Blessed Clemens August von Galen, the Untouchable Lion of Münster
Bishop von Galen knows full well that after the war I shall extract retribution to the least farthing.— Adolf Hitler
Why should the Führer and several leading Nazis want the Catholic bishop of Münster removed, preferably hanged? Because the good bishop defied Nazi ideology from the pulpit, he attacked them with the printed word and confronted them in person. His incisive sermons spread all over Germany, even reaching soldiers on distant fronts. Moreover, the Allied forces got hold of them and dropped them from airplanes by the tens of thousands. Remarkably, Bishop Clemens August von Galen survived all twelve years of the wicked regime. Seventy-five years later, his words still awaken feelings of deep indignation against the Nazi mentality.
A Beautiful Upbringing
Clemens August von Galen was born the eleventh of thirteen children in Dinklage, Germany, on March 16, 1878. His family was of noble lineage and well-respected in Westphalia. Their home was very spacious, though not altogether comfortable as it lacked both running water and heat. When von Galen grew to a commanding six feet seven inches, he often bumped his head on its ceiling beams.
His parents surrounded their children with great love and joy, but they also instilled strong discipline. Mass in the family chapel began each morning at seven a.m. If a son were late to serve at the altar, he would receive no butter on his breakfast bread; if he missed Mass altogether, he had to forego breakfast as well. Nonetheless, the family was very close-knit and enjoyed various activities together.
The parents fostered a keen sense of justice and charity towards less fortunate persons; the mother and daughters, for instance, made clothing by hand for poor families. They were also deeply religious, with prayers and meditation led each evening by the father, Ferdinand. He sought to give his children a very thorough education.
Von Galen’s education served him very well later, when he dismantled Nazi ideology with inexorable logic. He was first home-schooled until twelve years of age; he then attended Stella Matutina, a renowned Jesuit boarding school in Feldkirch, Austria, where he spoke only Latin. He continued his education in philosophy at the Catholic University of Freiburg for one year, when he discerned that God was calling him to the priesthood. He subsequently studied theology at the University of Innsbruck and finished his schooling at the Münster seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 24, 1904, in vestments made by his mother. His first assignment was as an assistant to the bishop, providing him excellent training for his future role as a bishop. Before that honor, however, he had to learn the demands of a parish priest.
Papa Galen - Berlin (1906-1929)
As a young priest in Berlin, he served in the parishes of St. Clements and St. Mathias. He established soup kitchens and clothing drives for the poor and sick, earning him the title of Papa Galen. He placed much emphasis on educating the young. His manner of life was simple and austere; nonetheless, he refused to give up his pipe, even during Lent, as he felt unable to work otherwise.
He was also involved with the Young Catholic Worker’s movement. Seeing their need for housing and a chapel, he strove to raise money for them through a lottery. When this effort failed, he spent his entire inheritance of 80,000 marks toward the project (approximately $650,000 in 1911 currency). In 1929, his bishop called him back to Münster to become the pastor of St. Lambert’s Church. In 1933, Pope Pius XI named him bishop of Münster.
Bishop of Münster (1933-1945)
Von Galen became the 70th bishop of Münster on October 28, 1933. He took as his episcopal motto, Nec Laudibus, Nec Timore, “Neither by praises, nor by fear.” It perfectly expressed his shepherdly role for the next twelve years. No drooling wolf made him shrink from the responsibility of keeping his flock true to the faith. From the start, he showed himself fearless in confronting Nazi errors. One week after his consecration, he sent a letter to the Münster superintendent of schools. The doctrine of racial superiority had tainted every school subject. Teachers were required to emphasize how the Jews damaged all levels of German culture.
Von Galen made it clear to the superintendent that these teachings would confuse the children. He also reminded him of the Concordat which the Nazis signed with the Vatican. This treaty guaranteed, among other things, immunity from Nazi indoctrination in Catholic schools. True to form, the bishop received no reply. Disregard to protests would reoccur in the coming years. Nonetheless, von Galen did not back down so easily. His persistence led to a three way meeting between the mayor, bishop, and superintendent, resulting in a peaceable agreement.
Alfred Rosenberg and Neo-Paganism
For the first six months of his episcopacy, Bishop von Galen kept his protests low key. This was the protocol of Cardinal Adolf Bertram, head of the German bishops, who sought to combat Nazi ideology unobtrusively. However, with the publication of The Myth of the 20th Century by Nazi theorist, Alfred Rosenberg, von Galen went public. Rosenberg proposed the superiority of the Aryan race and the corrupting influence of Judaism; he rejected original sin in the Nordic race and therefore the need for a Savior; he disavowed the immortality of the soul and sought to revive pre-Christian paganism.
Bishop von Galen’s first pastoral letter on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1934, forcefully addressed these views. The priests of the diocese read the Bishop’s letter from the pulpit at every Mass. Von Galen refuted Rosenberg’s theories point by point, and told his flock that, “a deception of hell is here, that could lead even the good into error.” Both the words of Bishop von Galen and especially his courage made a huge impression on the Catholics of Münster. They received it with joy; here was a true leader who brought Nazi errors into clear daylight. In 1937, Pope Pius XI invited him along with four other German bishops to discuss the situation in Germany. The result was the only encyclical letter ever written in German, Mit brennender Sorge, “With Burning Concern.” His willingness to call black, “black,” and white, “white,” made him despised by the Nazis, but among his flock, his popularity grew exponentially.
Life as a Bishop
The deep piety learned in his parent’s home carried straight into his adult life. Though very busy, he celebrated Mass and prayed the liturgy of the hours each day. In addition, he periodically made an eight-mile pilgrimage on foot to the Shrine of the Sorrowful Mother at Telgte. Even with a reputation for being lion-like against his enemies, among his flock he was a beloved shepherd.
Children felt at ease around him, as he seemed to be a gentle giant. He likewise made an effort to know the seminarians better and invited a different one to breakfast each day. This gave him an opportunity to understand the thoughts of the younger generation. Visitations to the parishes were frequent as he administered the sacraments of Confirmation and first Holy Communion. However, his legacy as a bishop remains his defense of human dignity: sermons, pastoral letters, and the printed word poured forth, as he untiringly fought for justice.
“We Demand Justice!”
Bishop von Galen delivered three brutal sermons against the Nazis in the summer of 1941. The first came in response to the forced removal of priests, brothers, and nuns from their respective monasteries in Münster. When the news first came to him, he went fuming to the scene. He rebuked the Gestapo for being thieves and robbers. Up to this point, he had not spoken publicly against injustices; as he made his way home he said, “Now, I can be silent no longer.”
Though Nazi spies infiltrated the packed church of St. Lambert’s on Sunday, July 3, the bishop was not dismayed. Fr. Heinrich Portmann, von Galen’s secretary, describes his delivery; “That tall pastoral figure stood forth full of solemn dignity; his voice had a sound of thunder as the words fell on the ranks of the spellbound hearers, some trembling, some gazing up at him with tears in their eyes. Protest, indignation, fiery enthusiasm followed each other in successive waves.” The Gestapo report on the sermon said that tears rolled down the bishop’s face as he spoke.
His fury is understandable: brute force drove innocent and conscientious citizens out of their homes for no justifiable reason. His courage to speak is truly heroic as the Nazi regime ruled by intimidation. Those suspected of being a threat to the government were murdered or mysteriously disappeared. While most persons cowered in the shadows, afraid to utter a peep against the abuse of power, such was not the case with Bishop von Galen. “In the name of the majesty of justice” he shouted, “and in the interests of peace and the solidarity of the home front I lift up my voice in protest; I proclaim loudly as a German man, as an honorable citizen, as a minister of the Christian religion, as a Catholic bishop: ‘We demand justice!”’
“We Are the Anvil, Not the Hammer”
One week later, July 20, 1941, Bishop von Galen delivered his second great sermon. With the continuing closure of monasteries, he brought home the injustice by examples that the people could well understand. He noted the forced removal of the priests and brothers presently living in the provincial house of the Hiltrup Missionaries. He made a special emphasis of those presently living there, because “From the ranks of the Hiltrup Missionaries there are at present, as I have been reliably informed, 161 men serving as German soldiers in the field, some of them directly in the face of the enemy!” Many of these soldiers had already received the Iron Cross, the highest honor for a German soldier.
Von Galen named several other monasteries that had men at the front, but stressed that the enemy was in their own country: “While these German men, obedient to their duty, fight for their homeland at the risk of their lives, in loyal comradeship with the other German brothers, back in their fatherland their home is ruthlessly taken away without any just cause; their monastic father house is destroyed.” Von Galen noted that if these soldiers returned victorious, they would find their home occupied by strangers and enemies.
“Be tough! Keep steadfast!” he exhorted the faithful. He told them that present moment, “We are the anvil, not the hammer.” The blacksmith is forging the good German people through persecution; like a sturdy anvil, they must remain strong and stubborn. The anvil fulfills its purpose by remaining immovable under the blows of the hammer.
The overarching plan of the Nazis involved the creation of a “master race.” Accordingly, they classified persons with birth defects, the mentally ill, cripples, and the old and infirm, as worthless. They believed these persons were not productive to the nation and therefore expendable. Consequently, the Gestapo began targeting institutes dedicated to the care of these individuals.
One such institute was Marienthal, run by nursing nuns called the “Clemens Sisters.” This house had 1,050 patients, varying in degrees of infirmity. Members of the Nazi party took up positions there as care providers. In reality, they were there to make lists, indicating who was worthy of life and who was not. Those considered “worthless” found themselves on a train to certain death. One brave nun, Sr. Laudeberta, rescued as many as she could. One night, she stealthily made her way to the bishop’s residence to inform him of what was happening.
On Sunday, August 3, 1941, the bishop once again took up his position at the pulpit of St. Lambert’s Church. His outcry against the senseless killing of innocent persons is tragically beautiful. He employs such fitting examples, that Jesus' words come to mind: “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” (LK 21:15) Indeed, Goebbels considered this sermon, “the most violent frontal attack on Nazism since it began to exist.”
Von Galen inquires how some official could put to death an innocent person simply on the grounds of being unproductive? He makes this devastating comparison: “They are like an old machine that does not work anymore; they are like an old horse that has become incurably lame; they are like a cow that no longer gives milk. What does one do with such old machines? They are scrapped. What does one do with a lame horse or unproductive cow?” A farmer justifiably kills such animals when no longer useful. His logic is irrefutable: these persons are not comparable to old machines, cows, and horses. “No, we are dealing with people, our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters! Poor people, sick people, unproductive people, granted! But does that mean they have lost the right to life?”
Nazi logic turned against itself as the Bishop questioned, would permanently disabled soldiers be safe upon returning home? In fact, the sermon caused such public outrage among Germans, that the Nazis did something unthinkable: they suspended the euthanasia program.
Was Bishop von Galen Untouchable?
Following the sermon against euthanasia, the Nazis were like a hornet nest pelted with stones. Several high officials, such as Walter Tiessler and even Hitler himself wanted him dead. The person who prevented this was Joseph Goebbels, mastermind of Nazi propaganda and one of Hitler’s closest advisers. He feared that the bishop’s popularity was such that if he were removed, “The support of the people of Münster for the rest of the war can be written off. And you can probably add the whole of Westphalia.” He convinced his comrades that revenge was a matter for after the war. In the joy of victory, the Nazis would confiscate all church property and liquidate all enemies to the nation. “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” Goebbels fiendishly mused.
The War Ends- The Battle Continues (1945-46)
Von Galen survived his twelve-year campaign against the Nazis but his battles were not over yet. The occupying forces kept the German citizens on near starvation rations; soldiers were looting homes and offices; Russian prisoners of war were raping German women at an alarming rate; there was a growing belief in the collective guilt of the German populace. Von Galen fought these injustices to the dismay of the occupying authorities, who asked him to retract his statements. The bishop refused, saying that he fought injustice regardless of its source.
College of Cardinals
At Christmas 1945, Von Galen received a welcome joy: the Pope chose him and two other German bishops to join the ranks of the cardinals. Unfortunately, going to the Rome for the ceremony seemed to be an insurmountable challenge. German money was worthless and transportation was very difficult. Nonetheless, the bishops made the journey through some harrowing moments.
Before he even arrived in the Eternal City, Von Galen was an international celebrity. It was at this time that he earned the memorable title of the Lion of Münster. The Italians were expecting a somewhat terrifying fighter, but found rather a gentle giant with fatherly eyes. When the moment arrived for the Pope to place the red hat upon him, a tsunami of applause thundered throughout St. Peter’s Basilica for several minutes. After the ceremony, the Cardinal traveled to the south of Italy to visit three camps of German POWs. He brought comfort and the assurance that he was working for their release. The prisoners stuffed his clothing with messages for loved ones back home.
An Early Death
Unfortunately, this act of charity may have caused his early death. According to Fr. Portmann, ministering to the prisoners may have infected von Galen with a virus that weakened his system. The actual cause for his death on March 22, 1946, however, was peritonitis resulting from a ruptured appendix. His last words were, “God’s will be done. May God reward you. God protect the dear fatherland. Continue to work for Him. O, dear Savior!”
On October 9, 2005, the Catholic Church beatified von Galen, which is the final step before canonization. The miracle required for his beatification involved the sudden cure of a twelve-year-old Indonesian boy in 1991. As the boy was dying from a ruptured appendix, a German missionary sister was at his side, praying to von Galen. The boy fully recovered. In anticipation of the beatification, authorities opened von Galen’s tomb in 2005. His features were still recognizable and his vestments were in excellent condition. Blessed Clemens August von Galen: untouched by the Nazis and untouched by death; may the memory of this great man live forever.
The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis, by Daniel Utrecht of the Oratory. Tan books, 2016.
The Priest Barracks, Dachau, 1938-1945, by Guillaume Zeller, Ignatius Press, 2017
An article on Blessed Clemens August von Galen
An article on Catholic bishops in Nazi Germany
An article on Mit brennender Sorge
An article on Catholic resistance in Nazi Germany
Four sermons in defiance of the Nazis by Blessed Clemens August
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