Bl. Clemens August von Galen
Memorial: March 22
We’re all familiar with saints who were martyred by the Nazis. Some such as St. Edith Stein were martyred because of Jewish ancestry. Some – St. Maximilian Kolbe, Bl. Marcel Callo – because they were “too” Catholic. And some – Bls. Otto Neurerer, Franz Jägerstatter, Jacob Gapp, SM – because their actions or lives stood somehow in the way of the Nazi state machinery.
But there is at least one man who stood up to the Nazis, openly denounced them, defied them, and yet did not undergo martyrdom.
His name is Bl. Clemens August Cardinal von Galen, “the Lion of Münster.”
Born March 16, 1878, he was a count, the eleventh of 13 children born to Elisabeth von Spee and Ferdinand Heribert Graf (i.e., Count) von Galen. At first he was homeschooled. Due to then-Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, the Jesuits had been outlawed in Westphalia, Prussia (despite its being a majority Catholic state, Westphalia was in Prussia, the heart of the Kulturkampf), and by the time von Galen was a boy, they had still not been legalized. So in 1890, his parents sent his brother and him to school at the Jesuit school in Feldkirch, Austria.
During his first year there, the headmaster wrote his mother, “The main difficulty lies … in Clemens’ complete infallibility. Nothing will bring him to admit that he is wrong; it is always his professors and prefects [who are in error].”
Since Prussia would not recognize a Jesuit education, he had to come home in 1894 and finish his education at a public school. In his senior yearbook, his classmates wrote Clemens was “A man who doesn’t make love [i.e., chase girls] or go drinking; he does not like worldly ways of thinking.”
After graduation in 1896, he entered the Catholic University of Fribourg. A Dominican school, it was here that he became familiar with St. Thomas Aquinas’ works. Then during their first winter break, he and his brother made a pilgrimage to Rome, where they met Leo XIII. It was following this that he decided to enter the clergy.
In 1903, he entered the Münster seminary, and he received holy orders in May 1904.
In 1906, he went to Berlin, where he served as a priest until 1929. It was the period of the post-World War I Weimar Republic, and he was unhappy with its idolization of individualism, its loose social mores (of which Berlin was the epicenter), and the opportunity for societal chaos sown by Germany’s then-nascent socialism and democracy. He believed that democracy put competition for votes above the common good and that the masses could be easily be swayed by politicians’ promises.
Both socialism and Catholicism claimed to speak for the common man. Socialism, however, did so in ways that were often at odds with the gospel, so along with Leo XIII and St. Pius X, he opposed it and labored to keep the people from falling into believing it held the answers for society’s ills. It was not an easy task.
Compounding the situation facing him, Berlin’s population grew from roughly 900,000 in the late 1800s to 4 million by the end of World War I.
And so von Galen worked like mad to serve his parish, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, helping to get the poor good jobs, and confronting employers who took advantage of their workers. Imagine being confronted by a 6’7” giant with an imposing facial expression.
He wore a very simple cassock, did not take in popular amusements, and had no real vices. All in all, he was an exemplary priest.
During the latter part of his time in Berlin, he served as pastor of St. Matthias Church. This is when he met the papal nuncio, then-Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli. The two understood each other well, so well that the future Pope knew he could mercilessly tease his friend.
One day, Count von Galen warmly greeted the nuncio and said to him, “Your Excellency, leave your work at home and let us enjoy this sunny spring day.”
Pacelli replied, “I cannot afford to. Otherwise I might be like the pastor of St. Matthias and be humiliated by getting stuck [and forgetting what I was saying] during a sermon.” (This had actually happened to von Galen.)
In 1929, he received a transfer to St. Lambert Church in Münster, Germany. Here as in Berlin he worked for his people but also against the trendy forces of secularism. He even wrote a book in 1932 titled, The “Plague of Secularism” [or Laicity] and its Manifestations. (If you know German and want to read the book, its German title is Die “Pest des Laizismus” und ihre Erscheinungsformen.)
The next year, Pius XI appointed him bishop of Münster. Because of his political conservatism and what some saw as his often overbearing public persona, his choice was not universally popular. Indeed the papal nuncio Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo protested against his nomination. (Then again, considering Orsenigo’s later record of coddling the Nazis, maybe this is to von Galen’s credit?)
With others, the hardworking pastor of souls was much beloved. Even they, however, acknowledged, “The Holy Spirit will have to work a lot.”
In any event, he became for his people the very icon of the Good Shepherd.
Like many of his fellow Germans, including the Nazis, he found the Treaty of Versailles punitive and thus unjust.
Unlike the Nazis, he condemned race baiting and demonization of the Jews for the nation’s problems.
Hitler took power on January 30, 1933. Von Galen began criticizing the Nazis the next year (he had been consecrated bishop on October 28, 1933), showing he took seriously his episcopal motto: Nec Laudibus, Nec Timore (loosely translated: “Neither the praise nor the fear of men will make me deviate from God’s ways”).
Specifically it was one day shy of a year later—January 29, 1934—that he released a pastoral letter condemning the Nazis’ belief on the superiority of the so-called Arian race. He edited a book of essays excoriating the National Socialists’ main philosopher Alfred Rosenberg. In 1936, he gave a sermon in the cathedral at Xanten denouncing the imprisonment and even killing of Christians. (This preceded Kristallnacht, which took place in 1938.)
Because of his outspokenness, Pius XI invited him to Rome in 1937 to consult with him on the German situation. It was there that he, along with now-Cardinal Pacelli and four other of his nation’s bishops that von Galen had a hand in writing Pius’s anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”). To this day it is the only one ever written in German. (The link takes you to the English translation.)
Bl. Clemens exhorted Catholic parents to insist on a Catholic education in the schools for their children. Whereas such an education was eliminated in other parts of the nation, von Galen succeeded in keeping it in place in schools within the diocese.
The Reich’s local minister of schools wanted religious instruction coupled with talk about the “demoralizing power” of “the people of Israel.” Von Galen rebuffed him.
When the Nazis took crucifixes down off of classroom walls, Bl. Clemens protests resulted in public demonstrations against the regime.
Then in 1941, he gave a series of three sermons. He had wanted the German episcopal conference to stand in unison against the state, but none of his brother bishops had the courage. Therefore he decided to go it alone.
The first sermon criticized arrests of certain Jesuits as being purely politically motivated.
He publicly criticized the Gestapo for arresting people in the middle of the night and not giving those arrested trials.
“The Gestapo, he argued, reduced even the most decent and loyal citizens to fear of ending up in a cellar prison or a concentration camp.”
In the second, given a week later, July 20, 1941, he condemned confiscation of Church property by the Gestapo. He argued that the police state was doing more damage to Germany than Allied bombs
In the third, given August 3, he denounced in the most vocal terms possible the euthanization of those with mental or physical deformities. The chaplain at Marienthal children’s home for the mentally retarded had told him of their removal, their murder, and cremation with their ashes scattered in remote places throughout the Reich.
He also condemned forced sterilization and concentration camps.
Regarding the taking of human life, he said “the right to life, to inviolability, and to freedom is an indispensable part of any moral social order, [and any government that punishes without court proceedings]” undermines its own authority and respect for its sovereignty within the conscience of its citizens.”
“These are people, our brothers and sisters; maybe their life is unproductive, but productivity is not a justification for killing.”
The Attorney General had said these people were being killed because they were no longer productive and that their being liquidated was no different than scrapping an old machine or putting to sleep a horse whose limbs had been broken.
Von Galen retorted, “No, I will not take this comparison to its conclusion, so fearful is [this sense that doing wrong is justified] and its clarity! This is not about machines. It is not a horse or a cow … No, these are people, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters! Poor people, sick people, unproductive people, [for the sake of argument]! But [because of that] they have lost the right to life? Have you, have I only the right to live so long as we are productive, so long as we are recognized by others as productive?”
His denunciations (and those of Protestant Bishop Theophil Wurm of Württemberg) raised awareness of what the government was doing to the mentally challenged. As a result, public opposition was stoked, and it was furious.
His sermon was reproduced and tens of thousands of copies distributed throughout the nation. This surprised his episcopal peers who thought him of limited intellectual capacity and attributed his eloquence to the Holy Spirit.
His work prompted Ven. Pius XII (Pacelli had become Pope in 1939) to write him, “For us it is always a comfort when we become aware of the open and courageous words of a German bishop … you, venerable brother, [by contrast] are the last, we need to mention this specifically.”
His prophetic voice may also have goaded the German episcopate into action. Or maybe it was that by then the Nazis’ crimes had become so difficult to ignore that even the most timid could no longer remain silent.
Regardless in September 1943, Germany’s bishops released a pastoral letter. They wrote, “Killing is bad in itself, even if it is allegedly committed in the public interest.”
Von Galen became so popular by raising awareness and giving voice to the opposition that existed within Nazi Germany that the regime dare not arrest him. It wanted to. In official reports he was said to have a “staatsabträgliche Gesinnung” (a mind deleterious to the state), which was a death sentence for most people. He knew officials wanted him arrested as early as 1936, as evidenced by instructions he wrote on what to do if he was “disabled.”
But while they didn’t arrest him, they did arrest and deport 24 diocesan and 18 religious priests, 10 of whom died as martyrs. It greatly distressed His Lordship that his children were sacrificed as a substitution for him.
We should note that the Nazi’s reluctance in imprisoning the bishop didn’t mean the regime had no plans for him. Had they won the war, Bl. Clemens would have been hung.
Hitler said, “The fact that I remain silent in public over Church affairs is not in the least misunderstood by the sly foxes of the Catholic Church, and I am quite sure that a man like Bishop von Galen knows full well that after the war, I shall extract retribution to the last penny.”
However Hitler lost the war, and following cessation of hostilities, von Galen changed the target of his protests to the Allies. He complained of Russians raping German women and about Allied and British troops entering his fellow citizens’ home and acting with impunity based on “the false view that all Germans are criminals and deserve the most severe punishment, including death and extermination!”
He told reporters in front of the British, “Just as I fought against Nazi injustices, I will fight any injustice, no matter where it comes from.”
And indeed, on July 1, 1945, he protested British behavior in a sermon that was copied and distributed throughout Germany. They told him to renounce his words. You can probably guess his response.
By the time Ven. Pius made him a cardinal on February 5, 1946, he had become a worldwide celebrity. Thus when the Pope placed the red hat on his head, the applause in St. Peter’s Basilica was thunderous and lasted for several minutes.
Before he returned to Germany, Cardinal von Galen visited German POWs at camps in Taranto and Bari, Italy, and during his talks to prisoners, he seemed to prophecy his death. He told them, “My time is almost over, and when I’m up there, just speak to me.”
Upon his arrival at Münster, huge crowds met him. In a speech given before the bombed out hull of his cathedral, he told the people that it was only the consent and attitude of the faithful allowed him to fight. With his voice cracking, however, he also lamented that he had been denied the crown of martyrdom.
He died of a ruptured appendix days after returning from Rome. His last words were, “Yes, yes, as God wills it. May God reward you. God protect the dear fatherland. Go on working for Him… Oh, You dear Savior!”
It is interesting to note that Cardinal von Galen’s episcopate began nine months after Hitler came to power and ended ten months after the Third Reich’s demise. Some believe this was providential.
At his core, Bl. Clemens was a believer who placed himself always at the feet of God, and it was this foundation that explains his fearless witness before men. He prayed each day before the Blessed Sacrament. He made pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady at Telgte to beg her protection from the “malignant foe.” He regularly attended the sacrament of reconciliation with great duty and devotion and attention.
As one Italian writer has put it, today we may not suffer from the tyranny of a dictator and his party. But we do labor under the tyranny of a society that veritably commands us to say “yes” to whatever is fashionable, whatever is deemed the current conventional wisdom, even if that means we say “no” to God.
For this sort of tyranny, Bl. Clemens serves as a model of charitable yet firm Christian frankness, and he gives us an icon of great faith and devotion from which we can draw strength.