“We will not do it!” declared Carmelite priest Fr. Titus Brandsma, the spiritual director of the Catholic press during Nazi-occupied Holland. “Our limit has been reached! We cannot serve them!”
He was reacting to the latest Nazi edict insisting that Catholic newspapers publish Nazi propaganda.
This was not the first time that Fr. Brandsma had spoken out against Nazi policies. He warned repeatedly against Hitlerian tyranny. “The Nazi movement is a black lie. It is pagan,” he said. As early as 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he was already criticizing the regime’s racial policies towards the Jews.
In 1935 the ranking prelate of Holland, Archbishop Johannes (later Cardinal) de Jong of Utrecht appointed Father Titus chaplain to the “phenomenal” and flourishing Catholic press in the country; there were over 30 Catholic newspapers in the Netherlands at the time. He was also made president of the Union of Directors of Catholic schools. When the Nazis demanded information on all Jewish students attending Catholic schools (and, later, their expulsion from such schools) the Catholic authorities refused. Father Titus led the way.
Archbishop de Jong was one of the “major leaders against the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands” during the war years. He spoke out unceasingly against the Nazi oppressors.
Why was Father Titus appointed to two such important positions in the country? Well, he was a natural for the job. He was a professor of Philosophy and Mysticism at the Catholic University of Nijmegen (and also one of its founders) and was a prolific journalist and writer, contributing articles to over eighty different publications. He was a frequent guest on radio programs and travelled throughout the Netherlands delivering lectures on various subjects. One of his students said that Fr. Titus was the only mystic he knew who had a season ticket railway pass! According to his contemporaries, he was one of the best-known clerics in the country.
Events moved with oppressive speed once the Nazis assumed power in Holland. The sinister chronology is as follows:
May 1940: The Nazi army invaded the Netherlands.
May 1941: Among other repressive regulations, the Nazi Department of Education decreed that no priest or religious could be principal of any school in Holland.
July 1941: The Dutch bishops issued a Pastoral Letter to be read in all the churches in Holland. They condemned Nazism and forbade priests to administer the Sacraments to Catholics who supported the Nazi party.
Dec. 18, 1941: The Nazis insisted that the Catholic Press could no longer refuse publication of any ads from the Nazi party.
Dec. 31, 1941: Fr. Brandsma wrote his stirring reply, his “the limit has been reached!” letter to all of the Catholic editors in Holland. “This sort of article has to be refused if you still want your paper to be called a Catholic paper. We cannot do otherwise!” he said.
Jan. 1, 1942: The intrepid priest began his travels around the country, visiting the editors personally, urging each one to stay the course.
Jan. 10, 1942: He reported his progress to the Archbishop with the result that the bishops issued another Pastoral Letter expressly forbidding the Catholic newspapers to publish Nazi propaganda.
Jan. 15, 1942: The Nazis sent articles to all the Dutch Catholic papers with orders that they be printed in the next day’s morning edition. All the editors stood firm. All refused to collaborate with the enemy’s edict.
Jan. 19, 1942: Fr. Brandsma was arrested by the Gestapo.
Jan. 21, 1942: The trial began. The blond, always-polite Captain Hardigan, conducted the proceedings. Here are a few direct quotes from his trial recorded in Boniface Hanley, O.F.M., The Story of Titus Brandsma, Through a Dark Tunnel:
Hardegan: Why have you disobeyed the regulations?
Brandsma: As a Catholic, I could have done nothing differently. We must object to anything which is not in line with Catholic doctrine.
Hardegan: Why did you visit all those editors?
Brandsma: Because they had to be informed that the limits had been reached; they had to resist on fundamental principles.
Hardegan: Does the Church try to sabotage the decrees of the occupying power and the Dutch government?
Brandsma: The Catholic Church observes the laws of the occupying powers only insofar as they agree with her principles; should they take measures, however, which are not in keeping with Catholic doctrine, she, of necessity, is compelled to take no notice of them.
Everyone knew what the outcome would be: the “treasonous” priest was sentenced to imprisonment until the end of the war. While imprisoned he wrote: “Our Catholic principles are in conflict with their principles; the contrast of principles is there. For this confession I joyfully suffer what is to be suffered.”
At that point, did he think about earlier, easier times?
Anno Brandsma had had a happy start in life. He was born on Feb. 23, 1881, into a prosperous farming family in the northwest province of Friesland, an area that was predominantly Calvinist. He was the first son after four daughters. Another brother followed later. Daily Mass and prayer were priorities for the musical family and eventually five of the Brandsma siblings would enter religious life. His younger brother became a Franciscan priest.
At the age of 17, Anno entered the Carmelite monastery in Boxmeer at which time he changed his name to Titus, symbolizing the taking on of a new life in Christ. During his novitiate he began studying the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish reformer of the Carmelite order. This work became a lifelong passion for him and before his ordination he had translated several of her works into the Dutch language. He was ordained in 1905.
The brilliant scholar was sent to Rome where he received his Doctorate in Philosophy at the Gregorian Pontifical University in 1909. After graduation he returned to Holland to teach theology and philosophy. According to Hanley (op. cit.), “Busy Titus always had time for people. The more unfortunate they were, the more time he gave them.” He would drop everything he was doing and “turn full attention to the plight of any distressed person who showed up unannounced on his doorstep.”
Now, in prison at Schevingen, he was the one distressed. So what did he do?
He set up a small altar in his cell: “Now, He is my only refuge,” he said. He related how he began his day: “I make the sign of the Cross and greet Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the shelf over my bed and put on my stockings and slippers.” One day, years earlier, a student had asked him why he wore the signature Carmelite white cape. He answered: “It’s a sign of Mary’s protection. I have so much trust, actually, certainty, in her help!”
Before his arrival at Dachau he had written: “In Dachau I will meet friends and God the Lord is everywhere.” Dachau: the notorious prison concentration camp where 850 priests would be murdered by the end of the war. Fellow prisoner Polish priest Fr. Urbanski said of him, “He was so even-tempered and approachable, he deeply touched our hearts.” Another prisoner priest recalled: “He radiated cheerful courage.” He constantly encouraged his fellow prisoners: “Do not yield to hatred – we are here in a dark tunnel but we have to go on. At the end the eternal light is shining for us.” Father Brandsma died by lethal injection on July 26, 1942. He was 61 years old.
He was beatified by Pope St. John Paul ll in 1985 and on Nov. 25, 2021, the Vatican issued a decree approving of the miracle for his canonization. He was one of ten new saints canonized by Pope Francis on last week on May 15, 2022.
In an article in Crisis magazine (May 5, 2021) Father Dwight Longenecker lamented the pusillanimity of many our pastors and cited it as one of the most striking problems in the Church today.
Father Brandsma often used to tell his students: “He who wants to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come in conflict with it.