Commemoration of the Death of Fr. Engelmar Unzeitig, CMM
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
I do not have anything new to reveal to you about Fr. Engelmar. You know his exemplary life. You also consider him as a saint. Yet it is certainly beneficial to meditate again and again on the lives of the saints, especially of one’s own family models; they are the real interpreters, in the flesh, of the Gospel of life and love of Christ.
If at the end of our lives people can observe saying, “he was a nice person,” “a good religious,” or “she was a pious and generous person,” “a zealous missionary,” or still “he/she has been a faithful CMM or CPS,” and the like, this will already amount to an achievement. Or if people do not whisper in a corner “she has been a ‘problem’ or a ‘burden’ for her superiors and companions” or “he has ‘scandalized the people of God,’ by his shameful behaviour and acts,” this will be equal to some success. Faithfulness must never be taken for granted. It is actually, in the words of the Community of Taizé, a miracle. A miracle of God’s own loving action in our miserable lives! He is the one who does everything, who carries us on his shoulders. Yet we count among the consecrated in the Church, that is, the “experts” of holiness so to say.
And so if people do not find anything more remarkable to comment about us at our death, it will mean that we will not have past the acid test not of common, but of distinctive holiness; of the specialists in Christian life we were called to be! This test is passed when all, especially journeying companions and family members and close neighbours and collaborators can point to us as notable models, as real icons of Jesus himself and attractive figures in the Church. It is passed when one has emerged among many as a truly life-giving person.
Well, many witnesses testified to the heroic, even saintly life of Fr. Engelmar. They used suggestive expressions that allow us today to easily brush his portrait in broad outline. Our chewing over one or the other today should bring back to our memory his whole life and help us let ourselves be captured again, at the level of our innermost self, of our heart, by his sanctity; and with the help of the Spirit it should serve to rekindle the fire of our youth. Here are some quotations containing such expressions.
“He was a saint! Without a doubt! I do not use this word lightly. But in Father Engelmar’s case it fits; he was a holy priest” (Fr. Clemente Pereira, S.J.);
“He always seemed to think only of how he could help others. He always thought of himself last” (Fr. Josef Witthaut, Brügge, Westphalia);
“His genuine priestly form stands very alive before my eyes; I would be very happy if Father Engelmar Hubert Unzeitig were raised to the honors of the altar, for the advocatus diaboli would most probably hardly be able to produce anything against him” (Fr. Eugen Weiler, 1981);
“Father Engelmar…radiated something holy. …He was so modest that there is almost nothing to say about him. Father Engelmar Unzeitig offered a wonderfully pure life’s sacrifice in the following of Christ…He can certainly be put in the same line with Father Maximilian Kolbe” (1981)…He impressed me from the beginning, for he radiated simplicity, humility, and modesty, as well as a continual inner happiness (Fr. Hermann Scheipers, East Germany, 1984);
“In my opinion, this martyr of brotherly love also deserved to be raised to the honors of the altar” (Fr. Heinz Römer, 1982);
“He was a very dear, precious person. Love in person. More I cannot say. That he was: love!” (Mgr Emil Kiesel, 1982).
“In him, I really had an especially zealous collaborator in all charitable undertakings. Our Father Engelmar was a quiet, selfless helper, a genuinely priestly victim soul…Modesty was his nature. He could be very energetic, however, as soon as the truth, objective grounds, were at stake. He was never interested in pushing himself forward, and he never lost his calm, even when standing up ruthlessly for the truth. Such selflessness does not know any injury to love…Hubert was a man who did not shun any sacrifice. But the most valuable thing about him was his supernatural, priestly attitude of soul…(he) sacrificed all of his free time for the poor comrades of various nations” (Fr. Johannes Maria Lenz to sister Adelhilde Unzeitig in 1947).
In short, he has been called a “Saint,” “the German Maximilian Kolbe,” the “Martyr of Brotherly Love” and occasionally also the “Angel of Dachau.” This may suffice.
Nonetheless to consider the horrendous character of Fr. Engelmar’s last four years in the concentration camp of Dachau can contribute to a still more efficacious re-vigourizing of our roots as consecrated. We also live in a dramatic world situation, on a globe thorn apart by injustice, violence and war, but at the same time we move in a cocooned world of material well-being and warm comfort. This stimulates our resistance to profound spiritual reawakening; it certainly does not make it easier.
There is the general air of Dachau, which Fr. Engelmar did certainly not breath with pleasure, like all the other prisoners. The camp was after all a “factory of death.” It was for its inhabitants a grisly laboratory of the human possibilities. The prisoners were faced with the possibility of getting sick, very sick, even of catching the deadly illness of typhus, with constant uncertainty about their future, with boundless despair and the continuous threat of death from SS always at their heel to mention only some elements of this indescribable situation. This was Fr. Engelmar’s daily ambiance at the beginning.
Later, after he volunteered to care for the prisoners with typhus, he was faced day after day with a most distasteful, repulsive, dreadful and shocking situation where the danger of infection was constant, “the vermin seemed to be immortal“ and “the cold wind blew pitilessly on the dying.” Thus he consciously and willingly put himself in direct danger of death. A fateful decision requiring a high level of heroism!
What keeps us apart from our saintly confrere? He has passed the acid test of distinctive holiness within the space of a short life of only 34 years and we are still struggling terribly, after many more years, to live decently our consecrated life. Fr. Engelmar was only one of the 3000 priests who spent terrible years in the hell of Dachau. But he distinguished himself among them. Also by his fervent desire to mission among the Russians prisoners who were searching religiously. His special concern for them even made him take part in the translation of parts of Holy Scripture, passages of the Imitation of Christ and texts from the catechism into Russian. It is no surprise to read that Peter, the Russian who in this way got to know him well, venerated him as a saint. His pastoral zeal had no limits indeed; he missioned in an exemplary, self-sacrifycing way.
Fr. Engelmar reached the goal! We still have a lot of trouble keeping in the race and running! Of course God’s grace does not let itself be constrained by anything. Our hour may have not come yet. There is no age for conversion. But we can surely work at opening wider our hearts to Christ’s love.
Today we honour Fr. Engelmar’s death, better still the day of his birth in heaven. Thus we warn ourselves, the living. The heroic laying down of his life for his friends is a provocation for us; to give witness to the God of boundless love and the dignity of human life.
Rome, Generalate, 2 March 2007