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Beatification Of WWII Martyrs Divides Lutherans, Catholics

Catholic Lutheran Divide

First Posted: 04/20/11 09:35 AM ET Updated: 06/20/11 06:12 AM ET

By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service

LUEBECK, Germany (RNS) Residents of this north German city have long taken pride in four native sons -- three Catholic priests and a Lutheran pastor -- who were beheaded in quick succession on Nov. 10, 1943 by the Nazi regime.

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

But the Vatican's decision to beatify the three priests on June 25 -- but not Stellbrink -- is testing that ecumenical spirit, and has some religious leaders worried 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 the Rev. Constanze Maase, pastor of Luther Church in Luebeck.

"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 Luebeck'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 Mueller.

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 Luebeck 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.

Just as Christian tradition sees the blood of the martyrs as the seeds of the church, many observers credit the four clergymen with spawning a German ecumenism that had been almost unheard of until then.

"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 the Rev. Franz Mecklenfeld, a priest at Sacred Heart. The church held its first memorial Mass for the martyrs on Nov. 10, 1945 and included the Lutheran Stellbrink in its remembrances.

In post-war Luebeck, Lutherans and Catholics jointly celebrated the men with memorial Masses, and have formed ecumenical discussion groups. The Luther Church erected an exhibit to all four men in 1993, while the Sacred Heart Church also commemorates all four men its crypt, and is planning a larger exhibit later this year.

But many Lutherans, including Stellbrink's last surviving daughter, worry that putting the three priests on the path to sainthood may risk relegating the Lutheran pastor to obscurity.

"Many Christians, including me, are disappointed that the current pope seems to be doing little for the ecumenical solidarity of churches, especially regarding Lutherans," wrote retired Lutheran pastor Heinz Russmann in an editorial published by a Luebeck news website.

"All four should be beatified," said Russmann, a veteran of the city's ecumenical dialogue. "When that doesn't go, then none!"

Among the best known Catholic critics of the beatification is Hans-Lothar Fauth, a former Dominican monk who later opened a nightclub and became city politician. After he couldn't get the city and church groups to pay for a memorial to all four martyrs at Luebeck's 12th-century city hall, he bankrolled one in 2004.

"To Luebeckers, these four men belong together. They are already holy. The church didn't need to involve itself," Fauth said.

Mecklenfeld said concerns over the beatification are not "unfounded," but said it need not derail ecumenical relations, which could be maintained through continuing cooperation that celebrates all four martyrs.

Mecklenfeld noted that several Roman Catholic cardinals are scheduled to attend a special Lutheran service planned to honor Stellbrink the day before the June 25 beatification.

Mecklenfeld said German-born Pope Benedict XVI contributed to the ecumenical spirit by speaking of all four men together rather than just three, when he received Germany's new ambassador to the Holy See last September.

"The attested friendship of the four (priests) is an impressive testimony of the ecumenism of prayer and suffering, flowering in several places during the dark period of the Nazi terror," Benedict told German Ambassador Walter Jurgen Schmid.

Lutheran leaders agreed that ecumenical relations could be maintained, but said it would require extra effort. "We're celebrating this together," said Maase.

And, apparently, still working together. When more than 200 neo-Nazis marched through town on March 27 to commemorate the 1942 bombing, they were met by more than 2,000 counter-demonstrators, including hundreds from the Luther Church and Sacred Heart and other churches.

"It's our work now to make sure this ecumenism is not destroyed," said Maase. "The beatification doesn't have to separate us.

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Filed by Josh Fleet  |