Blessed Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen, also known as the “Lion of Münster”, was appointed Bishop of Münster in 1933 and held this office until his sudden death from a ruptured appendix in 1946.
During his time as bishop of Münster, Galen focused on encouraging the faithful entrusted to his care to live a truly Christian life; he aspired to be an example to them as bishop with courage and determination. Aware of his responsibility to do so, he did not shy away from the threat of being discredited by the government. In his pastoral letters and sermons, he criticised the anti-Catholic ideology of National Socialism and publicly spoke out against the crimes of the regime.
Galen was born at Dinklage Castle in Oldenburger Münsterland in 1878 and christened Clemens August. He was the eleventh of thirteen children of a devout Catholic family whose faith shaped their day-to-day life. They attended Holy Mass daily and evening prayers were said together in the chapel of the castle. Von Galen wrote about how his parents prayed the rosary together, had a half-hour of meditation daily, and how his father always did a careful examination of conscience before going to bed.
“Our parents always gave us a superlative example of healthy, practical piety,” Cardinal Galen said of his home. About his siblings, von Galen wrote:
“The most precious heritage they all received from our parents is an unshakably strong Catholic faith and love for Holy Church, but also a generally serious view of life and an unusual degree of interest in and understanding of questions of public life, of the joys and sufferings of the Church, the weal and woe of the people and of our country; and they have maintained this interest and understanding through life.”
The example set by his parents certainly laid the foundation for the bishop’s virtuous character and outlook on life. He was very much aware of the importance of a good upbringing and education and, as a bishop, campaigned staunchly for the preservation of Catholic denominational schools. He knew that the foundations of a truly Christian attitude to life must be laid in the home and in the schools. In a pastoral letter from 1937, he admonished the parents of his diocese:
“For it is your right and your duty to provide first and foremost for the instruction and education of the children entrusted to you by God. Schools are designed to help you accomplish this task; therefore it is your duty to send your children to schools that will guide and educate them in accordance with God’s truth and command.”
In 1896, Blessed Cardinal Galen passed the German Abitur at a grammar school in Vechta, a neighbouring town of Dinklage; in 1897, he began studying at the University of Freiburg. As a young student, he soon felt a vocation to the priesthood and after reading philosophy and theology in Innsbruck and Münster, was ordained a priest in Münster in 1904; his first appointment as a priest was a position as cathedral vicar there.
However, in 1906 von Galen left the city to spend a total of 23 years in Berlin in pastoral work. He lived through the years of the First World War and the Weimar Republic there. In 1929, he returned to Münster as a parish priest and was ordained bishop on October 16, 1933, a few months after Adolf Hitler had come to power.
Just as von Galen constantly reminded his faithful of their responsibilities, he also took his own episcopal duties very seriously. “Nec laudibus, nec timore” – “Neither through praise nor through fear” – this was the heraldic motto of the von Galen family and the Blessed Cardinal lived by it faithfully all his life. In his first Easter pastoral letter in 1934, which was read from every pulpit in his diocese, Bishop von Galen warned his faithful about the anti-Catholic ideologies of the Nazi regime. He pointed out the doctrines of the superiority of a particular race, the denial of sin, original sin, revelation and the need for a redeemer, as well as the instrumentalisation of religion as elements of such anti-Catholic tendencies. Von Galen understood that this heresy would not only seriously endanger the salvation of souls, but would also, at the same time, represent an attack on coexistence, society and culture.
With reference to the papal encyclical “Caritate Christi” Cardinal Galen wrote the following in a pastoral letter at Easter 1934:
“Belief in God is in fact the indestructible foundation of every social order and every responsibility on earth. Therefore, all those who do not want anarchy and terror must do their utmost to ensure that the enemies of religion do not achieve the goal they so openly proclaim.”
“For since all human authority must needs rest on the recognition of God, as on the firm foundation of any civil order, those who would not have all things overturned and all laws abrogated, must strive strenuously to prevent the enemies of religion from giving effect to the plans which they have so openly and so vehemently proclaimed.”
“Therefore a bishop [must] not remain silent […] when heresy and unbelief raise their heads. The words that Saint Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy are addressed to every bishop: ‘In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Tim. 4:1-5)”
Von Galen rejected the false ideology of National Socialism from the start. He condemned the increasing atrocities of the Nazi regime and denounced the actions of the members of the government responsible for them. When mentally ill patients were taken away from hospitals and institutions and murdered, von Galen wrote to the provincial government to object and filed a complaint. He also accused the authorities of the arbitrary imprisonment of innocent Germans and the expropriation and expulsion of many religious.
Bishop Galen always emphasised the importance of “faithfully fulfilling of one’s duties to one’s family, at work, within the community […], [in order to] serve God and the kingdom of God on earth, one’s fellow human beings, [the] people and [the] state”. During the Nazi era, however, he urged the faithful to obey God more than the state. Von Galen did not reject the state per se. He saw state power as necessary and instituted by God. However, the state as an authority must serve the well-being of the people and submit to God’s commandments:
“For whenever the commands issued by a human authority contradict the will of God as clearly known and witnessed in its own conscience, such an authority will cease to be ‘God’s servant’, it will destroy its own dignity, lose its right to command; it will be abusing its power to reward and punish and wickedly seeking to debase the God-given liberty of the human personality, the image of God in man!“
The dictatorial regimes of the 20th century have shown very clearly that injustice and iniquity are always associated with arbitrariness. Concerning this point, von Galen said:
“None of us, even though he may know himself to be the most loyal, most conscientious citizen, even though he may know himself to be completely innocent, can be certain that he will not one day be taken out of his apartment, deprived of his liberty and imprisoned in the cellars and concentration camps of the GESTAPO (the Secret State Police)”.
The above points up an important principle of Galen’s approach to resistance; heresy, injustice and persecution must be fought as soon as they are recognised. Heresies must be fought because of their very existence and must not be tolerated. If we all wait until we ourselves are directly affected by injustice, a disastrous ideology will already have been accepted by most of society and it will usually be too late to avert the crimes that logically follow from it. Once a certain stage has been passed, even those who share the same ideology will no longer be protected from the arbitrary decisions and measures of an unjust state.
In a 1941 sermon, von Galen gave a very specific answer to the question of how to act when forced to deal with an unjust state:
“We must accept unreservedly and without compromise the truth that God has revealed and live our lives by it. We must make the divine commandments the guiding principle of our lives and take seriously the exhortation that it is better to die than to sin! In prayer and sincere penance, we must beg for God’s forgiveness and mercy upon us, upon our city, our country, our beloved German people!”
“We cannot use arms against the enemy within who torments and batters us. We only have one weapon left: to stand up, strong and tough, and to endure!”
“Harden yourselves and stay strong! At this moment we are not the hammer, but the anvil. Others, mostly strangers and apostates, are hammering us, want to use violence to reshape our people, ourselves, our youth, to bend them from their upright attitude towards God.
We are the anvil, not the hammer! But look at the forge! Ask the blacksmith master and let him tell you: What is forged on the anvil is not only shaped by the hammer, but also by the anvil. The anvil cannot and does not have to strike back, it only needs to remain firm and unyielding! If it is sufficiently tough, firm, and unyielding, the anvil will usually last longer than the hammer, no matter how hard the hammer may strike, the anvil will stand there, solid and immovable, and will continue to serve for a long time to form what is newly forged.”
Von Galen did not preach revolution, but resistance through faithful fulfilment of duty, love of country and an unshakable commitment to the truth.
Cardinal Galen considered the spread of the true Catholic faith and a life lived in constant awareness of one’s own finiteness and of the fact that one day, we will be called upon to render an account of our actions before God to be the best prerequisites for a fair and happy society and thus the safest protection against an unjust state.
The Blessed Cardinal was aware of the risk he was taking in his public speeches and actions against the regime. As early as 1936, von Galen issued guidelines for his diocese that were intended to guarantee the continued existence of church life in the event of his being arrested. Because of his reputation and popularity among the faithful, the authorities dared not harm von Galen.
“Nec laudibus, nec timore” – “Neither through praise nor through fear” – this was the cardinal’s motto. Always trusting in God’s help and the support of his faithful, Cardinal von Galen remained a tower of strength, despite the threats to his freedom and his life. Because of his courage and his unshakable steadfastness, he was later often described as “the Lion of Münster”.
The Cardinal never lost hope:
“If we continue, if we remain faithful in our struggle, then the day will come when all this spirit, this iron will, now suppressed and condemned to silence, will re-emerge, truth and justice will be honoured again, and we will once again be able, as Christians, to work on building a Christian Germany”.
Stay true to the true faith, always fulfil your professional duties to the best of your knowledge and belief – no matter what the cost. If we, as devout Catholics, follow in the footsteps of Blessed Cardinal Galen today, we too will be able to say with confidence in the last hours of our life:
“I fought the good fight, completed the run and stayed true to the faith. Now the prize awaits me – the laurel wreath of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on the great day of his return.” – 2 Tim 4, 7