Blessed Cardinal von Galen: a voice against tyranny

Blessed Cardinal von Galen: a voice against tyranny

Babette Francis

In a letter to the editor, October 2011, Fr Conway, NSW, complained that some priests were taking their sermons from the internet. I haven't yet recognised a sermon "plagiarised" from the internet, but as this year marks the 70th anniversary of famous sermons preached by Blessed Clemens von Galen, Bishop of Münster, it is worth reflecting on his life and sermons preached during the Nazi terror.

Clemens August von Galen was born the eleventh of thirteen children of one of the most distinguished families of Westphalia. Educated by Jesuits, he studied philosophy at Fribourg, Switzerland, was ordained in 1904, and commenced 23 years of pastoral work in Berlin. In 1929 he was appointed Bishop of Münster. As his motto he chose: Nec laudibus nec timore ("Unconcerned about praise, unaffected by fear").

Seven years later, in a sermon in Xanten Cathedral in 1936, Bishop Clemens accused the Nazi regime of discriminating against Christians, of imprisoning and killing them: "There are in Germany new graves which contain the ashes of those upon whom the German people look as martyrs."

Pius XI's encyclical

In 1937 Pope Pius XI invited Bishop Clemens to Rome to discuss the situation in Germany and prepare the encyclical letter Mit brennender Sorge ( With Burning Anxiety), which attacked Hitler's regime publicly.

In 1941, with the Third Reich at the height of its power, state authorities confiscated convents and monasteries and expelled the religious and extensive measures were put in place for killing mentally handicapped persons. In three sermons on 13th and 20th July and 3rd August, Bishop Clemens publicly exposed these outrages.

The sermons, which created a sensation, were secretly duplicated and distributed outside Germany. Bishop Clemens was prepared to be arrested by the Gestapo - Reichsleiter Bormann suggested to Hitler that the Bishop be hanged. The other Nazi leaders, however, feared the population of Münster would be alienated for the duration of the war. Bishop Clemens was deeply dejected when in his place 37 clergy were deported to concentration camps, ten of whom lost their lives.

During the last months of the war, with Münster almost completely destroyed, including the Cathedral and the Bishop's house, Bishop Clemens found a home in St Joseph's Foundation, Sendenhorst.

In the post-war period Bishop Clemens faced the Allied military government with frankness if some injustice was to be prevented. With emphasis he spoke out against the then current verdict of the collective guilt of Germans.

In February 1946 Pope Plus XII appointed the Bishop to the College of Cardinals, in recognition of his fearless resistance against National Socialism. A crowded St Peter's rang with applause when the "Lion of Münster" received the cardinalate from the Pope.

On his return home on 16 March, Cardinal von Galen was enthusiastically welcomed by a great crowd as he made his last speech in front of his destroyed Cathedral. A day later he fell seriously ill and died on 22 March.

At his death the president of the regional association of Jewish communities wrote to the Capitular Vicar in Münster: "Cardinal von Galen was one of the few upright and conscientious men who fought against racialism in a most difficult time. We shall always honour the memory of the deceased Bishop."

On 22 October 1956 Bishop Michael Keller initiated the process for the beatification of his predecessor. Cardinal von Galen was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

The following are excerpts from a few of Blessed Clemens' sermons:

13 July 1941: "None of us is safe [even if] he may know he is the most loyal and conscientious of citizens and he may be conscious of his complete innocence [but] he cannot be sure that he will not some day be deported from his home, deprived of his freedom and locked in the cellars and concentration camps of the Gestapo ...

"Justice is the only solid foundation of any state. The right to life, to inviolability, to freedom, is an indispensable part of any moral order of society ... 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 ... will perish through an inner rottenness and decay."

20 July 1941: "We see and experience clearly what lies behind the new doctrines which have for years been forced on us, for the sake of which religion has been banned from the schools, our organisations have been suppressed and now Catholic kindergartens are to be abolished ... there is a deep-seated hatred of Christianity, which they are determined to destroy ...".

Mentally handicapped

On 3 August 1941 Bishop Clemens accused the Nazi regime of murdering mentally handicapped persons. He said his written protests and appeals had been of no avail: "We must expect that the poor defenceless patients are, sooner or later, going to be killed. Why? Because in the judgement 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'...

"If it is once admitted men have the right to kill 'unproductive' fellowmen ... 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, 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 ."

Blessed Clemens von Galen's sermons are available on the internet. May these and his courage inspire our priests and bishops to preach against the state-sanctioned killing of the unborn and the creeping threat of euthanasia.

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