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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 1
Eastertide 2008

Blessed Clemens-August von Galen
"The Lion of Münster"
Courageous Defender of Faith & Life

Cardinal Clemens-August Graf von Galen oil portrait by Wilhelm Lautenbach, 1935- Dauerleihgabe des Stadtmuseums Münster.

by Joanna Bogle

This month marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of a German bishop whose name became well known to American and British people in World War II, and was much admired, especially by Catholics. In the post-war years he was forgotten, and has only recently returned to prominence.

He is Bishop Clemens-August von Galen, known as the “Lion of Münster”, and the reason he has recently returned to prominence is that he has now been beatified. I was present for his beatification in Rome in 2005 — and I believe that his story should be better known, as his life and message have an important significance for us today.

Born on March 16, 1878 into an ancient aristocratic family, Bishop (later Cardinal) von Galen would become the best-known of the German churchmen speaking out against the Nazis. He had spent the first years of his priesthood working among the poor in Berlin in the 1920s, and on his appointment as Bishop of Münster he became known for his personal austerity of life and his vigorous commitment to the needs of his diocese.

In the war years, he would become the leading German speaker and campaigner against the hideous Nazi euthanasia program, which saw men, women, and children in mental hospitals or long-term institutions taken away and killed.

The Church had started denouncing the persecution of the Jews as far back as 1933 when Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of Munich preached strongly against the Nazi anti-Jewish campaigns that were then starting. And in 1938, when synagogues were being attacked, the Chief Rabbi of Munich asked Cardinal Faulhaber for help, and he sent a truck to take the Torah scrolls and other precious objects to safety before a mob could reach the building. When this became known, a Nazi crowd gathered outside the cardinal’s residence, shrieking “Out with Faulhaber, the friend of Jews!”

In a pastoral letter in Lent 1934, Bishop von Galen forcibly denounced the National Socialist ideology as being heathen and offensive to God, and in a sermon two years later he spoke of people who had been killed for opposing Nazis: “There are in Germany today new graves containing the ashes of those on whom the German people look as martyrs”.

The Nazis were now beginning to close down Catholic organizations and to impose Nazi ideology in schools.

In January 1937 Bishop von Galen was among a group of German bishops who went to Rome to help prepare what became a crucial papal letter to the German people, Mit Brennender Sorge (“with burning anxiety”), begging them to turn away from National Socialism. [The letter, issued by Pope Pius XI in March 1937, is accessible on the Vatican web site. — Ed.]

But these actions were to no avail and the Nazi war machine rolled on. In 1941, the first hints emerged of the euthanasia program. It was the killing of the mentally ill and disabled that preceded the Nazis’ mass slaughter of Jewish people through which, eventually, millions would die. And the official National Socialist Government line was being imposed everywhere.

In his dramatic sermon at Saint Lambert’s Church in the summer of 1941, Bishop von Galen set the scene: “Religion has been banned from the schools, our organizations have been suppressed, and now Catholic kindergartens are about to be abolished — there is a deep-seated hatred of Christianity which they are determined to destroy”.

The killing of mentally handicapped people was now being authorized: “And why?” asked the bishop: “Because, in the judgement of some official, they have been deemed ‘unworthy to live’, because they are classed as ‘unproductive members of the national community.’ The judgement is that they can no longer produce any goods, they are like an old piece of machinery which no longer works…. If it is once admitted that men have the right to kill ‘unproductive’ fellow-men — even though it is at present only applied to poor and defenseless mentally ill patients — then the way is open to the murder of all unproductive men and women….”

Three major sermons by Bishop von Galen, all denouncing euthanasia and arbitrary arrests and killings, reached the Western Allies, were reprinted and dropped into Germany by the RAF and were mentioned in broadcasts from London. His language had been strong: “A curse on men and on the German people if we break the holy Commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’! Woe to us if we not only license this heinous offense but allow it to be committed with impunity”.

The bishop was placed under house arrest and only the Nazis’ fear of a major uprising in Westphalia if he were made into a martyr prevented his being taken to Dachau. Several hundred German priests were already in the concentration camp there and most would die before the end of the war: twenty-four priests from Bishop von Galen’s own diocese were arrested and he knew that it was because of his own activities rather than just their own that they had been made victims. Extraordinarily, because of the furor caused by Bishop von Galen’s sermons, the euthanasia program in Westphalia was stopped for a time.

The city of Münster was very heavily bombed and the cathedral and the bishop’s residence were largely destroyed. Like many others, he was homeless and had to find shelter outside the city, but was still under watch from the authorities.

At the end of the war, the bishop was honored by the Church by being made a cardinal, in what was widely seen as a gesture of goodwill towards the defeated Germans who were by then hungry and broken in the ruins of their destroyed cities. His health was by now poor and he lived only a month after going to Rome to receive the honor from Pope Pius XII in 1946. He was buried in his ruined cathedral.

The Blessed Cardinal von Galen’s legacy of courage and faith continues. Today one of his great-nieces runs a major German pro-life organization. Especially since his beatification in 2005, he is recognized as an inspiration to all who speak out in defense of the value of human life — a message badly needed as the threat of euthanasia looms again in our culture.

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.

RELATED: Pope Benedict XVI, On the Beatification of Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, October 9, 2005

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