned to hear her share stories and theological outlooks similar to those I had heard from Father Ted. Yet it also provided an answer to a question from my youth. As I previously mentioned, I was intrigued how a young seminarian could endure the inhumanity of a concentration camp and not only still believe in God, but still choose to become a priest.
As I listened to Traflet share the theological insights of the holy priests of Dachau, I had my aha moment. Father Ted’s theological formation did not stop with his arrest. He was immersed in a community of holy men living the Gospel in cruel, inhumane conditions. Faith was not an abstract theological principle. It was active, tangible and rooted in the living presence of God. It conquered death, darkness and despair. While faith did not lessen the intensity of the suffering, it gave new context to the suffering and deepened the intensity of the love relationship between these men and God. They were the Body of Christ, and the ending is not death but resurrection.
Perhaps this is why my ministry with men who are incarcerated resonates so strongly with me. While I am not equating prisons with concentration camps, life in a correctional facility has an impact on its inhabitants. People who are incarcerated are assigned a number as their identity. Everything that they had on the outside world is removed from them. They live in a highly regulated environment with limited opportunity for choice.
The culture within the system stresses self-preservation and the suppression of vulnerability, because it is viewed as weakness. Yet, these men are incredibly vulnerable. Their self-image is not the image that God has of them.
In the midst of this brokenness, we pray and discuss the readings of the upcoming Sunday. Just by me being present, the men realize that they are not forgotten. I am always overwhelmed by their gratitude for coming. Through God’s word, we proclaim that God is here among them, calling them to be the best versions of themselves. It is an invitation to root themselves in God’s love. It is an encounter of hope that sustained the holy men of Dachau and continues to transform people living in darkness.
DEACON JOSEPH SEAMAN serves in the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey.