The dangerous little friar

Second Reading

ULTIMATE PRICE Titus Brandsma was killed by a lethal injection in July 1942, at Dachau concentration camp.

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Martin Niemöller, a German theologian and Lutheran priest, became known for his strong opposition to Hitler. In 1946 he published a reflection that has the resonance of poetry and conveys a powerful moral message:

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out – because I was not a unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

The reflection illustrates the importance of opposing tyranny regardless of the personal cost. Edmund Burke, the distinguished 18th century Irish philosopher and politician, asserted that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.
Last month, Pope Francis canonised a man who did not remain silent in the face of vicious Nazi ideology and for his efforts paid the ultimate price of life.
Titus Brandsma was a Dutch Carmelite priest, philosopher and journalist. In the words of Fr Romeral, the Vice Postulator of Brandsma’s canonisation cause, “He is a Christian martyr because he realised that Nazism was a sort of Neo-Paganism, the idolatry of race, nationalism, power and arrogance.”

Happy memories
Brandsma was born in February 1881 in Friesland, the most northerly province in Holland. His father was a significant figure in local politics and influenced his son’s interest in current affairs. His parents were devoted Catholics in a predominantly Protestant province. Five of their six children entered religious life.
Titus joined the Carmelite order in 1898, as he was impressed by its spiritual ethos. He was ordained priest in 1905. During his training he had displayed intellectual ability and a talent for journalism. After ordination he gained a doctorate in philosophy from the prestigious Oregonian University in Rome.
As a person he was hard working and good humoured, though prone to occasional outbursts of temper. On his return to Holland, after the completion of his studies, he established a Catholic newspaper that achieved a significant circulation. He was appointed professor at the Catholic university of Nijmegen. He also became chaplain to Dutch Catholic journalism. Incidentally, he spent some months in Ireland in 1935 to improve his English. He had happy memories of his time here. Among the people he met was the then leader of the Irish Government, Eamon de Valera.

Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. Titus quickly discerned the evil core in the Nazi ideology. He wrote that Nazism was a severe threat to the freedom of all religious. As adviser to the Archbishop of Utrecht, he encouraged the Dutch hierarchy to condemn the Nazi persecution of Jews.
When the Nazis invaded and took control of Holland in may 1940, Titus was immediately targeted as an enemy of the new regime. The Nazis called him ‘the dangerous little friar’. Nazis spies infiltrated his university lectures and took extensive notes of what he was saying.
Titus remained strong in his convictions despite the intimidation. He opposed the Nazi order that Catholic schools should expel Jewish students. He stated that the Church ‘makes no distinction of sex, race or people in carrying out its mission’. When Catholic newspapers were ordered to print Nazi propaganda he asserted the principle of a free press.
Early in 1942, the Gestapo arrested him at the Carmelite Monastery in Nijmegen. He was taken to the concentration camp in Dachau where he was killed by a lethal injection in July of that year.
Dianne Traflet, a theology professor at Setan Hall University in the US, has provided a cogent assessment of Brandsma’s life: “In a world of garbled rhetoric Father Titus Brandsma is a witness to the power of moral clarity.”