Von Galen on Martyrdom

(I originally wrote this series for The American Catholic, and I thought the history mavens of Almost Chosen People might enjoy it.)



In my first post on Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen, which may be read here, we examined the life of this remarkable German bishop who heroically stood up to the Third Reich.  Today we examine a sermon that he preached at the Cathedral of Saint Victor’s in Xanten, Germany on February 9, 1936, long before the three sermons that he preached in 1941 which made him famous around the globe.  Prior examinations of his 1941 sermons may be read  herehere and here.

I have just consecrated a new altar in your venerable and splendid cathedral,in a small space deep beneath the choir. But why? Your church is already so richly endowed with altars.

Beginning a sermon with a question is an approach that I wish more priests and bishops would use.  It engages the minds of the listeners from the outset.

You know the answer. The researches of the past few years have given proof that there below us lies a holy and particularly venerable place. Not only has the tradition been substantiated, according to which several previous churches were said to stand on the site of this present church, the oldest of them dating back to the time of the martyrs, to the fourth century A.D. We are also provided with fresh evidence that holy martyrs, who with their blood bore witness to Christ, were interred here, to await the resurrection. We believe in the resurrection of the body. Christ’s words have given us this promise: The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God. Whosoever does not
believe in the independent life of the individual soul, in its continued existence after the death of the body, in its reunification with the bodyand in life everlasting, this man is no true Christian. We hold these beliefs, because we believe in Christ, who is the truth. Because we hold fast to the beliefs of the Apostles and of our Christian forebears. The entire history of your city, speaking to you through the its towering churches, which are monuments in stone, proclaiming itself in the stones found lying beneath them, is evidence of our faith.

The martyrs have always been the human bedrock for Catholicism, from Saint Stephen, the first of the ever glorious martyrs, to our own day with the recent martyrdom of the brave Shahbaz Bhatti.

In confession of that faith St. Victor and his companions, and likely also those men whose mortal remains have now been found, shed their blood. It is clear that their grave has not been opened, has been disturbed by nobody, since the wooden coffin in which, notably, both bodies were laid
was interred, around sixteen hundred years ago. Thus it has been possible to establish „with a probability bordering on certainty“, according to the testimony of highly respected and expert scholars at the University of Bonn, that the two men died a violent death, and that what remains for us to see
of the wounding and shattering of their limbs is in the main attributable to wounds and torture inflicted before their deaths, which led to their deaths. Above this ancient and newly discovered double grave, lying deep beneath the floor of the present Cathedral, you, out of love, have erected an altar,
which I have just now consecrated, and upon which the sacrifice of the New Covenant has just been celebrated for the first time. We have offered it up to the glory of God, in thanks for His Divine favours, in atonement for our sins, to beseach Him for His blessing upon us, upon your town, our
diocese, the German people and our country. We have also offered it up in remembrance and adoration of the beloved saints, especially those who found in this spot their last earthly resting place, and who slumber here awaiting the glorious resurrection. The glorious ressurection. “The hour is
coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.“ (John 5, 28) Will these two men rise again at the resurrection?

Go here to read about the excavations at the Xanten cathedral that revealed the bodies of the two likely martyrs.  Saint Victor was a soldier in the Roman legions who was martyred in 303 for his Christianity by command of Emperor Maximian during the Great Persecution.

Had we been present at their martyrdom and torture, and at their terrible death, and had we been able to ask those who sat in judgement upon them, and their henchmen who with their iron clubs broke their bones and perhaps with one terrible heave struck the deathblow, if these men had done good
or done evil, we would have received the answer that they had to die, at the Emperor’s command, because they stubbornly refused to honour and worship deities created by men and acknowledged by the state; because the only God of whom they would confess their recognition was a
transcendent God who reigned in fatherly love over all earth’s people.

Here Von Galen would have begun to cause his listeners to squirm.  They would have realized that he was not only talking now about antiquity, but also about the Nazi regime that was busily erecting new gods that all Germans were required to worship:  Race, the Fuhrer Principle, the Party, etc.

Perhaps it was feared that these men, who were probably, like St. Victor, soldiers serving under Roman command, here to defend the Rhine border against Germanic tribes pressing in from the east, would not be sufficiently dependable fighters against the german enemy, seeing them also as children
of the same heavenly Father, made equally in the image of God. Foolish fear! For genuine Christians have always been the most loyal of citizens, the most reliable public servants, the most courageous soldiers among their people. Their loyalty, their reliability, their courage is not only founded upon
a naturally good predisposition, upon goodwill, be it e’er so weak, upon conscious efforts to guard their honour in the sight of other men, to avoid punishment on this earth, perhaps to gain of others respect, recognition and reward. True Christians are aware that loyal fulfilment of their duty as
citizens, as public servants, as soldiers, is an exercise of virtue which God, our supreme Lord, demands of them unreservedly, regardless of witness,recognition or reward by other men, but throughout which they are supported by God in his goodness, with the help of His divine grace. The
Christian looks beyond reward, praise and fame after death, all be they worthy worldly possessions, because he knows all these to be small and slight and undependable and finite compared to the hundredfold reward, the honour and glory which God almighty bestows upon them who in
accordance with Christ’s word have been found faithful in the face of the ephemeral.

The Nazis since they came to power had been waging a constant campaign against the Catholic Church.  Von Galen here is making a reference to the contention of the Nazis that one could not be both a Christina and a German patriot.

Thus did the Christian confessors and martyrs think and act. You know that many martyrs of the Catholic church have been drawn from the ranks of brave soldiers: St. Theodore, St. George, St.Sebastian, St. Mauritius, Cassius and Florentinus, Gereon, and your own St. Victor, with whom according to
legend all the officers and men of their legion suffered martyrdom for the sake of Christ. They allowed themselves to be mown down by their heathen comrades, without defending themselves or offering resistance. The swords which they had so heroically wielded in the heat of battle for their emperor
and their fatherland they did not draw against their comrades who on the orders of the emperor fell upon them like enemies, to massacre them. In them they saw not enemies, but misguided friends. They did not fight the emperor, rather they obeyed the emperor unto death. For it was the emperor who ordered that they must either sacrifice to the idols or die. Because they could not offer up that sacrifice without sinning, they chose to die, in order not to sin. Is that not faithfulness? Is that not heroism? Is that not courage in the service of the emperor, and in the service of God even unto death?

The virtues of the numerous solder-saints of the Church may sound a bit perculiar to many post Vatican II Catholics.  It would not have sounded strange at all to the Catholics of Von Galen’s day.

Christ our Lord, the King of kings, and Ruler of rulers, our only judge and He who shall mete out our eternal reward, declared them saints, these warriors loyal unto death. For he says: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for their’s is the kingdom of Heaven.”  Theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

Saints and warriors!  One would love, if it were only possible, to have Blessed Von Galen come back to Earth and address, with a translator of course, the USCCB.  Medics would have to be on stand by for heart attacks and strokes!

From the torture bench, from their place of execution, from the hands of their bloodstained executioner, where they left behind their transitory, mutilated, lifeless bodies, their souls ascended and were taken up into Heaven, into the eternal realm of the living God. On the Day of Judgement they will also once again take possession of their mortal dust, the sometime habitation, place of work and place of suffering of their heroic souls, their bodies, their bones and relics, because these too shall be rewarded, transfigured, grantedeternal bliss. “The hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the son of God.  And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life.”

Physical pain and death seem the greatest of ills to us.  Just one of the many illusions that we have to guard against as we make our way through this vale of tears.  For most martyrs the fear of death and pain was just as present in them as in us, but faith and courage also abounded in them.  The confrontation of physical weakness and spiritual courage are well set forth in this recent depiction of the martyrdom of Saint John Cardinal Fisher:


In this place also, in this Cathedral, shall this wonder come to pass. The saints will arise in glory. That was their belief, their faith, and their sure hope of victory during their torture and death. That was also the belief of the Christians of that time who, with deep emotion and joyful solemnity, witnessed that martyrdom, and who afterwards collected up the bloody, shattered, disfigured remains, bore them away, and reverently interred them in a common shrine. That was the belief of the Christian era that followed soon after, of the Christianised Romans, and even more so of your forefathers, the Frankish Germans, who settled here and erected one church after the other, each more magnificent than the last, over these martyrs’ graves. That is why they called this place “Ad sanctos”, “by the saints”,Xanten. Here, for more than fifteen hundred years without interruption, the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass has been offered up, the renewal of Christ’s most sacred, obediently suffered sacrificial death, whence all martyrdom, all Christian devotion, courage, self-sacrifice, have gained their worth and effect. The love of Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us, and the devotion of the martyrs, who gave themselves for Christ, have in this place throughout the ages roused and inspired your forefathers to devotion, courage and self-sacrifice for God and the highest good. Emulate them!

Blessed Von Galen reminds his listeners of the veneration paid to the martyrs and how their sacrifice led to a Catholic future for Germans.

Yes, emulate them! For the sake of your souls, of your children, of our people. We too are called, are bound through the faithful fulfilment of duty to our family, our occupation, our community, based upon the fear of God and the love of God, to serve God and the kingdom of God on earth, our
fellow beings, our nation and the state, as did the holy martyrs. We have been chosen to swell the glorious ranks of the saints, one day to belong with them in Heaven. And if in consequence we are misjudged, despised, slandered, reviled, even persecuted, tortured and killed, “Blessed are ye,
when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.”

It is easy to admire and love the martyrs.  It is exceedingly hard to follow their example, and yet that is precisely what Blessed Von Galen commands, and he is merely repeating the command of Christ.

Yes, rejoice and be exceeding glad! You know that the time is come when not a few of us will be granted such a portion. How are the holy church,the Pope, the bishops, the priests, the members of religious orders, how are the faithful children of the church in Germany disparaged, defamed,
derided, publicly and without saction. How many Catholics, priests and laity, have been attacked and abused in newspapers and in meetings, have been driven out of their professions and positions, and have without due process of law been imprisoned and maltreated. The head of the episcopal information service in Berlin, Canon Dr. Banasch, has for months been languishing in prison, and at no stage have his superiors the Bishops been informed of any charges against him. The Bishops’appointed leader of the Young Men’s Association, Msgr. Wolker, was arrested three days ago, and how long will it be before he is able to prove his innocence before an independent German court? There are in Germany fresh graves, in which rest the ashes of such as the Catholic people hold to be martyrs of theirfaith, because their lives are a testimony of the most faithful fulfilment of duty to God and the fatherland, nation and church, and because their deathsare shrouded in closely guarded mystery. And how often does the heaviest burden of conscience weigh upon public servants and employees, parentsand teachers, who are faced with having to chose between faithfulness toGod and their Christian conscience and winning the pleasure and favour ofthose upon whom their position and whole livelihood depend!

Now I am certain that deep silence enveloped the cathedral.  With the Bishop directly referring to the Nazi persecution, I am sure many of those listening were wondering just how dangerous it was to even be hearing this.

Do not be surprised if the good Lord sends us times of trial. Our church is the church of martyrs. If you question how matters can come to such apass, the answer lies in the words of our Saviour when he said: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greaterthan his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15,18). “The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think thathe doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because
they have not known the Father, nor me. But these things have I told you,that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.”(John 16, 2).

We Catholics have been warned from the very beginning by Christ Himself of the storm of opposition that would be roused to the truth of Christ

The answer to this question lies also in the sacrificial death, the death by martydom, the heroic death of Jesus Christ, who submitted himself obediently to an earthly judge, acknowledging before him that the power authorised him by his position stemmed from God; and who then, in order that the truth he preached, that his claim to be the Son of God and the King of Creation, might be recognised, freely accepted the death sentence,humiliation and prison and captivity and the crown of thorns and finally crucifixion. We celebrate his memory, and the bloodless renewal of his self sacrificial
and bloody death, in every holy mass said over the relics of holy martyrs, who, like St. Stephen, gave thanks with their deaths unto him who, through his death, purchased life for us all. Since then the sign of the cross, once a sign of ignominy, has become a symbol of victory and triumph;  yea, a pledge of God’s grace and of His choosing of us for Heaven. For St. Paul assures us: “If so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” (Romans 8, 17).

Worshippers of Christ Crucified can see that the pain and death of this world is only a brief prologue to the victory and triumph of the next.

Like Christ, like the Apostles, like the holy martyrs, we are obedient to authority, loyal to our nation, conscientious in our occupations, at work, in our families, in the community, willing to sacrifice ourselves, even to give our lives, like St. Victor and all soldiers, like our brave soldiers who in the
World War by the thousand staked their lives and sacrificed them for the german fatherland. But when we, like those saints, are confronted with the choice between earthly happiness and confession of the faith, the choice between the service of God and death, then, like our brave exemplars, we
will with God’s grace stand fast in our faith, for like them we would rather go to our deaths than commit a sin. May today’s celebration and the memory of the holy heroes of our faith whose remains are enclosed in this cathedral, may the power of the holy sacrifice on the cross, which we now reverently
celebrate together in the holy mass, strengthen us all in this sacred resolve, so that one day that which Christ promised those who follow him on the glorious way of the cross shall be true for us all: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against
you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.”

Blessed Von Galen was a true German patriot and a true Catholic.  It rended his heart to see his beloved Germany under the control of a group of anti-Christian gangsters calling themselves Nazis,  but that sorrow did not deter him from standing firm, in the worst of circumstances, to the  Church, the bearer across all the centuries of the love and hope of Christ.  May we all be equally steadfast if the occasion calls for it.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments (6)  
Tags: ,