The Lion of Munster
Neither praise nor threats will distance me from God.
Blessed Clemens von Galen
(I ran this series originally back in 2011. I am rerunning it now, because the contemporary Church is greatly harmed by the unwillingness of so many clerics to confront evil forthrightly. In this year of Mercy we must not forget the need to cry out for Justice, and that is precisely what the Lion of Munster did.)
The Nazis hated and feared Clemens August Graf von Galen in life and no doubt they still hate and fear him, at least those now enjoying the amenities of some of the less fashionable pits of Hell. Going into Lent, I am strongly encouraged by the story of Blessed von Galen. I guess one could come up with a worse situation than being a Roman Catholic bishop in Nazi Germany in 1941, and confronting a merciless anti-Christian dictatorship that was diametrically opposed to the Truth of Christ, but that would certainly do for enough of a challenge for one lifetime for anyone. (Hitler privately denounced Christianity as a Jewish superstition and looked forward after the War to “settling accounts”, as he put it, with Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular.)
Priests who spoke out against the Third Reich were being rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps. What was a bishop to do in the face of such massive evil? Well, for the Bishop of Munster, Clemens von Galen, there could be only one answer.
A German Count, von Galen was from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Westphalia. Always a German patriot, the political views of von Galen would have made my own conservatism seem a pale shade of pink in comparison. Prior to becoming a bishop, he was sometimes criticized for a haughty attitude and being unbending. He was chosen Bishop of Munster in 1933 only after other candidates, no doubt recognizing what a dangerous position it would be with the Nazis now in power, had turned it down. I am certain it did not hurt that he was an old friend of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII.
Von Galen immediately demonstrated that he had not agreed to become Bishop of Munster in order to avoid danger. He successfully led a fight against the Nazi attempt to take over Catholic schools, citing article 21 of the Concordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany. He then began a campaign, often using humor and ridicule, against the Aryan racial doctrines proposed by Alfred Rosenberg, chief Nazi race theorist, and a man even some high level Nazis thought was little better than a crank. Von Galen argued that Christianity totally rejected racial differences as determining how groups should be treated, and that all men and women were children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. The Bishop spoke out against Nazi attacks on the “Jewish Old Testament” stating that Holy Writ was Holy Writ and that the Bible could not be altered to suit current prejudices.
In early 1937 he was summoned by Pope Pius XI to confer with him on an encyclical in German, highly unusual for an encyclical not to be written in Latin as the primary language, that the Pope was in the process of drafting. The encyclical was the blistering Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Heart) that the Pope ordered be read out in every parish in Germany on Palm Sunday 1937. A head long assault on almost every aspect of National Socialism, it may be read here.
The language in the encyclical was blunt, direct and no doubt benefited from von Galen’s input and his experience from the battles he was waging with the Nazis.
8. Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faithin God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.
15. In Jesus Christ, Son of God made Man, there shone the plentitude of divine revelation. “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets last of all, in these days hath spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. i. 1). The sacred books of the Old Testament are exclusively the word of God, and constitute a substantial part of his revelation; they are penetrated by a subdued light, harmonizing with the slow development of revelation, the dawn of the bright day of the redemption. As should be expected in historical and didactic books, they reflect in many particulars the imperfection, the weakness and sinfulness of man. But side by side with innumerable touches of greatness and nobleness, they also record the story of the chosen people, bearers of the Revelation and the Promise, repeatedly straying from God and turning to the world. Eyes not blinded by prejudice or passion will see in this prevarication, as reported by the Biblical history, the luminous splendor of the divine light revealing the saving plan which finally triumphs over every fault and sin. It is precisely in the twilight of this background that one perceives the striking perspective of the divine tutorship of salvation, as it warms, admonishes, strikes, raises and beautifies its elect. Nothing but ignorance and pride could blind one to the treasures hoarded in the Old Testament.
17. The peak of the revelation as reached in the Gospel of Christ is final and permanent. It knows no retouches by human hand; it admits no substitutes or arbitrary alternatives such as certain leaders pretend to draw from the so-called myth of race and blood. Since Christ, the Lord’s Anointed, finished the task of Redemption, and by breaking up the reign of sin deserved for us the grace of being the children God, since that day no other name under heaven has been given to men, whereby we must be saved (Acts iv. 12). No man, were every science, power and worldly strength incarnated in him, can lay any other foundation but that which is laid: which is Christ Jesus (1 Cor. iii 11). Should any man dare, in sacrilegious disregard of the essential differences between God and His creature, between the God-man and the children of man, to place a mortal, were he the greatest of all times, by the side of, or over, or against, Christ, he would deserve to be called prophet of nothingness, to whom the terrifying words of Scripture would be applicable: “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them” (Psalms ii. 3).
42. Like other periods of the history of the Church, the present has ushered in a new ascension of interior purification, on the sole condition that the faithful show themselves proud enough in the confession of their faith in Christ, generous enough in suffering to face the oppressors of the Church with the strength of their faith and charity. May the holy time of Lent and Easter, which preaches interior renovation and penance, turn Christian eyes towards the Cross and the risen Christ; be for all of you the joyful occasion that will fill your souls with heroism, patience and victory. Then We are sure, the enemies of the Church, who think that their time has come, will see that their joy was premature, and that they may close the grave they had dug. The day will come when the Te Deum of liberation will succeed to the premature hymns of the enemies of Christ: Te Deum of triumph and joy and gratitude, as the German people return to religion, bend the knee before Christ, and arming themselves against the enemies of God, again resume the task God has laid upon them.
Bishop von Galen made certain that mass copies of the encyclical were spread throughout his diocese in the teeth of frantic efforts by the Gestapo to supress the encyclical.
Von Galen continued to be the foremost domestic foe of the Third Reich. In the summer of 1941 he preached three public sermons against the Nazis that stunned Germany and made his name a household world around the globe. Designated the “Lion of Munster ” for his courage, his sermons would be printed by the Allies and dropped in leaflets all over Germany. Von Galen spent the rest of the war under virtual house arrest. Himmler thought of sending him to a concentration camp but did not do so, fearing that this might cause the start of civil war in Germany. The failure to move against von Galen might also have a simpler explanation. Even the meanest of mad dogs will be reluctant to attack someone who shows no fear, and in Bishop von Galen the murderers of the Third Reich confronted a man utterly without fear.
After the War, von Galen, who had been lauded by the British as a hero during the War, quickly made himself a thorn in the side of the British occupation forces in Munster, loudly speaking out against any injustice by the British against his people. He attacked the brutal occupation by the Soviets of eastern Germany and cried out for justice for the millions of German women raped by Soviet troops.
In Christmas 1945 he learned that he was to be made a cardinal by Pope Pius XII. In February 1946 he received the red hat from his old friend to thunderous applause in Saint Peters. Pius said to him, “God bless you and God bless Germany.” Von Galen observed afterwords that his friend must have forgotten about all his bad habits or he would never have given him the red hat! He went back to Munster and addressed 50,000 people. He thanked them for their fidelity during the time of the Nazi terror and told them that as a bishop it was simply his duty to speak clearly and plainly about what was happening. Tragically, he died of an appendix infection on March 22, 1946. He was beatified on October 9, 2005, the 47th anniversary of the death of his old friend Pope Pius XII.
Lent is a time for courage and a time for confronting evil, especially the evil within us. The next four Sundays we will examine the three sermons preached by Blessed von Galen against the Nazis in 1941, and an additional anti-Nazi sermon from 1936. I think they will make superb Lenten reading.