“God does not speak clearly by events? The Church wants to test our obedience, to recognize that if the work and the holder of the work are marked by God.” (Father Josef Kentenich).
There is a wonderful epic 19th century novel written by the French novelist Victor Hugo called “Les Miserables”, which follows the story of a convicted criminal Jean Val Jean (and the plight of many other characters associated with the French Revolution). It is one of my favourite books in the world for the beautifully written passages describing the saintliness of the Bishop (who intervenes to save Jean Val Jean from re-arrest) and also for its ultimate message of hope and redemption despite harrowing experiences of poverty, war and death.
And I am not the only person to consider the novel beautiful! In fact, it is such a popular story that it was recreated in the form of a musical play by Cameron Mackintosh in 1980. And in that play, there is a song that is performed by Jean Val Jean, where Val Jean claims that his humanity has been entirely disregarded because “they murdered Val Jean” by refusing to address him by his name and instead only addressing him by his prisoner number, “24601”.
And I have been thinking of that story, that musical and most particularly of that prisoner number over the last few days. Because this fictional character Val Jean is not the only person who I have heard of recently, who had a prisoner number… Father Josef Kentenich also had a prisoner number during his four years imprisoned by the Nazis in the Dachau concentration camp during the Second World War for being a Catholic Priest… And his number was “29392”.
That was a terrible period of imprisonment, where 12,000 souls were imprisoned and over 2,600 Catholic priests in just that one concentration camp. And yet, Father Josef used his time in prison very diligently. While in prison, he established the Secular branch of his Schoenstatt movement. The Schoenstatt movement is a renewal within the Catholic Church, with a focus on education and spiritual formation to revitalize the Church and society in the spirit of the Gospel. During his time in Dachau, Karl Leisner – who was a seminarian from Schoenstatt and a friend of Father Josef’s – was secretly ordained to the priesthood and was able to celebrate one Mass before dying of tuberculosis. Karl Leisner is now Blessed as the cause for his canonisation was begun in 1996 by Pope Saint John Paul II! So, it appears that time of unimaginable suffering really was fruitful. And so it was that even imprisoned, Father Josef (and other souls like his) were able to do great good…
Following his release from physical prison, Father Josef was soon to enter a spiritual imprisonment, which would last 15 years. During those 15 years, Father Josef was exiled from Schoenstatt due to misinformation and misunderstanding within the Catholic Church itself. It was only in 1965 – after the misinformation and misunderstanding came to light – that Father Josef was able to return to the movement.
Father Josef later confided that it was not the four years that he spent in the concentration camp in Dachau that were the most painful in his life, but the 15 years he spent in exile from the movement due to misunderstanding and misinformation within the Church itself were his most painful.
And yet, while he was in exile, he did not complain about his spiritual imprisonment, instead he wrote, “God does not speak clearly by events? The Church wants to test our obedience, to recognize that if the work and the holder of the work are marked by God.”
And I consider that now, as I consider those couple of prisoner numbers, because they are a mark, and just as the prisoner is marked in a prison, so too do I pray to be marked by my love of my God. For such a mark is only provided through Grace… And this Lent, I pray for that Grace. I really do…
For with prayer, I stand on Holy Ground where everything is clear. Here. At the Foot of the Cross.