Of the ten canonized saints recently raised up by Pope Francis, the figure of Titus Brandsma, the martyred Carmelite priest from Holland who died at Dachau in 1942, stands out as perhaps the most compelling example for Catholics concerned about the threat of state-sponsored terror and tyranny. For me, certainly, he has been a source of inspiration from the moment I first heard his name back in 1985 when, as a student in Rome, I learned of his impending beatification. Since then, I’ve been snapping up every piece of information I could get my hands on.
So, why does his becoming a saint particularly matter to me? Because the events of his life, including especially the circumstances of his death, dovetailed perfectly with a dissertation I was then writing at the Angelicum. The subject—Christ’s descent into the hell of human hopelessness, specifically in the context of the holocaust of the Jews—drew in large part upon the witness of martyrs like Titus Brandsma, who, subjected to unimaginable sufferings at the hands of his Nazi tormentors, submitted in perfect humility and love to the will of God. Also included were Maximillian Kolbe and Edith Stein, two outsize figures whose sufferings were given chapter-length attention.
But it was Brandsma who became for me someone of special, indeed, singular importance, owing to his vocation as a writer and teacher, pursuits I, too, had taken up, not to mention the sheer impact of his personality on events unfolding in Catholic Holland during the dark days of Nazi occupation.
An esteemed professor at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, which he helped found, later becoming its rector, Brandsma was an expert on mysticism, undertaking a Dutch translation of the writings of Teresa of Avila, which established his scholarly reputation. And if teaching and scholarship were not enough to occupy his time, he practiced journalism as well, infusing his work with a fearlessness and conviction that helped strengthen the hand of the bishops, who, like everyone else, found themselves under the Nazi jackboot. It was Fr. Brandsma who became the official advisor to all the Catholic journalists in the country, urging them to speak out against the abuses and injustices that followed upon the invasion of the homeland in 1940—to reject, as he put it, “the sewer of falsehood” that Nazism represented.
It was this work that got him into difficulties with the Gestapo, which had been keeping a close eye on his activities for some time. It put his life in the gravest possible peril. But none of this would deter him in his efforts to urge resistance to an insane ideology that sought, like the devil himself, the destruction of souls—all souls—that is, including those of the Jewish people, children of the same God as ourselves, whom the Nazis had especially targeted for extermination. “The Church,” he said, “in carrying out its mission, knows no distinction of sex, race or nationality.”
It was on the strength of certitudes like this, issued in the name of all the bishops, that he categorically refused to allow editors of the Catholic press to publish any Nazi propaganda whatsoever, a measure not likely to endear him to Holland’s enemies. And so, by early 1942, having drafted a statement for the hierarchy resolutely condemning Nazi persecution of the Jews, Brandsma found himself arrested by the Gestapo and, in due course, sent off to Dachau to die.
He did not die straightaway. That would happen some months later, in June of 1942. In the meantime, the state of his health being so precarious, he was placed in the camp infirmary where, falling into the clutches of a fanatical Nazi nurse, he would eventually be given the usual fatal injection. It was she, in fact, who routinely executed prisoners in her care, administering the carbolic acid that brought on their deaths. But in the case of Fr. Brandsma, she felt a strange unease in his presence.
It was his unfailing kindness, you see, that proved disarming to her; proved to be her ultimate undoing, actually. Years later, with the beatification process underway, it was she who came forward as a confirming witness to his sanctity. It seems he’d given her a Rosary just before he died. As an avowed atheist and priest hater, she had no use for the gift. But like the drip, drip, drip of a faucet that won’t turn off, the grace of God continued its remorseless flow, moving her at last to reject the Nazi poison. She turned to Christ and became a convert to his Church. She attributes all this to Titus Brandsma, who, upon going home to God, did not forget to storm Heaven on her behalf.
If it is true, as the Catechism (citing St. John of the Cross) insists, that in the evening of our lives we shall be judged on love, then the example of Titus Brandsma is one we must all try and imitate. Not only did he pass the test, acquitting himself before the judgment seat of Almighty God, but his life was an absolute and triumphant expression of that victory. As John Paul II observed on the occasion of Brandsma’s beatification, “Not to answer hatred with hatred…perhaps one of the greatest tests of a person’s moral powers.”
St. Titus Brandsma, Pray for us!