MUNICH -- Once the great events of World Youth Day 2005 ended last Sunday in Cologne, I joined a group of 95 university students from throughout Canada on an itinerant retreat through Germany and Italy, in the footsteps of the new saints and blesseds of the Church. (Among the group were four young men preparing for the priesthood in the Basilian Fathers.)
It has been a remarkable week, beginning last Monday morning in Cologne with mass in the Carmelite monastery where a Jewish convert to Catholicism, Edith Stein (St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross), spent the first years of her cloistered life before being deported to Echt in Holland, and finally to the concentration camp in Auschwitz where she was killed on Aug. 9, 1942.
After Cologne, we came south to Munich, where we spent a morning reflection on the heroic Jesuit priest, Blessed Rupert Mayer (known as the Apostle of Munich at the time of World War II) and visited the former concentration camp of Dachau, where the Nazi horrors were lost on no one.
Our final stop in Bavaria's capital was at the main building of University of Munich where we called to mind the White Rose Martyrs, a powerful story of Christian witness that speaks to all humanity.
The White Rose Martyrs were a group of Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic students of Munich who, in 1942, fought to defend human dignity in the face of Nazism. The courageous young men and women -- Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Kurt Huber -- had understood that Nazism represented a great threat and opposed it clearly in six leaflets they wrote calling for the end of the war and condemning the deportation of the Jews. The leaflets were signed with a "white rose." Because of danger, the White Rose members worked in complete secrecy, keeping their own families oblivious to their actions.
The end came for them on Feb. 18, 1943. The Scholls went to the university with a suitcase full of copies of the latest pamphlet authored by Huber, their professor. While lectures were in session and the halls empty, they quickly distributed them. About to head home, they realized that a few sheets remained and threw them from the stairwell railings down into the university courtyard. This ultimately proved to be a foolish gesture that cost many lives.
As the sheets fluttered onto the floor, a janitor noticed the two and turned them over to the Gestapo. Four days later, after a perfunctory trial, the young people were beheaded. Many of those associated with them also lost their lives.
This past week in the main hall of Munich's university, the Canadian students and I stood in silent prayer before that very staircase. We recalled the acts of conscience and courage of the martyrs. They were young people rich in faith, with a profound ecumenical vision. Although they lived in a different time, they are of enormous significance to us today. They actually accomplished little, yet the White Rose students serve as an important example that not all Germans blindly went along with Hitler.
That they failed was perhaps preordained; that they dared to try is a testament to their humanity. Their lives were brutally extinguished by an inhumane, deathly regime. Their voices, along with those of the Carmelite St. Edith Stein, the Blessed Jesuit Rupert Mayer and the Franciscan St. Maximilian Kolbe, continue to speak loudly to us today.