An Ordinary Viewpoint

Bishops & Priests - XII

Wan and Weak

In his 1986 book, "The Ratzinger Report", (published by Ignatius Press), the future Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the journalist, Vittorio Messori, at some length about what he saw as certain drawbacks deriving from excessive and exaggerated importance sometimes being attributed to national or regional Bishops’ Conferences and to their undertakings. He said, for instance, "It happens that with some Bishops there is a certain lack of a sense of individual responsibility, and the delegation of his inalienable powers as shepherd and teacher to the structures of the local (Bishops’) conference leads to letting what should remain very personal lapse into anonymity. The group of Bishops united in the conferences depends in their decisions upon other groups, as for example, upon commissions (committees) that have been established to prepare draft proposals. It happens then that the search for agreement between different tendencies and the effort at mediation often yield flattened documents in which decisive positions, where they might be necessary, are weakened."

He then gave an example from the 1930’s in his native country of Germany. "Well, the really powerful documents against National Socialism (the Nazi doctrines) were those that came from individual courageous Bishops. The documents of the (Bishops’) Conference, on the contrary, were often rather wan and too weak with respect to what the tragedy called for."

Blessed Von Galen

There seems to be little doubt that one of the "individual and courageous Bishops" to which he referred was Blessed Clement August, Count (Graf) von Galen, whom he, as Pope Benedict XVI, beatified on October 9, 2005. Nick-named the "Lion of Munster", (the city where he was the Catholic Bishop from 1933 to 1946), Blessed Bishop von Galen spoke out and wrote heroically against the Nazi Party and against what it was doing to Germany. As Nazi diaries and other historical documents show, Hitler and his Party hated the Bishop, but were frightened of him because he came from the one of the most ancient and noble families in Germany, because of his life of conspicuous virtue and learning, as well as his famous German patriotism during the First World War, and because he was profoundly loved and esteemed by the Catholics of Westphalia. The Nazi SS kept demanding that Bishop von Galen be arrested and executed, but Hitler secretly promised that he would do this only after the war (World War II) to avoid causing a catastrophic uproar among German Catholics. Pope Pius XII knew and admired Bishop von Galen, praised his anti-Nazi sermons and writing, and discreetly encouraged and supported him. Immediately after the war at Christmas in 1945, the Pope announced that he would create him a Cardinal. The British troops in Munster tried to keep the Bishop from going to Rome, but he succeeded nonetheless and was created a Cardinal there in February of 1946. Because his personal fasting for peace during the war had been so severe and because the British occupation forces in Munster cruelly denied him any medicine, any decent food, and any heat for his house during the winter, he died a month after his return from Rome, on March 22, 1946.

More than Protests

Blessed Bishop von Galen was basically a kind, gentle, and loving pastor of souls. He was hardworking and dedicated to helping the poor in his Diocese and beyond. However, he became famous for his outspoken courage, conviction, and resolution. He was always a fierce anti-Communist and maintained that stance during and after the Second World War, regarding Stalinism as intrinsically evil as Hitler’s views. He strongly and publicly denounced the Nazi policies on euthanasia, Gestapo terror, forced sterilization, and the entire apparatus of the concentration camps. He fought and ridiculed the Nazi racial ideology, and he particularly opposed the Nazi attacks on the Old Testament because of its Jewish authorship and significance. He loudly proclaimed what Pope Pius XI had said when he condemned Nazism in the encyclical letter "Mit Brennender Sorge": "Spiritually we are all Semiites". Bishop von Galen also protested, largely in vain, against the desecration of Catholic churches by the regime, and the arrest of priests and religious, often under bogus accusations and falsehoods, the forced closing of convents and monasteries, etc. He condemned the indiscriminate Allied bombing of civilians and the killing of innocent women and children, but he said, at the same time, "the German people are not being destroyed by Allied bombing from the outside as much as from the negative forces within the country," that is, the Nazis who, he said, "were doing away with the fifth commandment." He said "the Nazi regime was undermining justice and reducing the German people to a state of permanent fear, even cowardice." He cried out: "As a German, as a citizen, I demand justice!"

He struggled hard and long to maintain the Catholic schools in his Diocese and to continue Catholic religion instruction for all the Catholic youth free from the totalitarian intrusion of the Nazi Party which demanded total control of all aspects of the education and formation of young people. Von Galen’s sermons against the Nazi ideology were secretly reprinted and circulated throughout Germany and even beyond by various underground groups. Among those who read them with intense interest in those war years was a Polish seminarian in Krakow named Karol Wojtyla. Von Galen’s words during the war were the inspiration of the well known anti-Nazi resistance group called "The White Rose". Toward the end of the war he was kept under house arrest by the Gestapo, until the Allied victory freed him.

Post War

As the war was drawing to a close and Germany was facing utter destruction, some of his attention turned to the Allies and their behavior. In an interview after the war he told a British newspaper correspondent. "Just as I fought against Nazi injustices, so I will fight any injustice wherever it comes from." He protested loudly, publicly, and clearly against the forced starvation of the German people by the Allies at the war’s end, against the thousands of rapes of German women and girls by not only the Russians, but also by many British and American soldiers, and against the plundering of peoples’ homes. He said there was "widespread ransacking of homes already destroyed by bombs, the pillaging and destruction of houses and farms by armed bands of robbers, the murder of many defenseless men, along with numerous rapes by bestial lechers." The British authorities tried to punish him for talking and writing that way by confiscating his car and taking away his ration card which was the only way he was enabled to buy any food, but this did not daunt him. He said many of the postwar horrors perpetrated upon the German people "found justification in erroneous and hate-filled Allied propaganda based on the false view that all Germans are criminals and deserve the most severe punishment, including death and extermination." He told the Allies that he and other anti-Nazi Germans demanded punishment for all Nazi war criminals, but he pleaded for mercy for the German prisoners of war who for many months were not allowed even to contact their families. He also begged, without effect, for justice for the millions of innocent Germans expelled from former parts of Germany which were annexed after the war by the Communist governments of Poland and the Soviet Union. After his death it was discovered that he often had pleaded (and sometimes met with success) for the lives of many Allied prisoners held by the Nazis who had been condemned for one reason or another to be shot. Blessed Clement August, Count von Galen, pray for us!

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