The Befriended Enemy
by Father Gregor Lenzen, C.P.
Introduction by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Editor
Father Viktor was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, and ordained a Passionist priest in 1896 for American St. Paul of the Cross Province. In 1922 Father Viktor and Father Valentine Lehnerd, C.P. established the Passionists in Pasing, Germany, outside of Munich. In 1925 Maria Schutz, located in the scenic Austrian Alps became the second foundation.
By 1941 World War II forced a good many German Passionist priests and seminarians to enter the military. During the 1930s Father Viktor became an Austrian citizen. Consequently when the “Anschluss” resulted in Germany and Austria being formed into one country, all Austrians automatically gained German citizenship. Uniquely, Father Viktor was not deported even as other American Passionists had to return home. He was allowed to stay in part of the Schwarzenfeld monastery-much of the time with fellow Passionist Father Paul Boeminghaus, who was arrested for a short time. During the early 1940s the Nazis used the monastery for a school and study center for atomic research. Still, through this period local Catholics known as the “Blacks” defied Nazi prohibitions and continued to bring the priests food. All the while both priests continued as best they could to minister under the local Nazi occupation. The monastery in Schwarzenfeld survived the war intact. However, the monastery and church in both Pasing and Maria Schutz, suffered damage.
Establishing a Passionist foundation in Germany was not Fr Viktor’s idea. He had been chosen for this work by his superiors. After he had gone to Germany out of obedience, as he said, he wanted to do “the work of the Congregation”, i.e. “to implant the Cross”. This was what motivated him most strongly. He took on board all the accompanying difficulties and obstructions.
The motives of the men whom he encountered in the process of founding the individual monasteries were often of a quite different nature. Germany was in political and economic turmoil when the first Passionists arrived there. The “rich Americans, also the enemies of World War I” were not exactly given a sympathetic reception. If they were determined to settle down there, then at least they ought to help to create jobs and to improve the economic situation. In the meantime, in the mother province in America, people were becoming tired of the huge financial outlay and they regarded the enterprise as a failure.
In spite of pressure from all sides, Fr Viktor did not give up. And his efforts were rewarded. Before the outbreak of World War II he was able to look on a thriving, stable foundation and some promising young people. But running parallel to his development work the National Socialist movement had also flourished, from the Hitler putsch of 1923 to the seizing of power in 1933. The new rulers with their xenophobic and anti-religious decrees demolished the work that had been accomplished at great sacrifice.
After the war Fr Viktor had to start at the beginning again. Why did he do this? Why did he not simply leave the Germans to their own devices and go back to America? Why? – because he wanted to do the work of the Congregation, because he had initially come to implant the Cross on this soil and because he placed his belief in the triumph of the Cross above that of human wisdom. Furthermore, for the people he knew so well, he wanted to be what the parish priest of Schwarzenfeld had expressed as a wish to the Passionists at the consecration of the monastery: a messenger of peace and adviser and helpmate in times of spiritual need and distress.
The former enemy had come with the best of intentions and in spite of great opposition he had become a friend to many people. He was suddenly to find himself in the role of the enemy again, without really wishing to. He did not withdraw his friendship in this difficult situation and some thanked him for this by their loyalty. In a time of great danger the unwilling enemy proved his friendship and thus saved a whole town and its population.
As a priest and religious Fr Viktor did not think in terms of “friend” or “enemy”. As a German-American, and as a member of an international religious community, in which all treat each other as brothers, he was not marked by any feelings of nationalism. For him it was people who mattered, and their salvation, which for him originates in the Cross of Christ. He had come to implant this Cross and in so doing had become a messenger of peace.