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Remembering the German bishop who opposed Nazi euthanasia policy

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Clemens von Galen, the man who denounced the Nazis, and became known as ‘the Lion of Münster'.
Clemens von Galen, the man who denounced the Nazis, and became known as ‘the Lion of Münster’.

On his Facebook page last week, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP reminded us that this month marked 75 years since Adolf Hitler put an end to the euthanasia program operating under the Nazi regime. One of the key factors in his decision was the condemnation which came from the Catholic bishops in Germany.

Among those Bishops was Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen, then Bishop of Münster. He preached a series of three homilies which denounced the actions of the Gestapo.

These homilies were printed and distributed far and wide, an action which put not only Bishop von Galen in danger, but his clergy and lay faithful as well. Indeed, 37 of his priests were taken to concentration camps as retribution for his preaching.

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I have had the opportunity to read these homilies this past week, and what strikes me is that they could easily be being preached today.

In his first homily, Bishop von Galen denounced the confiscation of convents and monasteries by the Gestapo, and the imprisonment of so many citizens without cause.

He told the congregation that none of them were safe. He issued the warning because he was aware that he might also be locked up: “Because then I shall not be able to speak in public any longer. I will speak publicly today.”

This good bishop knew the threat to freedom which was occurring under the Nazi regime, and so decided that he would use his pulpit to boldly exercise his freedoms until they were forcibly taken from him.

Reading this homily, I couldn’t help but think of the recent challenges to freedoms we are experiencing today. You will recall that Archbishop Julian Porteous and the entire Australian Catholic Bishops Conference were last year brought before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission for issuing a pastoral letter on the meaning of marriage.

It has recently been announced that the Tasmanian government is proposing changes to the law which would provide some exemptions, but it does not appear that these laws would go far enough to permit an honest conversation about important issues, including marriage.

We should be taking Bishop von Galen’s lead. In the knowledge that tomorrow we may not be free to speak, we should speak publicly today.

In his second homily, the bishop spoke about his concern about what children were being taught in schools. He noted that religion was being removed from the classroom and children were instead being taught false doctrine, much of it diametrically opposed to Catholicism.

Sound familiar? The bishop could have easily been talking about the Safe Schools program and the gender ideology being pushed through Australian schools today.

We should heed his response. After telling parents that they – unfortunately – could not shield their children from what they were being taught in school, the bishop said they could instead model an exemplary Christian life to them at home.

Bishop von Galen used the analogy of a hammer and an anvil. The anti-Catholic influences were the hammer; the family was the anvil. He noted that a piece of metal gets moulded not only by the blows inflicted by the hammer, but also by the firmness and immovability of the anvil. In absorbing and resisting the pressure of the hammer, the anvil was equally formative. He encouraged parents to remain steadfast in their faith so that they could shape their children despite the hostile blows being inflicted by the world.

Bishop von Galen’s final homily condemned the euthanasia of the disabled and mentally ill as murder. He spoke of the abhorrence of the killing of those deemed by society to be unproductive, and publicly announced that he had reported the killings to prosecutors, an action which put him in grave danger of retribution.

But Bishop von Galen often said that it was the duty of Christians to resist the taking of human life, even if it meant losing their own.

In recent weeks, we have seen proposed laws introduced into the NSW parliament which, if passed, would see those who pray outside abortion clinics fined and even jailed. And as I mentioned last week, we are again in the midst of a campaign to legalise euthanasia; the killing of the unproductive.

Bishop von Galen’s homilies have as much relevance to us today as they did to his congregation 75 years ago. They are readily available on the internet if you would like to read them, and I encourage you to do so.

We know that the bishops of Australia will need to continue to be courageous and vocal leaders in the battle against the injustices of our time.

Let us pray for them, through the intercession of Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen, as they seek to lead us in the defence of marriage, the family and human life. May they be steadfast as anvils in the face of so many blows of the hammer.

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