In my parish, we have the enormous privilege of being able to attend Mass almost every morning. Because it is so regular we often tend to forget what a privilege this is, and even take it for granted. Sometimes you have to be jolted out of your comfort zone to remember that Mass, the “source and summit of the Christian life”, is denied to millions of Catholics in other parts of the world. And if this is the case for a layperson like me, how much more so is it the case for an ordained priest.
I make these remarks as I have just been reading The Priest Barracks: Dachau, 1938-1945 by a French journalist, Guillaume Zeller (Ignatius Press). He relates the story of Dachau, the first concentration camp to be built – in 1933, outside Munich – where, uniquely in the concentration camp system, there were three designated “priests’ barracks”: numbers 26, 28 and 30. In all, 2,579 priests, monks and seminarians from Germany and all over Occupied Europe were imprisoned there between 1938 and 1945. Of this number, 1,034 died there.
Not to be able to celebrate Mass was a huge deprivation for the imprisoned priests. As one of their number, Fr Bedrich Hoffmann, relates, “What it means for a priest to live without Mass and without Communion can only be understood by another priest.” On admission, they were divested of their cassocks, bibles, missals, holy medals and rosaries, stripped and shaved and given old clothes with a red triangle sewn on them – the sign for “political” detainees.
However, as the result of intense diplomatic pressure from the Vatican, the situation changed at the end of 1940, when a chapel was permitted to be set up in Block 26. The first Mass at Dachau was celebrated on 21 January 1941. The tabernacle had been made secretly in the carpenter’s workshop; the altar and candlesticks had been salvaged from camp materials; and parishioners who had managed to stay in touch with their imprisoned priests, sent vestments, prayer books, Stations of the Cross, holy pictures and two monstrances.
The SS officials who ran the camp naturally placed many restrictions on the liturgical services. Lay prisoners were forbidden to attend – though Communion was secretly distributed to Catholics in other barracks at the risk of severe punishments, and sometimes other prisoners secretly attended Mass or hovered near the chapel window in order hear as much of the liturgy as possible.
One of them, Joseph Rovan, wrote later in his recollections of Dachau: “The priest was saying the same Latin words that all his confreres, at the same hour, were repeating in their morning Masses throughout the world. No longer could I recall the world of the concentration camp. Each one, for a precious moment, was restored to his original, fragile and indestructible dignity…On the way out, in the pale light of the early morning, one felt capable of facing a little better the hunger and the fear.”
Another prison, Marcel Dejean, echoes this: “…We rediscovered the idea of Love in the midst of suffering, hunger, egoism, hatred or indifference and also a palpable sense of calm: the beauty of the altar…in the midst of our filth and poverty, tranquillity, recollection and solitude in the midst of constant overcrowding…The SS were no longer anything but a sad nothingness beside the splendid, immortal reality of Christ.”
I shall try to keep these memories in mind when I attend Mass tomorrow morning.