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.