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Catholic Heroes . . . Cardinal Von Galen, “The Lion Of Munster”

June 8, 2021 saints No Comments


As efforts to combat unorthodoxy in Germany continue, we would do well to remember another German of the era of the Second World War, one who remains an eternal witness for us today. Just over a year ago, Germany’s Constitution Court determined physician assisted suicide is constitutional. Until recently, any form of euthanasia has been highly taboo, given “Aktion T4,” the program which Germans know as Hitler’s widespread euthanasia campaign. The program terminated anyone seen as unfit — the handicapped, sick and elderly, even babies.
“The Lion of Munster,” Blessed Clemens August Cardinal von Galen, would have bellowed loudly against the Constitution Court. Made bishop of the diocese named for the German town in 1933, he was fearless in speaking out against Hitler and the Third Reich. Appropriately, the second German Pope in our Church’s history, Benedict XVI, beatified him in October 2005. On that occasion, Pope Benedict said:
“Whence came the courage [Von Galen] had to resist, in a time when [even] strong men showed themselves weak and cowardly? From the faith, which opened his heart and vision to reality, for he feared God more than man.”
The many who ignorantly state that the Church did nothing to stem Hitler would be well advised to begin by studying Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”). The famed encyclical, issued under Pope Pius XI in 1937, was crafted chiefly by five men. One of the men was the future Venerable Pope Pius XII, another was Blessed Cardinal von Galen. Two years before Hitler invaded Poland, the Church had warned:
“Should men who are not even united by the faith in Christ come to offer you the seduction of a national German church, be convinced that it is nothing” — Passion Sunday, 1937.
Four years before, Bishop von Galen was the first bishop consecrated under Hitler. His motto was: “Nec laudibus, nec timore” (“Neither praise nor threats will distance me from God”). He began by issuing a famous condemnation of so-called racial purity.
But the bishop is especially remembered for a series of three homilies he gave in 1941, after which the Germans kept him under virtual house arrest until the end of the War. The first protested Nazi terror tactics against its own people, the second the persecution by the Gestapo of Catholicism and its institutions. The third concerned the government’s “Aktion T4” program: state-sanctioned euthanasia. Afterward, he telegraphed the soon-to-be famous text to Hitler himself.
Nor was this Bishop von Galen’s only direct communication with those in power; his sermons mention that he frequently did not hesitate to go straight to the German Reich to protest. Tragically, German euthanasia began in 1939 when the father of a deformed child asked Hitler for permission to kill his own child. Hitler agreed, and thus another heinous program undermining the sanctity of human life at all ages was born.
The numbers killed under this program are guesswork, as historians estimate widely, from 75,000-300,000. However, the sermon raised such horror and publicity it embarrassed the Nazis, who continued but tried to hide the unpopular program from such open view.
Meanwhile, Galen’s homilies were secretly printed in Munster and elsewhere and used to encourage the underground resistance. It is said that members of “The White Rose” — the famed student group whose leaders were eventually caught and beheaded by the Gestapo — were among those copying von Galen’s materials, which they distributed in Munich. Galen’s text was also dropped as pamphlets by British Royal Air Force pilots on German troops.
Count von Galen was born the eleventh of thirteenth children to a family of nobility, his full birth name being Clemens Augustinus Emmanuel Joseph Pius Anthonius Hubertus Marie Graf von Galen (1878-1946). Faith formation in his family was not to be underestimated. According to Fr. Daniel Utrecht’s book on Blessed Cardinal von Galen, six of his uncles were priests, two aunts were nuns. His cousin was Konrad Cardinal von Preysing. Going back to the eighteenth century, one relative who was discovered had even been bishop of three dioceses, Cologne, Regensburg, and Munster. Perhaps it was in the DNA!
Clemens’ devout parents started each family day with Mass, ending with the rosary. Formed largely under Jesuit education, Clemens had a vocation and was ordained a diocesan priest in 1904.
After an assigned time in Berlin, he was sent to Munster, where another relative had served previously as an auxiliary bishop. He was not there long before he was proposed as the next bishop. The papal nuncio actually objected, as the future Bishop von Galen was so plain in speaking, but thankfully the nuncio was overruled. Von Galen was known to be anti-socialist, anti-Communist, anti-Bolshevik, and anti-modernist — for a start.
He was also sympathetic to the suffering of the German people, having endured with them through World War I. The six-foot, seven-inch bishop must have presented an imposing figure at the pulpit! The Nazis many times wished him hanged, but Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, was among those who interceded. The Nazis did not want a martyr, nor had any wish to arouse the ire of regional Catholics. Instead, they planned his execution at the end of the war.
After the German defeat, Pope Pius XII raised von Galen to the level of cardinal, during one of only two consistories Pius XII held due to the war years. Cardinal von Galen died approximately one month after receiving the red hat, aged only 68. He was buried in what were then the bombed ruins of Munster Cathedral.
The cardinal’s cause for canonization began in 1956. The miracle involved the curing of a boy dying from a ruptured appendix. A German missionary sister was with him at the time, praying, and he recovered. By way of comparison, von Galen himself died of complications related to a ruptured appendix. It is said that 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!”
Let us pray to Blessed Cardinal von Galen, during these times when both euthanasia and the Church’s very survival are threatened worldwide. And let us cry out the words he used fearlessly in his third famous homily of 1941:
“It concerns poor men, sick men . . . unproductive men. Have you, have I only a right to life, as long as we are productive or recognized as such by others? When the law is used to kill unproductive fellowmen, then woe betide us all, when we are old and weak! If one may kill unproductive fellowmen, then woe betide invalids who set their healthy bones to work, only to sacrifice and lose their health. If one can violently do away with unproductive fellowmen, woe betide our badly wounded, brave soldiers, returned crippled to the homeland.”
For those who wish to learn more, consider reading TAN Books’ offering: The Lion of Munster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis by Fr. Daniel Utrecht.

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