During the Great War, Europe set in motion its armed forces, among which the German army stood out for its considerable power.
The circumstances in which the conflict developed forced the rival armies to keep their platoons entrenched on French territory for long months. And given the arduous need to defend themselves, they recruited to fight on those fronts all men fit for combat, which included a large number of university students, recent graduates and even seminarians.
Fr. Paul Forster, a Redemptorist missionary from Landshut, Germany, was one of these conscripts of the German nation. Feeling himself called to the priesthood, he had entered the seminary of the Order at an early age and was looking forward to finishing his studies when Providence unexpectedly changed the course of his life…
Face to face with death
At the age of 26 he was drafted for the war together with two of his companions, also from the seminary, and on December 30, 1914, the company he had entered was ordered to march to the front. They all knew that this journey meant advancing towards death, since there was little chance of escaping from the trenches alive. On the crude train that transported them, those three friends saw each other for the last time.
Months after their enlistment into the war, Paul’s two colleagues gave their lives amidst fierce fighting on the open battlefield. However, as for Paul, he seemed to be encompassed about by a special design. In fact, he possessed something very precious, which certainly drew the gaze of Providence upon him: a deep devotion to Our Lady.
Forster incessantly entrusted himself to the maternal help of Mary, as is revealed in a devotional poem he composed in May of 1915 when sent to a particularly dangerous post:
If I must give my life,
For my homeland in the month of May,
in the glow of a twilight;
Dying, I already belong to Thee,
O Mary, my Mother!
When mortally wounded,
Bathed in red blood, I’ll exclaim,
Here is the heart of thy child!
Then take me with Thee,
For to Thee I belong, like no other.
Though I am far from thy image,
Thou art always close to thy warrior.1
Under the protection of his Heavenly Mother, and against all expectations, the young seminarian passed through the war almost unharmed because, in his words, an “invisible hand”2 deflected the bullets away from him… Delicate and gentle, but powerful as an army in battle array (cf. Ct 6:9), this hand performed real miracles in his favour, some of which will be recounted in the following lines.
The power of the Rosary in time of danger
One day there was a fierce clash with the French, which ended with a barrage of rotary cannon fire at the crack of dawn, aimed directly at the flank where Paul was fighting. All around him many were mortally wounded in the head or chest. “I shall never forget,’ he relates, “the perforating noise with which a bullet pierced the forehead of my neighbour. I occupied the same elevated position as my companions. I don’t know how I escaped unharmed.”3
The morning after that horrific confrontation, the battalion was summoned by roll call, but many did not answer… “Only one blessed feeling came over all of us: the conviction that we had escaped from a tremendous danger. Above all, I had special reason to be grateful to God and His Blessed Mother,”4 the seminarian soldier acknowledged.
Yet another miraculous protection would spare Forster’s life shortly afterwards. Posted as a sentinel during an enemy bombardment, he was to spend six hours on end, practically at the mercy of the French… Grenades and shrapnel whizzed terrifyingly over his head: “The whistling sounds were incessant and the explosions continuous around me. […] I finally began to say my Rosary, recommending myself insistently to the protection of the Mother of God. Explosions in my vicinity interrupted me frequently.”5
Suddenly, Paul had the idea of changing his position, and he moved forward about twenty-five metres. He stopped in a place from where he could better see the damage his companions were inflicting on the enemy. Moments later, three heavy grenades exploded inside the German trenches, right next to the place he had left a few minutes before… The whole trench was buried! Some of those who witnessed the impressive episode said he was very lucky, but he knew the source of his protection: “I remembered my Rosary.”6
Targeted by enemy rifles
Humble and trusting in Heaven’s help more than in his own strength, weapons and skill, Paul confesses that numerous times during his involvement in the war he fully expected to die. And he adds: “But, at the last minute, I always found an open door. The bullet aimed at me always missed its target…”7
A remarkable event occurred when his detachment had to attack an enemy trench. He recounted: “I attacked from the right. Immediately to my left Lieutenant Dickmann deployed his machine gun and began to fire. However, the flame at the end of the barrel caught the enemy’s attention, and they responded with heavy volleys from their machine guns. The bullets beat furiously against the steel bulkhead. One bullet, however, found the aiming aperture in the shield and instantly killed the officer. The machine gun fell silent. Then the enemy rifles targeted me. The salvos were aimed at me and my companion, John Teufelhart, a young war volunteer. In an instant the poor man lay on the ground with twenty-four bullets in his body. […] Nothing happened to me…”8
Confidence put to the test
Cradled in Mary’s arms, Forster passed through yet other dangerous situations until, as happens to all those who decide to enter through the narrow gate of the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Lk 13:24), his confidence was put to the test.
During an assault on an enemy stronghold, a grenade exploded twenty metres away from where Paul was standing. He felt a sharp blow on his right hand, and then blood trickling down his arm… It was a six-centimetre piece of metal shrapnel that had embedded itself in the palm of his hand, cutting the tendons and nerves of his first three fingers. These soon stiffened and swelled.
Sent to the aid station, the head doctor thought it best to discharge him from the battlefield and send him back to his homeland, where he would be treated. An immense joy! But at the same time, what a trial… Was there any hope of his hand being restored to its former state? If not, which was almost certain, how could he be ordained a priest? At that time, an impairment such as this constituted a canonical impediment.
In fact, as a result of the accident, the muscle of his thumb, index and middle fingers contracted and, unable to be sutured, ended up losing their flexibility… Nevertheless, zeal for his vocation and his fidelity to Our Lady impelled him to a supreme act of confidence: an appeal to Rome.
When the war ended, Paul presented himself to the Nuncio Eugene Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, then resident in Munich, seeking a dispensation to be ordained. At first the prelate did not give him much hope, but permission was subsequently granted, and the seminarian’s confidence was rewarded!
Throughout his life, Fr. Forster harboured profound and affectionate gratitude to his heavenly Mother, seeking every opportunity to declare it before God and man.9
“My Mother, help me!”
“Those who fight under the shadow of the Immaculate do not fear the swords of a thousand soldiers!” says the immortal hymn of the Marian Congregations. Indeed, of what avail are human forces against those who are protected by Our Lady?
The Blessed Virgin did great things for the young Paul – inclined, no doubt, by his priestly vocation, but also by the filial confidence that he placed in Her. She will not fail to do the same for each of her sons and daughters who know how to have recourse to her maternal intercession.
Under enemy fire, whether earthly or infernal, let us not hesitate, therefore, to exclaim with ardent faith and simplicity of heart: “My Mother, my confidence, help me!” ◊
1 FORSTER, CSsR, Paulo. Diário de guerra. Minha participação na Guerra Mundial. São Paulo: [s.n.], 1965, p.90.
2 Idem, p.138.
3 Idem, p.71.
4 Idem, p.73.
5 Idem, p.74.
6 Idem, p.75.
7 Idem, p.137.
8 Idem, p.138.
9 One of his gestures of gratitude can be found in the Room of Miracles in the National Shrine of Aparecida: having arrived in Brazil as a missionary, Fr. Paul Forster placed there a military decoration he had received, accompanied by a moving dedication to his Mother and Protector, the Virgin Mary.