Shortly after Adolf Hitler seized power and the Nazi Party turned Germany into a totalitarian state in 1933, Blessed Cardinal Clemens August von Galen began openly speaking out against the dictatorial regime as the new bishop of Münster.
“The Nazis killed people for distributing von Galen’s sermons,” said Father Daniel Utrecht, BA ’76, author of “The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis,” which recently received first place in the biography category of the Association of Catholic Publishers 2017 Excellence in Publishing Awards, and second place in the history category of the Catholic Press Association Book Awards.
“I’m honored that my book has received such recognition,” said Father Utrecht, who currently serves as a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Toronto, Canada. “His story is worth knowing; it’s my hope to one day see Blessed von Galen receive a greater devotion for his canonization.”
Throughout World War II, Bishop von Galen became one of Germany’s most outspoken bishops, authoring letters and sermons that challenged the Nazi regime’s racial ideologies. In 1937, von Galen assisted Pope Pius XI in the writing of his 1937 anti-Nazi encyclical “Mit brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Anxiety”), and in 1941, he delivered three sermons denouncing the euthanasia program, confiscating of church property and the injustice of the Gestapo, appropriately earning him the nickname “The Lion of Münster.”
For the bishop’s heroism, service to the church and defense of human rights, Pope Pius XII appointed him a cardinal in 1946. “Von Galen’s sermons sent a shockwave throughout Germany and the Nazi Party,” said Father Utrecht. “It was the love of the people for their bishop that protected Blessed von Galen from becoming a martyr.”
“My interest in Blessed von Galen grew for more than a quarter century,” he continued. “In my spare time, I read a two-volume work (written in German) of the cardinal’s documents, letters and sermons. I became more and more fascinated with his courage and his wisdom, all the time hoping that someone would write a good biography in English so I wouldn’t have to keep struggling with the German. Eventually, I decided that was something I could do.”
“A lot of what I think is most interesting in my book was largely influenced by my UD education: the type of political philosophy that was the basis for the way Blessed von Galen viewed things; what the Nazis were doing around that time; and the foundations for a just society,” he added.
While studying abroad in Rome in 1974, Father Utrecht visited von Galen’s homeland for the first time. He credits his Rome semester and UD education as having a big influence on his life.
At UD, he developed interests in theology and medieval philosophy, aspiring to one day teach at the college level; in 1979, he returned to the university’s Rome campus as an assistant professor for the course “Philosophy of Being.”
After only one year of teaching at the university’s Rome campus, Father Utrecht traveled to Toronto, Canada, to work on his doctoral dissertation on St Thomas’ metaphysics. In Rome, he had prayed at the tomb of St Philip Neri in the Chiesa Nuova, and in 1980, he joined St Philip’s Oratory. He was ordained five years later. “I thought I was going to be a professor, but I ended up being called into the priesthood,” he said. “In His providence, however, God made teaching still become possible, as we opened a seminary in 1986.”
In 1989, Father Utrecht arranged an invitation to board abroad with friends and travel to Germany once more, at which point he met Christoph Bernhard von Galen, the cardinal's nephew. “As my uncle once told me, we von Galens are not very smart and not very good-looking, but we are brutally Catholic,” the younger von Galen confided to Father Utrecht.
One after another, Father Utrecht heard personal accounts and stories from other survivors of the war who remembered the bishop and his sermons. “The Nazis were terribly evil, but not every German was a Nazi,” he said. “There were stories of heroism in very difficult situations; there are inspirations and experiences that we can all learn from and apply to our own situations.”
In October 2005, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Cardinal von Galen outside St. Peter's Basilica. Earlier that year, Father Utrecht had traveled with a small youth group to Cologne, Germany, in celebration of World Youth Day, where they viewed an exhibit of the cardinal at the Marian shrine of Our Lady of Telgte and read his episcopal motto, Nec laudibus, nec timore (“Neither praise nor threats will distance me from God”).
“‘We need more bishops like him; why haven’t we heard of this guy before? Someone should write a book about him,’” Fr. Utrecht recalled one of the group leaders saying; shortly thereafter, he began writing his decades-long biography of the famed cardinal.
The following is an excerpt from Father Daniel Utrecht’s book “The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis,” which was published by TAN Books on Nov. 3, 2016.
March 16, 1946: a cold, late-winter day in Münster. As Bishop Clemens August Count von Galen’s horse-drawn coach progressed through the old inner city, he told his secretary that he felt sorry for the crowds of people lining the streets to greet him: “The poor people are freezing to death this afternoon.” Always a keen historian of his diocese, he told his secretary about the day when his predecessor, Bishop Johann Bernhard Brinkmann, had triumphantly returned to Münster sixty-two years ago after six years of exile in Holland—it was February, but it was so warm that many of the people who had come from out of town spent the following night sleeping in the open on the steps of the Buildings.
This was another triumphant homecoming. Bishop von Galen had returned, not from exile but from Rome, and was wearing the red hat and robes of a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. It was less than a year since Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, and now Münster’s own beloved bishop had been named by Pope Pius XII to the College of Cardinals. Some fifty thousand people had crowded into the city to rejoice.
There had not been much reason for rejoicing in Münster, or in the rest of Germany, for some time. Adolf Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” had done untold damage during its twelve years of power. Germany was a pariah among nations. The horrors of the concentration camps and death camps had been discovered after the war, and they were infinitely worse than anyone could have imagined. Now the entire country was under foreign occupation, and all Germans were blamed for the crimes of their former leaders, even if they themselves had suffered under those leaders.
The people were poor. Many still did not know whether their husbands, sons, and fathers were alive or dead. Ten months after the war, hundreds of thousands of Germans still languished in prisoner-of- war camps, unable to contact their families.
Münster itself was still a city of ruins. Nearly 90 percent of the buildings in the inner city had been damaged by multiple Allied bombing raids. Most were unusable; many were totally destroyed. Very few people still lived in the inner city. By this time, nothing had been rebuilt. The rubble had at least been moved to the sides of the streets and piled up, and this provided elevated places where people could stand to see the festivities. Others climbed onto what remained of the walls of bombed-out buildings. The cathedral, with its roof and towers missing, was unusable for the reception of the new cardinal, but it would not have been big enough anyway. All the festivities were to be in the open air.
Despite everything, March 16, 1946, was a day of rejoicing in Münster. Münster was a staunchly, stubbornly Catholic city and one of the largest dioceses in Germany. The diocese had been founded by St. Ludger in 805, nearly eleven and a half centuries earlier. But it had always been a simple diocese, never an archdiocese, and never in all that time had there been a cardinal occupying its episcopal chair. Now Clemens August von Galen was returning to the city, his city, still its bishop but also a cardinal.
From the tower of the church of St. Lambert came the sound of a fanfare. Trumpeters from the city orchestra had a position there and began to play when the cardinal’s coach came near. The coach had begun eight miles west of the city in the village of Telgte, where Cardinal von Galen had spent the morning at the shrine of the Sorrowful Virgin. He had a profound, childlike devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and had frequently visited that shrine during his twelve years as bishop, often going there on solitary pilgrimages on foot in the early mornings.
When the coach arrived at the Principal Market, Clemens August stood, blessing the crowd. He was an imposing figure in his scarlet robes, standing about six and a half feet tall. The people of his diocese had always held him in awe, partly because of the respect they would hold for any bishop, partly because of the respect they would hold for a man of noble blood, and partly because of his imposing bearing: He looked the part of a nobleman and a prince of the Church. But they also had a warm, loving affection for him. He was sure of his episcopal dignity and was physically prepossessing, but they knew his kindliness, his simplicity, his easy way with children, and his courage.
Slowly he came down from the coach. Two altar boys took hold of the train of the long red cape, the cappa magna, which came down from an ermine hood covering his shoulders. He ascended the steps to a balcony covered with evergreen branches, and the crowd cheered mightily. Ascending the balcony, the mayor came to a microphone and began to read a citation from the city council granting Cardinal von Galen the title of honored citizen of Münster: “Your Eminence: Faithful to your motto Nec laudibus Nec timore, you have fought for twelve years against the violations of justice and of conscience, making use of the spoken and written word, at the risk of your freedom and your life, to the wondering agreement of all right-thinking people throughout the world . . . You have consoled and comforted millions of Germans by your manly words.”
Everyone knew exactly what the mayor was talking about. From the beginning of his time as bishop, shortly after Hitler took power, Clemens August von Galen had attacked the Nazi racial theories. In the middle of 1941, when Germany’s war successes were at their height, he openly reprimanded the Gestapo for confiscating the houses of religious orders. He had denounced the secret practice of deliberately putting sick and disabled people to death and, it seemed, had an influence in stopping it.
The cardinal spoke a few words of thanks. It was clear that he was deeply moved. He spoke only briefly, as the program of the day had planned for his address to come later.
After a procession to the cathedral, Cardinal von Galen took a seat on a throne that had been prepared before the ruined west portal. Across the large square packed with people, he had a clear view of what was left of his episcopal palace. He had been in the palace when it suffered several direct hits from American bombs in October 1943. When his secretary had come rushing back from the bomb shelter, he had seen the bishop standing high up in the ruins in the open air.
After several more speeches praising the cardinal’s courage during the Nazi regime, he came to the microphone. Again and again, he was interrupted by shouts of applause as he thanked Pope Pius for the honor he had given him and the people of his diocese for standing behind him during those years:
The dear God placed me in a position in which I had a duty to call black “black” and white “white” . . . I knew that many suffered more, much more than I personally had to suffer, from the attacks on truth and justice that we experienced. They could not speak. They could only suffer. . . . But it was my right and my duty to speak, and I spoke . . . and God gave it His blessing. And your love and your loyalty, my dear diocesans, also kept far from me what might have been my fate, but also might have been my greatest reward, the crown of martyrdom.
These were no empty words, and everyone knew it. Documents had been found and published after the war, showing that after Bishop von Galen’s sermons in the summer of 1941, the local Gestapo leader had recommended that the bishop be publicly hanged. Berlin responded that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” It would be better, thought Joseph Goebbels, to deal with the Bishop of Münster after the war had been won.
Otherwise, his popularity in Münster and in all of Westphalia was so great that the government would have to reckon with losing all support for the war e ort there. Cardinal von Galen’s voice broke with emotion as he spoke about having missed the crown of martyrdom. After a pause to gather himself, he continued, “It was your loyalty that prevented it. e fact that you stood behind me, and that those who were then in power knew that the people and Bishop in the Diocese of Münster were an unbreakable unity, and that if they struck the Bishop, all the people would feel as if they had been struck”—loud cheering from the crowd interrupted him at this remark. “ at was what protected me from external harm; but also what gave me inner strength and confidence.” It was a glorious day for Münster. It was a glorious day for Clemens August Cardinal von Galen. It was Saturday, the sixteenth of March, 1946. It was his sixty-eighth birthday. Six days later, he was dead.
Excerpted from THE LION OF MÜNSTER: THE BISHOP WHO ROARED AGAINST THE NAZIS by Daniel Utrecht, © 2016 Daniel Utrecht.