Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Blessed Lion of Munster

This is the biography of a blessed saint of the Catholic Church: as I read it, I did not know that Clemens August Cardinal von Galens of Munster had been beatified! Father Daniel Utrecht of the Oratory (Toronto) did not write the book as hagiography but as the biography of a bishop who served his diocese during World War II, fighting for religious freedom in the midst of Nazi oppression:

“The dear God placed me in a position in which I had a duty to call black 'black' and white 'white'.” These words were spoken by Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, the bishop of the diocese of Münster in Germany from 1933 to 1946. In so doing, he risked death at the hands of the Nazis, one Gestapo leader even urging that he be publicly hanged. Joseph Goebbels and others in the Nazi leadership, knowing the bishop’s popularity, advised waiting, subscribing to the adage that “revenge is a dish best served cold.”

In this, the definitive English language biography of the great Lion of Münster, readers will encounter the young von Galen as he learns the Catholic faith and love of the fatherland from his family, members of the German aristocracy. A nobleman, a “prince” of his people and of his Church, the boy grew into a man, a six-and-a-half-foot tall giant of a man, who, though he loved his homeland, loved God, His Church and His law even more; for he knew that calling his homeland back to the ways of God is the one way in which a bishop can best demonstrate that love for the people under his spiritual care. And so, in three magnificent sermons and countless other speeches, communiques and gestures, the Lion roared.

This story of his life and his stirring words provides readers with an indispensable glimpse into the confrontation between Church and State in Hitler’s Germany and will serve as a reminder to all men and women of good will of the duty to call black ‘black’ and white ‘white.’

Other than some unnecessary repetition--at the end of the book, describing Cardinal von Galen's funeral, his episcopal motto ["Nec laudibus, nec timore" (Neither praise nor threats will distance me from God)] is cited three times on three pages--the surprising announcement that Cardinal von Galen was beatified may be the most serious flaw in this book. Surely a paragraph describing the institution and progress of his cause would have been helpful. How did the devotion to Cardinal von Galen develop? how was it manifested? what's the status of his cause now?

Most of the book recounts Bishop von Galen's efforts to thwart Nazi oppression of Catholics in their schools, churches, and hospitals. Bishop von Galen did not speak out as openly about the oppression and extermination of the Jewish community in Germany, although he did argue forcefully against the Nazi views on race. While he opposed many of the Nazi's actions during the rule of the Third Reich, Bishop von Galen always did so on the grounds that the Nazi government was violating the promises it had made to protect and uphold religious freedom. He wanted the German bishops to be more united in opposing the Nazi regime's abuses of religious freedom but he never advised anything but passive resistance. He worked to make sure that Pope Pius XI's Mit brennender Sorge was well distributed and he successfully led the campaign to highlight the Nazi scheme to euthanize the handicapped and mentally ill, halting it at least temporarily. 

Father Utrecht describes the three great sermons Bishop von Galen preached in 1941 and includes long excerpts from each (you may read them all here): he opposed the actions of the Gestapo, the Nazi efforts to take over education and programs for the young (forcing everyone into the Nazi Youth groups), and the euthanasia programs to eradicate "life not worth living". After he preached those three sermons, some in the Nazi regime wanted to arrest and try von Galen for treason, but the Nazis feared unrest in his community and so as the blurb notes decided to wait until Germany and the Axis had won the war. The sermons inspired resistance, as the White Rose group attested, and Jewish readers were impressed by someone speaking out against the regime.

Father Utrecht also does not neglect the Bishop's opposition to what he saw as injustices committed by the occupying British and American forces after Germany's defeat. He was a proud German and he did not accept the notion that all Germans were guilty of the crimes against humanity committed by Hitler's Nazi Party. 

The last chapters of the book are remarkable: von Galen is named a Cardinal by Pope Pius XII and embarks on an incredibly difficult journey from Germany to Rome in postwar Europe, driving through floods, enduring car breakdowns, etc. He is welcomed a hero of resistance in Rome and praised by Pope Pius XII. Von Galen begins to feel a little ill on the way home, is welcomed rapturously by the people of Munster--and then becomes dangerously ill from an infection, has emergency surgery, and dies of peritonitis. He goes from the height of triumph to delirium and death in mere weeks!

The book is well-written, well-illustrated, and well-documented. Except for the gap of explaining how von Galen's cause for canonization began and proceeded, it's an excellent, sympathetic, and comprehensive biography.

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