Book Spotlight #1: The Lion of Münster

The value of the human person – does it derive from being productive, healthy in mind and body, or a belonging to a particular race? Or, is it because we are created in God’s image and likeness? The Lion of Münster brings this clash of ideologies to the forefront. Clemens August von Galen was elevated to the bishop’s throne of Münster shortly after the Nazi takeover. The Nazis did not veto Rome’s choice of von Galen, thinking perhaps that he would be manageable. Oh man, were they mistaken!



Genre: Biography

Author: Daniel Utrecht of the Oratory

Length: 424 Pages, Illustrated with photos

Publisher: TAN Books, 2016

Who Was Blessed Von Galen?

Clemens August von Galen was born into the nobility, the eleventh of thirteen children in Dinklage, Germany, on March 16, 1878. His parents created a very warm, devout, yet disciplined household. They also fostered a spirit of justice and charity towards less fortunate persons. For example, the mother and daughters made clothing by hand for poor families. Education was a major priority along with cultivating their Catholic faith. Mass in the family chapel began each day at seven a.m. If a son was late to serve Mass, he received no butter on his breakfast bread. Nonetheless, the family was very close-knit and enjoyed life together. Clemens grew to a commanding 6 feet 7 inches.

Education and Priesthood

Von Galen’s rigorous education served him 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 Austria, where the students spoke only Latin. He studied 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. His first assignment was as an assistant to the bishop, providing him excellent training for his future episcopal ministry. Before that elevation, however, he had to learn the humble duties of a parish priest.

From 1906 to 1929, von Galen served in the parishes of St. Clements and St. Mathias in Berlin. He established soup kitchens and clothing drives for the poor, earning him the title of Papa Galen. He placed much emphasis on educating the young. His life as priest was austere but he refused to give up his pipe, even during Lent. He spent his entire inheritance of 80,000 marks toward establishing a chapel and housing for the Young Catholic Worker’s movement. In 1929, his bishop called him back to Münster to become the pastor of St. Lambert’s Church.

Bishop of Münster (1933-1945)

In 1933, Pope Pius XI named Von Galen bishop of Münster. He took as his episcopal motto, Nec Laudibus, Nec Timore, “Neither by praises, nor by fear.” It well expressed his character for the next twelve years, as nothing could intimidate him. From the start, he showed himself fearless in confronting the Nazis. For example, one week after his consecration, he sent a letter to the Münster superintendent of schools, as the doctrine of Aryan superiority stained every school subject. Under compulsion, teachers emphasized how the Jews damaged German culture in all respects.

Battles Against the Nazis

Von Galen strenuously protested this dangerous ideology. He reminded the authorities of the Concordat between the Nazis and Vatican, which guaranteed immunity from Nazi teachings in Catholic schools. They thought best to ignore him, but 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, at least for a time.

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, the corrupting influence of Judaism, 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 and courage of Bishop von Galen made a huge impression on the Catholics of Münster. They were ecstatic that a true leader brought Nazi errors into clear daylight. In 1937, Pope Pius XI invited von Galen 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.” While despised by the Nazis, von Galen’s popularity grew exponentially but among his own flock.

Three Powerful Sermons

Bishop von Galen delivered three blistering sermons against the Nazis in the summer of 1941. The first sermon came in response to the forced removal of religious priests, nuns, and monks from their monasteries in Münster. Though Nazi spies infiltrated the packed church of St. Lambert’s on Sunday, July 3, the bishop was not dismayed.

His secretary, Fr. Heinrich Portmann, 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 mentioned that tears rolled down the bishop’s face as he spoke.

“We Are the Anvil, Not the Hammer”

One week later, July 20, 1941, von Galen delivered his second great sermon. He stressed that the enemy was in their own country: While these German men [priests and monks in the army], 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.

Be tough! Keep steadfast!, he exhorted the faithful. He told them that presently, 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.

Worthless Life?

The master plan of the Nazis involved the removal of persons whom they considered worthless: the mentally ill, those with birth defects, such as Down Syndrome, cripples, and the old and infirm. They believed these persons were not productive to the Reich and therefore expendable. Accordingly, the Gestapo targeted institutes devoted to the care of these individuals.

One such institute was Marienthal, run by nursing 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 making lists of persons who were thought worthless. Those considered undesirable found themselves on a train to certain death. One brave nun, Sr. Laudeberta, rescued as many as she could. One night, she secretly made her way to the bishop’s residence to inform him of the situation.

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 the innocent 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 asks how some official could put to death an innocent person simply on the grounds of being unproductive? He makes this withering 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: 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?

No, we are dealing with people, our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters!

Nazi logic turned against itself as the Bishop questioned if permanently disabled soldiers would 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.

Untouchable Lion?

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 sought the bishop’s death. Joseph Goebbels, mastermind of Nazi propaganda and one of Hitler’s closest advisers, prevented this course of action. 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 post war matter. In the joy of victory, the Nazis would confiscate all church property and destroy enemies to the nation. Revenge is a dish best served cold, Goebbels fiendishly mused.

The War Ends – The Battle Continues (1945-46)

The War ends, the Nazis lose, but von Galen’s campaign against injustice continues. The Allied forces kept the German citizens on near starvation rations; soldiers were looting homes and offices; former Russian prisoners of war were raping German women continually. Sadly, 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, the Pope chose Von Galen 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 near impossible. Nonetheless, the bishops made the journey through some harrowing moments.

Von Galen was an international celebrity before he even entered the Eternal City. 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 roared through 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 assured them 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.

Final Assessment

This book brings the real life battle between good and evil into sharp relief. On the one hand, the stories are super tragic, particularly in the loss of innocent life and the senseless bombing of Münster near the War’s end. On the other hand, it is exceptionally well written and one feels drawn into the battle. By the end of the book, it’s difficult to not overflow with admiration for Bishop von Galen. In sum, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years and I highly recommend it. The issues involved, especially the value of human life, are extremely relevant.

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