In order to lead the sheep of His flock safely to the eternal fountains, Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted watchful and wise shepherds, the bishops, who would instruct them and warn them of dangers. To them we can apply the words addressed to the prophet Ezekiel: “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from Me” (Ez 33:7). And those announced to Jeremiah: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! […] I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing” (Jer 23:1, 4).
When Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, perhaps he did not suspect that he would encounter one of his fiercest enemies in a bishop of the Holy Church. He was a true shepherd, who alone took upon his shoulders the weight of God’s struggle against the reigning tyranny.
“Nec laudibus, nec timore”
The eleventh son of Count Ferdinand Heribert von Galen and Elisabeth von Spree, Clemens August von Galen was born on March 16, 1878, in Oldenburg, Germany. After completing his studies, in large part with the Jesuits, he was ordained a priest in 1904. Two years later he went to Berlin, where he exercised his ministry during the difficult days of the First World War. In 1929 he took over a parish in the city of Münster, until, in 1933, Pope Pius XI appointed him Bishop of that diocese.
His entire episcopal life was marked by the confrontation with Nazi ideology. And, coincidence or not, Providence seems to have wanted to emphasize this aspect of his mission. Von Galen governed the Diocese of Münster for the same length of time as Hitler’s rule: he was ordained bishop nine months after the Führer came to power and died approximately nine months after his death.
The new prelate’s episcopal motto summed up his dispositions: “Nec laudibus, nec timore.” Neither praise nor fear would change his rigid stance towards the aberrations perpetrated by the Berlin government.
At the head of the opposition
In fact, he soon took the lead in Catholic opposition to the regime. In 1934, a diocesan pastoral letter of this zealous shepherd denounced the erroneous theories of Alfred Rosenberg, one of the main ideologists of National Socialism, contained in his book The Myth of the 20th Century. This work touted the absolute supremacy of the Germanic race and the elimination of those outside of it, along with other doctrines of the Nazi worldview.
It was in fact “a new and harmful totalitarian ideology which puts race above morality, blood above law […], which repudiates Revelation, and seeks to destroy the foundations of Christianity.”1 The Bishop’s warning echoed widely among the clergy and the German people, having the salutary effect of opening their eyes to the condemnable aims of the National Socialist discourse.
A few months later Rosenberg publicly reviled the prelate during a party congress held in Münster, in an attempt to turn the people against him. But the courage of Bishop Clemens had already been demonstrated, and the defamatory words of the German theorist had an unexpected effect… The next day, the faithful took to the streets in support of their bishop, culminating in a procession of almost twenty thousand participants!
In September 1936, von Galen took advantage of the commemoration of the martyr St. Victor of Xanten2 to address the limits of the obedience due to the Reich. “How can the Church venerate the soldier Victor as a Saint? How can it present to us as a model a man who was executed […] for disobedience to the emperor?”3 What did the Bishop of Münster want to affirm? When authority demands what is contrary to right conscience, it loses the right to command, attacking God himself. Having transmitted this message, he concluded: “May God give us discernment and heroic strength; may we never through selfishness or vile fear of men consent to sin, tarnishing our conscience in order to gain or preserve the favour of powerful mortals.”4
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the German prelate was already known throughout much of Europe. However, his hardest blow against Hitler’s regime was yet to come. In mid-1941 he delivered three powerful sermons that further spread his fame and earned him the title of Lion of Münster.
A Sunday sermon…
Saturday, July 12, 1941. Bishop Clemens von Galen was informed about the occupation, by the Gestapo, of the Jesuit houses in Königstrasse and in Haus Sentmaring, and about the invasion of numerous convents of nuns, many of whom had suffered violence and insults.
Such actions were ruthless attacks against the flock entrusted to him. He had to do something. During that entire day, he remained restless and troubled. What measure should he take? He decided to preach during the Sunday sermon the next day against the injustices perpetrated by the Nazi regime. He would make his words a sword in defence of the faith and of the German people.
The Münster cathedral was packed with diocesan parishioners to attend Sunday Mass. Right from the start, he did not hesitate to denounce the infamous actions of Hitler’s police, who unjustly infringed on the rights of honest German citizens. And he recalled: “None of us is certain, even if he were in conscience the most honest and faithful citizen, that he will not be one day arrested in his own home, deprived of his freedom, shut up in the prisons or concentration camps of the secret police of the State. […] I am aware that today, or any other day, this can also happen to me.”5
However, as with the first Christians, neither prison nor death intimidated him: “In the name of the honourable German people, in the name of the majesty of justice, […] I raise my voice, as a German and an honest citizen, as a representative of the Christian Religion, as a Catholic bishop, and say: ‘We ask for justice!’”6
During the sermon, men and women rose to their feet in approval of the words they heard. Many even broke into tears. A Gestapo spy present at the scene reported that everyone became so impassioned and emotional that the church took on the appearance of a conference hall.
Aware of the risk he was running, after the ceremony von Galen asked his chaplain to send clothes, in case he went to prison. Back at his palace, everyone recommended that he take refuge elsewhere, but he did not acquiesce.
The effect of the denunciation was devastating. Many wanted to have a copy of his words, and in less than a week the nuncio in Berlin and all the bishops of the German nation became aware of the daring admonition of that anointed man of God.
One week later…
On July 20, in the church in Überwasser, the Lion of Münster made himself heard again. The church was packed again this Sunday, with people coming from as far away as Holland to listen to the indomitable prelate.
After once again condemning the seizure of various convents and the imprisonment of religious, he continued: “Solidarity with men who hunt our religious, our friars and nuns like rabbits, without juridical motives, without any charges and without the possibility of defence?… No! It is inconceivable to have communion of thought and sentiment with them, and with all those who are responsible.”7
Perhaps only those who lived through those days could measure this shepherd’s bravery. How many people remained silent for fear of being thrown into concentration camps for defying a regime that thought itself omnipotent? If the audacity of his preaching were not enough, von Galen sent copies of this latest address to the Reich government demanding justice!
Third sermon: the strongest blow against Nazism
Without doubt the third homily, on August 3, 1941, was the most important. Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist, later claimed that this sermon was “the strongest frontal attack that Nazism had received in all the years of its existence.”8
The bishop had learned of the Nazis’ secret plan for the extermination of the disabled, the elderly, the mentally ill and paralyzed children, all called “unproductive lives”.
People held their breath as they listened to that giant figure whose voice resounded like thunder throughout the cathedral:
“Today they are murdered, barbarically murdered, defenceless innocents […]. We are facing an unparalleled homicidal madness! […] With such persons, with murderers who arrogantly trample over our lives, we can no longer be a united people!”9
Before long, the Lion of Münster’s words rang out around the world, reaching even the soldiers at the front. Royal Air Force planes dropped hundreds of copies from the skies of Berlin! Such was the value of those addresses that their transcription became currency for goods. The Bishop of Münster became a model of intrepid faith in times of persecution, personifying the ideal of resistance.
“The von Galen affair”
As was to be expected, such attitudes earned him the hatred of the party leaders. The “von Galen case” was widely discussed at the top levels of the Reich in the following months. One of the SS chiefs went so far as to state: “This great traitor, and traitor to the nation, this pig is free and still takes the liberty of speaking against the Führer. He must be hanged.”10
But that was not the best solution for them. They knew that it would be harmful to make a martyr of von Galen, because his death would provoke the revolt of a large part of the German people, as well as causing dissension with the Vatican. Thus, the astute Goebbels advised Hitler to leave the case to be settled after the war. The Führer agreed and declared on July 4, 1942, that he would make him pay every last cent…
The impassive bishop, although he was spied on and suffered constant threats, maintained a serene attitude and continued to proclaim the truth openly.
Last years of the war and of his life
The last stage of his life coincided with the Allied advance towards Berlin. One of the cruel consequences of this was the bombing raids that ravaged several German cities, claiming the lives of innocent people. Münster was one of the places that suffered most from these attacks. It seemed as if the devil wanted to impose one last punishment on that great hero of the Faith.
On October 10, 1943, the sirens sounded in the city. A large part of the population took refuge in the cathedral, not suspecting that the sacred structure was precisely the target. As the American commander of the operation declared, this was the first time that the Allied armies had received orders to attack civilian targets…
When the alarms went off, Archbishop Clemens was in the Episcopal palace, donning his vestments to go to the cathedral. He did not have time to take refuge in the air-raid shelter when the shells began to explode. The bombs destroyed the entire residence, and he was left miraculously unharmed, leaning against the only wall that remained standing.
More than two hundred churches and several convents of the diocese were razed to the ground. The intrepid shepherd did not understand the reason for such destruction. As if the Nazi persecution were not enough, those who at first had come to restore peace ended up inflicting perhaps greater suffering on him.
Raised to the honour of the cardinalate
At the end of the war, on Christmas Eve 1945, Vatican Radio announced the elevation of Bishop Clemens von Galen to the cardinalate by Pope Pius XII. It was the explicit commendation of his actions, coming from the Chair of Peter.
According to the account of the priest designated as von Galen’s trainbearer, such was the veneration of all for him that “during the entrance of the Cardinals into St. Peter’s Basilica, when Clemens August appeared at the door, a murmur ran through the assembly. […] As his gigantic figure proceeded down the central nave, a hurricane of enthusiasm arose. The applause reached its peak the moment the Cardinal ascended to the throne of the Holy Father.”11
On March 16, 1946, more than fifty thousand faithful awaited the Cardinal’s return before the ruins of the cathedral, where he performed his last public act, addressing the crowd. Less than a week later, on March 22, he died at the age of sixty-eight as a result of appendicitis.
* * *
Benedict XVI beatified Cardinal Clemens August von Galen on October 9, 2005.
On that occasion, the German Pontiff shed light on the source of the intrepidity and courage that animated the Lion of Münster to oppose the tyranny that terrified the world: “He feared God more than men, and it was God who granted him courage to do and say what others did not dare to say and do. Thus, he gives us courage, he urges us to live the Faith anew today, and he also shows us how this is possible in things that are simple and humble, yet great and profound.”12 ◊
1 LÖFFLER, P. (Coord.). Bischof Clemens August Graf von Galen. Akten, Briefe und Predigten 1933-1946, apud FALASCA, Stefania. Un Obispo contra Hitler. El Beato von Galen y la resistencia al nazismo. Madrid: Palabra, 2008, p.109.
2 St. Victor, a Christian soldier of the 4th century, was killed for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods. His feast day is celebrated on October 10.
3 LÖFFLER, op. cit., p.35.
4 Idem, p.36.
5 FALASCA, op. cit., p.39.
6 Idem, p.223.
7 Idem, p.42.
8 Idem, p.43.
9 Idem, p.44.
10 Idem, p.48.
11 Idem, p.83.
12 BENEDICT XVI. Greetings at the end of the Eucharistic Concelebration for the Beatification of Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, 9/10/2005.