On September 15, my Pallottine confrere, Fr. Richard Henkes, S.A.C., was beatified in a beautiful and spiritually moving Mass in Limburg, Germany. Having preached against the Nazi regime while serving in what is now the Czech Republic, Fr. Henkes was arrested in 1943 and imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. He died serving people with typhoid in the barracks where he was their “secret pastor.” The Heart of Jesus Province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate summarizes his life and death in this way;
“The Pallottines consider his sacrifice as one of a brave warrior and as a testimony for the Christian faith as well as a martyr of Christian charity.”
Blessed Richard Henkes was not perfect, but Christ perfected him through his living witness unto death of the motto of the Pallottines: “The Charity of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor. 5:14). Rekindling charity as St. Vincent Pallotti called us to do, often means witnessing to what is just in this world, even if it causes persecution and suffering. We are called to accompany our brothers and sisters who are oppressed and in need without counting the cost to ourselves and our own comfort.
God provides us with the ability to do such things – to grow in holiness – as Blessed Richard Henkes came to know. We do not do it on our own. Pope Francis offers an important reflection for our day when he says in Gaudete et Exsultate:
“Persecutions are not a reality of the past, for today too we experience them, whether by the shedding of blood, as is the case with so many contemporary martyrs, or by more subtle means, by slander and lies. Jesus calls us blessed when people ‘utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account’ (Mt 5:11). At other times, persecution can take the form of gibes that try to caricature our faith and make us seem ridiculous. Accepting daily the path of the Gospel, even though it may cause us problems: that is holiness” (94).
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
Learn more about Blessed Richard Henkes, S.A.C. at www.CatholicApostolateCenter.org/Henkes
We are now offering a new book about Blessed Richard Henkes, S.A.C. Click here to order the print version and here for the eBook.
How can we implement the Gospel? Although this is a difficult question, it is a very important one to answer. For us Christians, it is not enough to hear the Gospel. We are called to put it to action in our own life. Sometimes it is difficult to take action. How should one do it? The good news is that we are not alone in answering this question. We have examples of many who have asked it themselves and used their lives to answer it. Every time the Catholic Church declares a person blessed or a saint, she gives us an example of how the Gospel can be lived. Blesseds and saints are role models for our faith journey. Even if every one of us has to find out individually what God is calling us to and how to live the Gospel, the blesseds and saints can help us learn how to answer this call. How can the soon-beatified Pallottine Father Richard Henkes, S.A.C. be an example for our life and for our quest for God? When I read Fr. Henkes’ biography, I learned that he tried to live out the Gospel even when it seemed inconspicuous and less effective. Three situations in his life illustrate this.
The first event took place when Father Henkes was a teacher at a Pallottine school. At this time, Nazi idealism had become stronger in Germany and ultimately reigned the country. Father Henkes saw the faith as a guide for young people who were confronted with the race theory that claimed the superiority of one people over others. Father Henkes knew that even small actions could have a big impact, for better or for worse. As a teacher, he gave the whole class a punishment for laughing at a child who used a Czech word; at this time, the Czech language and the Czech people in general were looked down upon. This might be a small incident, but Father Henkes saw it as his responsibility to intervene for the rights of the child and for the equality of human beings: he used his position as a teacher to go against inhumanity and injustice and brought the Gospel to life.
Furthermore, Father Henkes used his work as a pastor to combat injustice. In his homilies, he spoke clearly against the Nazi ideology and their contemptuous acts, and he even got several warnings from the authorities about his preaching. In 1935, Father Henkes had confrontations with the Gestapo (secret state police) because he said in his sermon that the Nazi image of humanity was wrong. He knew that, if he continued, the government would prosecute and punish him. Though he may have been afraid, he did not stop because he was sure that he had to say and do whatever was possible against the Nazi regime. In his eyes, it was not right to stay indifferent to inhumanity, injustice, and murder, and to believe at the same time in God and God's infinite love for all people. Therefore, he continued to criticize the Nazis in his homilies, to speak publicly, and to encourage the people who agreed that the Nazis were wrong. Because of this, Father Henkes got arrested and deported to the concentration camp in Dachau.
Finally, once in the concentration camp, Father Henkes also cared for the sick. When the war was almost over and the concentration camp was close to being freed, a typhoid epidemic broke out. Father Henkes volunteered to care for the infected people, most of them Czech. He did not have to. He was not forced to do it and he willingly experienced the inhumane conditions because he saw the care of the sick as his duty. It is clear that he lived the Gospel in the concentration camp: he brought a little bit of humanity and compassion into that hellish place.
Father Richard Henkes is a role model for me because he was moved by God in such a way that the Gospel poured out into his daily life. He did not wait for a big opportunity to preach the Gospel; he did what he could in particular moments of his life. He did not stop hate after he punished the class in the school where he taught. He did not prevent or stop the war by preaching against the Nazis. He did not free those in the concentration camp by caring for the sick. But I really believe that he brought the Gospel and the Kingdom of God to people around him in every one of these incidents. He cut the circle of cruelty for the one pupil in the school, his parishioners, and the sick in the concentration camp. Not all of us are a teacher, priest, or nurse. But all of us are called to do what is needed in the situations we are given, according to our capabilities. In doing so, the Gospel will become reality.
To learn more about the beatification of Father Richard Henkes, S.A.C. please click here.