Wartime priest was last face many saw

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SAN FRANCISCO - The Vatican is working to authenticate whether the 1997 healing of an Oakland-area man with incurable cancer came about through the intercession of Father Franz Stock, a German Army chaplain to Paris prisoners of the Nazis.

Such authentication is needed before the priest's beatification can be approved.

Father Stock was "the last human face" hundreds, perhaps thousands, saw before their execution.

He is a symbol of reconciliation in France and Germany, where streets and schools are named for him and national leaders have honored him. A French postage stamp commemorating Father Stock was issued in 1998 for the 50th anniversary of his death from pulmonary edema. He died Feb. 24, 1948, at age 43, and his sainthood cause was opened decades later.

Three months after doctors told a 33-year-old San Francisco resident he had incurable gastric cancer and had at most three months to live, he was declared cancer free in October 1997. Medical tests continue to show no traces of cancer.

"The doctors were flabbergasted because he was diagnosed with stage-four cancer and they sent him home to get his affairs in order and die," said Robert Graffio, canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of San Francisco and notary for the investigation.

The archdiocese's metropolitan tribunal investigated the man's medical case and sent its report to the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes March 16. If the Vatican authenticates that a miracle occurred and his beatification is approved, Father Stock would be declared "blessed." A second authenticated miracle would be needed for his canonization.

The man, who recovered unexpectedly, became the object of prayers to Father Stock through family members who knew of the priest's story.

"This is yet another assurance that the Lord is with us still, to this day, working miracles in our midst," said Msgr. Michael Padazinski, chancellor and judicial vicar in the San Francisco Archdiocese who oversaw the investigation as an episcopal delegate.

A Franciscan priest who wrote the only English-language biography of Father Stock was pastor of a New Jersey parish where the stricken bridegroom's older brother, his wife and children attended Mass. When Mary G. (her full name was withheld by request) called to place her brother-in-law on the parish prayer list in 1997, Franciscan Father Boniface Hanley said, "Pray, pray to Father Franz Stock," she said, and made up a holy card for them to use.

"We kept praying the whole time. He had his whole stomach removed. He had lymph nodes that were positive," said Mary G., who as a nurse cared for her brother-in-law as he recovered instead of dying. "It's 15 years later and he is still cancer-free."

"I was the only one who didn't focus on how bad things really were. All my focus was on getting better," said the man who recovered. He asked that his name, too, be withheld.

The man received the diagnosis of incurable cancer just days before his wedding. He did marry his fiancee, though their wedding was a couple of weeks later than planned. After they wed, his healing began and by October 1997, he was cancer-free. The couple has two children, 7 and 9.

In an interview with Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper, the man said that although his family prayed to Father Stock, he did not do so.

"It's almost through the investigation that I found out and was reminded how serious it was," the man said, noting that since then he has discovered many parallels between his own life and that of Father Stock.

There was "potentially some large intervention in there," he said. "I would like to have an easy answer, but I don't."

The wartime French called Father Stock "archangel in hell" because of his heroic mercy and kindness as chaplain to the inmates of the German armed forces Paris prisons of Fresnes, La Sante and Cherche-Midi and the execution fields of Mont Valerien.

Eyewitnesses recounted Father Stock risking his life - at times using a specially outfitted cassock and an overcoat with hidden pockets - to bring news and banned luxuries and necessities to the men and women. The chocolate, clothing, paper, pens and letters helped the prisoners resist despair, torture and threats to their families.

During the period 1941-44, the priest recorded accompanying more than 700 people to their executions and said he witnessed thousands being shot by the Nazis. "This week alone, I prepared 72 men for death, assisted them at the final moment and buried them," Father Stock wrote in a December 1941 journal entry published by the Benedictine Abbey of St. Joseph de Clairval, in Flavigny, France.

In another entry published by the Abbey, Father Stock noted that Roger L., 28, was baptized the day of his execution. "He had lost all courage. With my help, he regained confidence ... He made his first communion with a moving gravity.... His last words at the moment of his death were 'Lord, have mercy on me.'"

With the liberation of France, Father Stock was briefly imprisoned by the Americans. Upon his release, the priest was asked to run a German prisoner of war "seminary behind barbed wire" in Chartres, an initiative of the French regime and the apostolic delegate to France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII.

During its existence from 1945 to 1947, 949 lecturers, priests, brothers and seminarians passed through the camp seminary, according to the website www.franz-stock.org.

Archbishop Roncalli visited the POW seminary four times, according to site, and also was the presiding bishop at Father Stock's funeral.

From early adulthood, Father Stock was an advocate for peace, particularly reconciliation between Germany and France. Thus, despite an initial reluctance, Father Stock was convinced to run the German POW seminary in France as a way to further peace by renewing Catholicism in postwar Europe.

Shortly before the shutdown of the POW camp and the seminary, Father Stock told the future German priests: "It is providence, which is hurling toward us this call for holiness by the voice of the history, and we must hear it, to bring to the world the message of freedom and peace, salvation and love."

Schmalz is assistant editor of Catholic San Francisco.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970