Not long ago, my mother and I discussed a relative my Great-Grandmother used to speak of: a Cardinal in the family, back in Germany. Unfortunately, little had been recorded about this relative; my mother supposed that his last name was either von Galen or Galen – the surname of her Grandmother, but no surviving relatives are certain. I decided to do a bit of online research on German Cardinals with the last name of Galen or von Galen – just out of curiosity. What a wonderful story I was to find!
Clemens August von Galen
Clemens August von Galen was born in 1878 in the German region of Westphalia to a highly devout Catholic German family of nobility. Clemens was ordained a priest at the age of 26 and was made the Bishop of Munster in 1933 – just when the Nazi regime was gaining power in Germany.
Bishop von Galen had been quite wary of National Socialism. He read much literature on their ideas and frequently felt ill-at-ease with their developments. Von Galen began voicing concerns and writing pastorals, which in turn created tension between the good bishop and the National Socialists.
The Summer of 1941
It was during the summer of 1941 that the friction between von Galen and the Nazis peaked. After a week of stressful bombings coupled with the Gestapo exploiting nuns and priests, the 63-year-old bishop felt compelled to step up his protests in a big way. He went to his typewriter and using his one-finger system of typing, unknowingly began the process of producing his “Three Sermons” that would profoundly undermine the Nazi regime.
The First Sermon: A Denunciation of the Gestapo
On the morning of July 13, 1941, Bishop von Galen rose to the pulpit of Saint Lambert’s Church in Munster – knowing he was facing possible death over the sermon he was about to preach. Then, he fiercely pointed out a variety of malicious deeds performed by the Gestapo and sternly accused them of abusing their authority, causing undue distress to the people of Germany. Von Galen forcefully called for a true justice for all in Germany.
The Second Sermon: The Hammer and the Anvil
One week later, on July 20, at Uberwasser Church (also in Munster), the wise Bishop compared the multitudes of God-fearing Germans to anvils being struck by the hammer of National Socialism. He said that the youth of Germany were the objects being shaped between the hammer and the anvil. Von Galen reminded the listeners that the anvil gives as much force to an object being shaped as the hammer, so parents and elders were implored to do everything possible to shape the youth of Germany into good people, despite the efforts of the Nazis. Von Galen reminded all that in the end, the hammer almost always breaks before the anvil.
The Third Sermon: Condemning Euthanasia Practices
Bishop von Galen had been told of some covert euthanasia practices taking place with those labeled by the Nazis as “unproductive” (mentally ill, etc.). On August 3, 1941, Bishop von Galen informed the parishioners at St. Lambert’s of these vicious practices, how multitudes of mentally ill/challenged patients were being deemed as useless, taken away under false pretenses, and then killed. The insightful bishop warned of future possibilities if these immoral actions were to become acceptable – many more people would become at risk: the aged, infirmed, and even soldiers injured while selflessly defending their country. The bishop strongly urged the people at the over-flowing church that Sunday morning to pray, do penance, and beg for God’s mercy upon Germany.
Hundreds of Thousands of Copies
Others who were opposed to the tyranny of Hitler had these three sermons secretly copied by the hundreds of thousands. They were spread throughout Germany and beyond. Hitler was infuriated. Those caught distributing copies of the sermons were killed and von Galen’s death was planned for having damaged the Third Reich so severely. Yet, the Fuhrer was forced to be cautious due to the bishop’s immense popularity.
Von Galen continued to work to ease the suffering of his countrymen through the remainder of the war. He endured more bombings, an uncomfortable relocation, and ever-increasing threats.
Cardinal Clemens August von Galen
By mid-December, 1945, the war had ended in Germany and to the surprise of all, it was announced that Bishop von Galen was to be appointed a Cardinal! The post-war distress seemed to disappear in much of Germany for a while as joyful elation spread over this news. Two months later, in February of 1946, the Cardinal-elect von Galen received a joyous welcome in Rome. During the public consistory (a ceremony to help mark the creation of new Cardinals), ALL assembled in St. Peter’s Basilica burst into a thunderous applause as the “Lion of Munster” (von Galen) processed down the aisle.
Before returning to Germany, this new Cardinal and caring shepherd made visits to all captive Germans in the POW camps in southern Italy. He brought to them expressions of kindness and encouragement, which greatly lifted their spirits.
The Sudden Death of Cardinal von Galen
On March 16, 1946 (his 68th birthday), the new Cardinal returned to Munster to a loving crowd of thousands; however, when the Cardinal went to his home that evening, he was feeling rather ill. Unfortunately, acute appendicitis along with intestinal paralysis had begun to set in. On March 22, the Cardinal spent his last few conscious hours praying for his much loved Germany and then passed away, leaving behind a stunned and deeply saddened flock. Due to his brave works in the face of Nazism, in 1956, canonization proceedings began and on October 9, 2005, Cardinal Clemens August von Galen was beatified.
Related to the Cardinal?
My mother and I never were able to make an official connection with this Cardinal. Eventually, we decided that it didn’t really matter, for we learned a great deal from Blessed Clemens August von Galen and feel like better people just for knowing about his life – whether we are related or not.
- Cardinal von Galen by Heinrich Portmann. Translated by R.L. Sedgwick, Jarrolds Publishers, London, 1957.
- Nazi Doctors, The by Robert Jay Lifton. Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, New York, 1986.
- World War II by Simon Adams. Dorling Kindersley Books, New York, 2000.