The Courageous Witness of “The Lion of Münster”

Light of truth

The Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen (16 March 1878 – 22 March 1946) was a German count, Bp of Münster, and cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. During World War II, Galen led Catholic protest against Nazi euthanasia and denounced Gestapo lawlessness and the persecution of the church. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Pope Pius XII in 1946 appointed Bishop von Galen who arrived in Rome 5 February 1946. Generous American cardinals financed his Roman stay, as German money was not in demand. He had become famous and popular, so after the Pope had placed the red hat on his head with the words: ‘God bless you, God bless Germany,’ Saint Peter’s basilica for minutes thundered in a “triumphant applause” for von Galen. The new cardinal was celebrated enthusiastically in his native Westphalia and in his destroyed city of Münster, which still lay completely in ruins as a result of the air raids. He died a few days after his return from Rome in the St Franziskus Hospital of Münster due to an appendix infection diagnosed too late.
Generalmajor Hans Oster, a devout Lutheran and a leading member of the German Resistance, once said of Galen “He’s a man of courage and conviction. And what resolution in his sermons! There should be a handful of such people in all our churches, and at least two handfuls in the Wehrmacht. If there were, Germany would look quite different!”

An interview with Father Daniel Utrecht, C.O., author of a biography of Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, who risked his life by speaking out against the Nazi regime.

Father Daniel Utrecht, C.O., is a priest of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, Toronto. He is a graduate of the University of Dallas (B.A., Philosophy), and the University of Toronto (Ph.D., philosophy). He joined the Oratory in 1980 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1985. Father Utrecht teaches in St Philip’s Seminary, directed by the Fathers of the Oratory, and is Pastor of St Vincent de Paul Church in Toronto.
He is the author of the new book The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis (TAN, 2016), a biography of Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, the bishop of the diocese of Münster in Germany from 1933 to 1946, who risked his life by speaking out against the Nazi regime.

Why did you write this book?
I have had a fascination with Blessed Cardinal von Galen for more than a quarter of a century. This grew when I had an opportunity to meet his nephew in 1991. Since then I have tried to read everything about him that I could, which was a real struggle, because most of it is in German. I kept hoping for someone to write a good English-language biography. Finally, in 2005, when I was with some of the leaders of our World Youth Day group in Germany at a museum that had a display about him, I told them his story. One of them said, “Why have I never heard of this guy? Somebody should write a book about him.” I decided that somebody must be me.

What is the message of this book?
First of all it is a story of heroism—of courage and fidelity in an extremely difficult historical situation, and of the struggles of dealing with a regime that attacks the Church and her faith. As Bishop of Münster, Clemens August von Galen encouraged his people to remain true to their Catholic faith when the Nazi Party which governed Germany was spreading a racist, pagan ideology; and to remain true to the moral law when that same Party ideology taught that might makes right, denying the natural moral law. He told people not to cooperate with evil even at the risk of martyrdom, reminding them of a German official in a previous time who refused an unjust order of his king by saying, “My head is at the king’s disposal, but not my conscience.”

Who are you writing for?
Anyone who is interested in the history of Nazi Germany and World War II. Anyone who is interested in German resistance to Hitler. Anyone who is interested in the problem of how the Church and individual Christians deal with an unjust regime. Anyone who likes true stories of heroism and sanctity. Because of his outspoken public criticism of the regime’s practice of ‘euthanasia,’ his story is also of great interest to anyone involved in pro-life work.
The title of your new book refers to “The Lion of Münster.” Where did you get this title?
It was a title that the people of Münster never heard until his funeral in March 1946. In the funeral sermon, Cardinal Frings said that at Rome, where they had both been recently made cardinals, the people called von Galen the Lion of Münster.

Your subtitle is “The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis.” How did Cardinal von Galen roar against the Nazis?
He is most famous for three sermons in the summer of 1941, against the injustices of the Gestapo, the confiscation of the houses of religious orders, and the killing of the handicapped and mentally ill.
This was incredibly brave, because at that time, Germany was doing very well in the war. He anticipated the objection that he would be criticized for weakening the home front during the war by saying that those who weakened the home front were those who failed to act justly. He predicted that if Germany did not return to justice, she would collapse from inner rottenness and decay despite the bravery of her soldiers in the field. The local Gestapo officials urged that he be arrested and publicly hanged, but Berlin argued that making him a martyr would be counterproductive to the war effort. Revenge, said Joseph Goebbels, is a dish best served cold. They would take care of him after they had won the war.
However, von Galen’s public opposition to Nazi ideology went back almost to the beginning of his time as bishop. In early 1934 he condemned the racist, neo-pagan ideology of Alfred Rosenberg. In 1936, in a sermon about martyrdom, he spoke of ‘fresh graves in German lands’ in reference to Catholics who had been killed by the Nazis. For years he fought for the existence of the Catholic schools. He was one of the main inspirations behind Pope Pius XI’s encyclical “Mit brennender Sorge,” and had more copies of it printed than did any other German bishop.
One of my favourite stories is of the time a Nazi heckler interrupted his sermon on family life by shouting, “a celibate has no business talking about family life.” The bishop pounded his fist on the pulpit and shouted back, “I will tolerate no reflection on the Führer in my cathedral!”

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