Monday, April 02, 2012

Nec Laudibus Nec Timore: Bl. Clemens von Galen

It does not seem that very many people have heard of Bl. Clemens August Graf von Galen.  He gets short shrift in popular histories of the Nazi era: in William Shirer's The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940, for example, he rates one sentence in one footnote; in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by the same author, he gets less than that; he gets no mention at all in Wallace Deuel's People under Hitler, or in Winston Churchill's multivolume war memoirs.  At the time of his beatification in 2005, the only English-language biography of Bl. von Galen was one that subjected him to revisionist vilification similar to that which has been leveled at Ven. Pius XII since the 1960s.  Yet throughout the Hitler years, few opponents of religious persecution, racialism, state-sponsored thievery and euthanasia were as outspoken and forthright as Bl. Clemens von Galen.  At a time when the Catholic Church is again beset by both moral confusion from within and increasing attack and encroachment from without, Bl. von Galen should be looked to both as an example for and as a patron to the faithful, and especially clergy, who struggle to do the right thing.

Clemens August von Galen was born in 1878 into a noble Catholic family which, for centuries, had given the Church many priests and bishops.  He was ordained to the priesthood in 1904, and was for years a big-city pastor.  He was an imposing figure both in body (at 6 feet 7 inches tall) and in personality.  His piety -- founded on penance, study, and deep devotions to the Blessed Virgin, the Sacred Heart, the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, and Holy Scripture -- was as straightforward and uncomplicated as his world view, which was pervaded by a sense of the supernatural.  He was known for his sense of duty, his kindliness, and his accessibility, and also scorned for his staunch traditionalism, his opposition to the increasing secularization of public life, and his rejection of the notion that the Church must change in order to become more "relevant" to the modern world.  One critic faulted him for being "entirely 13th century."  The apostolic nuncio went so far as to complain to then-Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) that von Galen possessed an "overbearing attitude, stubbornness and too schoolmasterly a manner for a simple pastor."  Even the Holy See was not enthusiastic about the idea of giving von Galen a position of responsibility in the Church in Germany.  

So it was with dismay that many received the news of his elevation to the bishopric of Münster in 1933 -- the same year that Hitler came to power.  In calling for the intervention of the Holy Spirit upon his accession to the episcopal throne, von Galen's critics failed to recognize that this deplored accession was itself precisely the Spirit's intervention.  While the devil arrayed his army for battle, God was not idle in preparing His counteroffensive.  This purportedly overbearing, stubborn, doctrinaire and inflexible cleric was precisely what was needed in that time and place.  Von Galen let it be immediately and unambiguously known that human respect would have no part in his government of affairs in his diocese when he took as his episcopal motto Nec laudibus nec timore: "Neither praise nor fear."

Bishop von Galen lost no time becoming a thorn in Hitler's side.  One of his first acts as the Shepherd of Münster was to establish perpetual Eucharistic adoration in a centrally located parish in the diocese.  To prevent the seduction of his sheep, he studied Nazi literature and repeatedly publicly challenged the tenets of Nazi doctrine.  He publicly protested Nazi initiatives to the authorities.  When government officials seized convents and monasteries, turning their inhabitants out into the streets, the bishop called them thieves and robbers to their faces.  After failing to prevent a rally in Münster headed by Alfred Rosenberg, the official Nazi party "philosopher," Bishop von Galen responded the next day with a huge procession of his own.  

Again and again, Bishop von Galen courted martyrdom, fully expecting it -- perhaps even hoping for it -- at any moment.  At a sermon given at St. Lambert's in Münster on July 13, 1941, he said:
None of us is safe — and may he know that he is the most loyal and conscientious of citizens and may he be conscious of his complete innocence —  he cannot be sure that he will not some day be deported from his home, deprived of his freedom and locked up in the cellars and concentration camps of the Gestapo. I am aware of the fact: This can happen also to me, today or some other day. And because then I shall not be able to speak in public any longer, I will speak publicly today, publicly I will warn against the continuance in a course which I am firmly convinced will bring down God's judgment on men and must lead to disaster and ruin for our people and our country.
But because von Galen had so much prestige, and was so much loved by the people of Münster, the Nazis never dared to touch him, although they longed to be rid of him.  Even the officers of the Gestapo -- of which he was an outspoken critic -- feared to take their lives into their hands by allowing the residents of Münster to see them carting their beloved bishop off to concentration camp.  To the bishop's dismay, they preferred to retaliate against his priests, of whom a number were sent to concentration camps, some never to return.  After the war, upon his return from the consistory where he was created a cardinal, von Galen affectionately chided the people of Münster for their great love and support which had deprived him of the crown of martyrdom.

The centerpiece of von Galen's episcopate was three sermons he gave during 1941, when Hitler's power was at its height.  Despite Nazi censorship of Catholic writings, these homilies were printed, and copies smuggled all over the Reich and beyond.  They electrified the world, and inspired opponents of the Hitler regime.  The Allies used them in their propaganda campaign against Nazism, and the Pope himself approved them in the strongest terms.  The good bishop fully expected to be arrested after preaching these sermons, but still the regime did not dare to touch him, contenting itself instead with rounding up 24 of his secular priests and 13 religious priests.

The first sermon is the one quoted above from July 13, 1941.  In it, the bishop denounces the expulsion of religious communities from Westphalia and the confiscation of their houses, and exposes the hypocrisy of the authorities in the matter of summary "justice."  This homily had an answer for those who took his denunciations during wartime as unpatriotic and subversive.  It is instructive for those who denounce as "counterproductive" the punishing of dissidents within the Church, or the raising of Catholic voices against present-day injustices:
My Christians! It will perhaps be held against me that by this frank statement I am weakening the home front of the German people during this war. I, on the contrary, say this: It is not I who am responsible for a possible weakening of the home front, but those who regardless of the war, regardless of this fearful week of terrible air-raids, impose heavy punishments on innocent people without the judgment of a court or any possibility of defence, who evict our religious orders, our brothers and sisters, from their property, throw them on to the street, drive them out of their own country. They destroy men's security under the law, they undermine trust in law, they destroy men's confidence in our government. And therefore I raise my voice in the name of the upright German people, in the name of the majesty of Justice, in the interests of peace and the solidarity of the home front; therefore as a German, an honourable citizen, a representative of the Christian religion, a Catholic bishop, I exclaim: we demand justice! If this call remains unheard and unanswered, if the reign of Justice is not restored, then our German people and our country, in spite of the heroism of our soldiers and the glorious victories they have won, will perish through an inner rottenness and decay.
On the following Sunday, July 20, 1941, Bishop von Galen delivered what may be thought of as his Hammer and Anvil sermon.  After denouncing in the strongest terms the continuing persecution of the religious orders, the bishop painted a metaphorical picture of a Church under persecution:

Become hard! Remain firm! At this moment we are the anvil rather than the hammer. Other men, mostly strangers and renegades, are hammering us, seeking by violent means to bend our nation, ourselves and our young people aside from their straight relationship with God. We are the anvil and not the hammer. But ask the blacksmith and hear what he says: the object which is forged on the anvil receives its form not alone from the hammer but also from the anvil. The anvil cannot and need not strike back: it must only be firm, only hard! If it is sufficiently tough and firm and hard the anvil usually lasts longer than the hammer. However hard the hammer strikes, the anvil stands quietly and firmly in place and will long continue to shape the objects forged upon it.
The anvil represents those who are unjustly imprisoned, those who are driven out and banished for no fault of their own. God will support them, that they may not lose the form and attitude of Christian firmness, when the hammer of persecution strikes its harsh blows and inflicts unmerited wounds on them....
We are the anvil, not the hammer! Unfortunately you cannot shield your children, the noble but still untempered crude metal, from the hammer-blows of hostility to the faith and hostility to the Church. But the anvil also plays a part in forging. Let your family home, your parental love and devotion, your exemplary Christian life be the strong, tough, firm and unbreakable anvil which absorbs the force of the hostile blows, which continually strengthens and fortifies the still weak powers of the young in the sacred resolve not to let themselves be diverted from the direction that leads to God. 
In the third sermon, delivered on August 3, 1941, Bishop von Galen denounced another horror: the systematic murder of the aged, infirm, crippled and incurably ill.  Since the competent authorities could not be moved to put a stop to these killings, "these unfortunate patients are to die...because in the judgment of some official body, on the decision of some committee, they have become 'unworthy to live,' because they are classed as 'unproductive members of the national community.'"  The following words are no less pertinent to our own brutal time than to the one in which they were originally uttered:

If the principle that men is entitled to kill his unproductive fellow-man is established and applied, then woe betide all of us when we become aged and infirm! If it is legitimate to kill unproductive members of the community, woe betide the disabled who have sacrificed their health or their limbs in the productive process! If unproductive men and women can be disposed of by violent means, woe betide our brave soldiers who return home with major disabilities as cripples, as invalids! If it is once admitted that men have the right to kill "unproductive" fellow-men — even though it is at present applied only to poor and defenceless mentally ill patients — then the way is open for the murder of all unproductive men and women: the incurably ill, the handicapped who are unable to work, those disabled in industry or war. The way is open, indeed, for the murder of all of us when we become old and infirm and therefore unproductive. Then it will require only a secret order to be issued that the procedure which has been tried and tested with the mentally ill should be extended to other "unproductive" persons, that it should also be applied to those suffering from incurable tuberculosis, the aged and infirm, persons disabled in industry, soldiers with disabling injuries!
Then no man will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of "unproductive" persons, who in their judgment have become "unworthy to live." And there will be no police to protect him, no court to avenge his murder and bring his murderers to justice.
Who could then have any confidence in a doctor? He might report a patient as unproductive and then be given instructions to kill him! It does not bear thinking of, the moral depravity, the universal mistrust which will spread even in the bosom of the family, if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, accepted and put into practice. Woe betide mankind, woe betide our German people, if the divine commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," which the Lord proclaimed on Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man's conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not merely violated but the violation is tolerated and remains unpunished!
These thundering denunciations did not prove to be the end of the career of this wonderful bishop, the Lion of Münster.  He soldiered on throughout the war and even the destruction of his cathedral and his house under Allied bombs.  When American tanks approached, on Easter Sunday, 1945, he personally went out to meet them.  Yet his gratitude for deliverance from the Nazi oppressors did not prevent him from becoming a thorn in the side of the occupying forces who allowed Russian and Polish former slave laborers to run riot and take their revenge upon his people.  Once again, Bishop von Galen lived up to his motto: neither praise nor fear.  Nec laudibus nec timore.

On February 18, 1946, Clemens August Graf von Galen received from the hands of Pope Pius XII the cardinal's red hat, to the acclaim of the whole world.  He was the first Bishop of Münster to be raised to the College of Cardinals.  Yet the Anvil of the Church who had outlasted the hammer of the Hitlerites had reached the close of his earthly career.  On March 22, 1946, six days after his 68th birthday and his return home from Rome, the redoubtable bishop who had survived the Nazi terror, the world war, and the Allies' destruction of his beloved Münster, succumbed to a perforated appendix.  Amid profound grief, Bishop von Galen was laid to rest in the family crypt in Münster's ruined cathedral.  On December 20, 2003, Pope John Paul II declared him Venerable; on October 9, 2005, his fellow countryman, Pope Benedict XVI, beatified him.

Today, Christian civilization, and particularly the Catholic Church, are under assault not only in the Third World but even in its nursery, Europe, and in the New World, which prides itself on its tradition of religious freedom.  But neither the faithful nor their shepherds need to wonder how to handle the threats of the modern world: they have the Lion of Münster to show them how it's done, even under the most extreme circumstances.  As Pope Benedict said in his Angelus message on the day of von Galen's beatification: "[T]he message of Blessed von Galen is ever timely: faith cannot be reduced to a private sentiment or indeed, be hidden when it is inconvenient; it also implies consistency and a witness even in the public arena for the sake of human beings, justice and truth."

Nec laudibus nec timore.


  1. Magnificent! Thank you! This is going to be saved in my WWII archives; and I wonder if I may post it (with credit) on my own blog as well.

  2. You bet, Bob. Do what you can to spread devotion to Bl. von Galen.

  3. It is poetic that a Polish and a German Pope together made him a saint. I am very glad to know of him, his words and example are much needed today. Thank you.

  4. New Sister, let's hope his devotion spreads. Santo subito!

  5. I'm commending to him a huge prayer intention then-- Bishop Fellay and the SSPX. May God's will be done.

  6. I had not seen this until you pointed it out to me. This is great. We should pray to him for our seminarians, who face all these trials in the not so far future.

  7. You will want to read THE LION OF MUNSTER by Daniel Utrecht. It is a tremedous biography of this great man of faith.