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Catholic Heroes . . . Blessed Rupert Mayer, SJ

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By DEB PIROCH

Fr. Rupert Mayer is also known as “The Limping Priest,” because of a World War I injury he sustained. Fr. Mayer was German, and the “Apostle of Munich” was an army chaplain who was raised actually in Stuttgart, then attended the seminary in Switzerland. He was ordained in 1899, joined the Jesuit order in 1900, and, after the novitiate, went to the Netherlands for more study from 1906-1911. For a year, he journeyed in three nations as a priest, before being assigned to a parish in Munich, ministering largely to migrants.
However, with the advent of World War I, he volunteered to be an army chaplain, and after a brief hospital assignment he was sent to the trenches. He became legendary for crawling from soldier to soldier, speaking to them and administering the sacraments. For his bravery, he was the first such chaplain to be awarded the Iron Cross, in 1915. The Prussian black cross may look grim, but it actually takes its roots from the Knights of the Teutonic Order, the Christian military order Crusaders founded in the twelfth century to protect Christians going to the Holy Land.
In 1916, while at the front, Mayer was injured when a grenade blew off his left leg. Although sent home to heal and continue as a priest, he thereafter limped. The following publication published an account from the doctor present when Fr. Mayer lost his leg (Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, volume 35, n. 137 [March 1946]):
“Pater [Fr.] Mayer had never asked for medical attendance from me. It was a black day for the division when he came to stand in need of our services….Four stretcher-bearers from the Red Cross arrived almost simultaneously, coming from the opposite direction. A beautiful Scotch sheep-dog with a red cross on his collar, who has been in the habit of accompanying Pater Mayer on his rounds, was dashing distracted backwards and forwards in front of the closed door, perpetually scared back by the shells. In the hut the floor was unboarded; the priest lay wrapped in a cloak in a pool of blood. His face and hands were corpse-like, but his whole appearance had taken on a boyish youthfulness.
“The smile with which he greeted us was clear and intelligent. It gave us — what we needed — the proper courage for our task….The man who lay on that blood-stained floor still kept, in that miserable condition, his air of singular command over himself. We felt that his life was ordered according to a plan, that the possibility of the present misfortune had been taken into account and was most certainly not entered up as a loss. I never realized more clearly than now the difference between the man whose fierce instincts keep him as it were a prisoner of life and the man who has renounced the world, translating his urges into terms of the spiritual.
“When we ordinary people take our leave of this life, there remains always as it were a balance of something not quite clarified, not fully worked out. This man of God soared heavenwards like a Bach sonata in which the theme, called forth out of the mysterious deeps of the creative, is developed in movements of simple splendor.”
Again, back in Munich by God’s Providence, this was no accident. He initiated a mission called the “Bahnhofsmission,” dedicated to having Masses at train stations, and serving the needs of travelers. He said Mass at the Jesuit church, St. Michael’s, a baroque masterpiece finished after 14 years and consecrated in 1597, dedicated to celebrating the victory of Bavarian Catholicism over the Protestant Reformation.
This would also become a center from which Fr. Mayer would fight the Nazi regime. He spoke out beginning in 1933, when Hitler became chancellor, as Catholicism was in no way compatible with National Socialism. As Munich is a great city center, the Nazis took notice and put Fr. Mayer on notice, forbidding him to speak further. This was still before Kristallnacht, or the “Night of the Broken Glass,” and it was also in advance of the invasion of Poland. But in defiance of the Gestapo, Fr. Mayer continued to preach against the Third Reich.
Thus began a series of arrests by the Gestapo. The one-legged priest was arrested June 5, 1937, the first time for six weeks, imprisoned in Stadelheim’s prison. As he was allowed on his release to continue speaking from the pulpit, as the Jesuits felt he had the right to answer accusations by the Gestapo, he was re-arrested and imprisoned for five months. Then, after roughly a year, he would be re-arrested a third time. On November 3, 1939, his diocese made an announcement without a trial. He was simply apprehended and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
The laws from the 1800s forbidding priests from making political statements were the excuse they used. However, he was released a year later after developing heart problems, because the Nazis were afraid he would die and become a martyr for the cause. He was given no warning beyond an hour or less that he was to be moved, and when told thought he might be shot, he simply said a prayer while he waited. However, now aged 63, he was sent to Ettal Monastery, on the condition that he was not allowed to speak publicly.
This was a great cross for him, greater than prison, actually. But he felt that to leave or violate this imposed silence would endanger those entrusted with his care. So, he prayed and stayed silent for four years. Especially beautiful, during his imprisonments, those who loved him kept his confessional covered in flowers (The Catholic Church Through the Ages — A History, by John Vidmar).
The year following, in May 1945, the Allies liberated Germany and Fr. Mayer returned to Munich. Then on the Feast of All Saints, November 1, 1945, he died on his feet, literally, experiencing a stroke while celebrating the 8 a.m. Mass. At his death, he was already considered a saint. His tomb had to be moved as there were so many mourners visiting. Within six years his cause for beatification was sent to Rome. Within eleven years, Pope Pius XII — who has known him as Papal Nuncio of Germany before the Second World War — pronounced his “heroic virtue” and his canonization cause began. Pope John Paul II would be the one to actually beatify him, in 1987. Today we pray to Blessed Rupert Mayer, who is indeed the “Apostle of Munich.” His feast day is May 3.
In the book Dying We Live, authors Kathe Kuhn, Helmut Gollwitzer, and Reinhold Schneider (2009) state that in suffering Fr. Mayer often turned to his favorite prayer, by St. Augustine:

Lord, as thou wilt, so shall it be with me,
And as thou wilt, so shall I take my way;
Help thou that I may understand thy will.

Lord, whene’er thou wilt, the time has come,
And whenso’er thou wilt, I stand prepared,
Today and into all eternity.

Lord, whate’er thou wilt, I will endure,
And what thou wilt shall be a gain to me;
It is enough for me to be thine own.

Lord, because thou wilt it, it is good,
And since thou wilt it, courage comes to me;
My heart, O Lord rest wholly in thy hands.

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