Today is the feast day of Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen, who died on this day 65 years ago. Cardinal von Galen, who earned the epithet "the lion of Münster" for his courage in speaking out against Nazi atrocities during World War II, is of special importance to me personally since I spent a year after college in Münster teaching at a high school named in his honor.
Clemens August Graf von Galen was born in 1878 into a prominent Westphalian family. (The word Graf in his name is a title of nobility roughly equivalent to a count or an earl.) One of his ancestors, Christoph Bernhard von Galen, was the bishop of Münster during the Thirty Years' War. While some historians have doubted Christoph Bernhard von Galen's personal piety, none have ever doubted his determination; it took all his resolve to free the area around Münster from foreign occupying troops. Cardinal von Galen inherited that same fighting spirit, but also a great deal more piety.
Despite this noble lineage, the young Clemens August von Galen did not seem destined for greatness. He was never more than an average student, and not particularly gifted in public speaking either. As von Galen himself later remarked about the first sermon he preached to a church full of farmers on a hot summer morning, when he finally looked up at the end he saw that he had put everyone to sleep. Later, as a parish priest in Berlin, when von Galen noticed that Eugenio Pacelli, the papal nuncio to Germany (who later became Pope Pius XII), was sitting in the congregation, he began to stutter and was barely able to finish his sermon.
Moreover, what would later be recognized as his tremendous courage in the face of Nazi persecution was in his youth mere stubbornness. Indeed, even as he grew older, this stubborn streak stayed with him. Josef Pieper, writing many years later, recalled that as a struggling young academic he did not much care for von Galen because the churchman could never admit to being wrong. Not much had changed since the days when his teachers complained that young Clemens thought he possessed the charism of infallibility.
Von Galen's initial assignments as a priest, then, corresponded to his modest abilities and his personal flaws. His first assignment after being ordained in 1904 was to serve as a personal chaplain to an auxiliary bishop of Münster who happened to be his uncle. Von Galen seems to have come into his own, though, after he was reassigned to Berlin in 1906, where he worked in several parishes that served the Catholic "diaspora," those workers from all over Germany who had moved for the sake of factory jobs to Berlin, the heart of Protestant Prussia. He spent his last nine years in Berlin as the pastor of St. Matthias.
After 23 years in the capital, von Galen was finally recalled to his beloved Westphalia in 1929 and made pastor of St. Lambert's in Münster, the most prestigious church in the city after the cathedral. Four years later, von Galen was elected bishop of Münster. This almost never happened, though, in part because of his stubbornness and brusque manners. The nuncio in Germany who had succeeded Pacelli regarded von Galen as unsuitable for the position because of his "schoolmaster's" tone.
Von Galen was consecrated bishop in 1933, a fateful year in German history. Although he was always a nationalist in his politics and even initially expressed cautious optimism that the new regime might solve some of the problems of the Weimar era, he nevertheless soon became a leading critic of Nazi totalitarianism. He revered the Vaterland, but never excessively; indeed, it is the distinction between patriotism and idolatry of the state that lies at the heart of his witness. From the beginning of his episcopate, he was an outspoken critic of the Nazis, and probably was one of the German bishops who assisted Pius XI in the drafting of Mit brennender Sorge, the encyclical that called on German Catholics to reject Nazi race ideology. Likewise, von Galen was a stout opponent of Nazi eugenics and euthanasia programs. Finally, von Galen always insisted on the liberty of the Church and on the government's need to work for justice: "Justice is the foundation of all states."
Von Galen is most famous today for four sermons he preached as bishop. He delivered the first sermon in 1936, after consecrating a new altar in Xanten. In this sermon (pp. 9-15), he reminded his flock of the example set by the patron saint of their church, St. Victor, who, though a loyal and courageous soldier in the Roman army, suffered martyrdom for refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods. He then used the example of St. Victor to strengthen his flock's resolve in the face of the summary imprisonment without trial of several German clergymen.
While von Galen early on recognized the threat the Nazis posed to the Church and to all Germany, it was only in the summer of 1941, when Hitler's power had not yet begun to fade after the failed invasion of Russia, that he delivered his three most powerful sermons, all blistering attacks on the Nazi regime. On July 13, he returned to the parish church of St. Lambert's, where he denounced the Nazis for their attack on the religious orders in his diocese (pp. 17-26). He began the sermon with the announcement that the Gestapo had recently confiscated the Jesuits' residences and expelled them from the province, and then done the same to a group of missionary nuns. After delivering the bad news, though, von Galen condemned the Gestapo for the injustices it committed. He ended the sermon with an appeal to justice and a prayer "for our German people and fatherland and for its leader," the same way he would end his next sermon.
On July 20, 1941, he preached at the Überwasserkirche in Münster, denouncing the Gestapo's continued persecution of the Church (pp. 27-36). It was in this sermon that he compared contemporary Christians to an anvil that stood firm against the Nazi hammer (pp. 32-33):
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.
Those who could remember the bishop as a stammering young chaplain hardly believed that he could speak with such eloquence.
Finally, on August 3, once again preaching in St. Lambert's, von Galen denounced the Nazi euthanasia programs (pp. 37-48), exposing the abominable efforts to eliminate "unproductive members of the national community," those who in the Nazis' eyes were "unworthy to live." This time, sensing perhaps that no appeal to justice would move the Gestapo or Hitler to relent in their persecution of the Church and their murdering of innocent human beings, von Galen, instead of ending with a prayer for "our German people and fatherland and for its leader," asked his flock: "Did the Son of God in his omniscience on that day see only Jerusalem and its people? Did he weep only over Jerusalem?. . .Did he also weep over us? Over Münster?"
In response, the Nazis, instead of arresting Bishop von Galen, arrested and harassed many priests and religious orders in his diocese, a fact that weighed heavily on his conscience, as he survived the war when some of his own priests did not. (This suppression of religious orders as retaliation for the bishops' public criticism of the Nazis is not unlike what happened in the Netherlands, where it resulted in the martyrdom of Edith Stein.) After the war, in February 1946, in recognition of his courage, von Galen was made a cardinal by Pius XII in Rome. He returned from the consistory in triumph to the ruins of his cathedral in Münster on March 16, 1946, but died only six days later of a burst appendix. He is buried in a side chapel of the cathedral. He was beatified in 2005.
The picture was taken by Gustav Albers and comes from the diocesan archives of Münster.
The original German version of these four sermons can be found here.