The courageous witness of “The Lion of Münster”

An interview with Father Daniel Utrecht, C.O., author of a biography of Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, who risked his life by speaking out against the Nazi regime.

Father Daniel Utrecht, C.O., is a priest of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, Toronto. He is a graduate of the University of Dallas (B.A., Philosophy), and the University of Toronto (Ph.D., philosophy). He joined the Oratory in 1980 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1985. Father Utrecht teaches in St Philip’s Seminary, directed by the Fathers of the Oratory, and is Pastor of St Vincent de Paul Church in Toronto. Previous publications include a translation of a biography of St Philip Neri, Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy by Paul Türks.

He is the author of the new book The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis (TAN, 2016), a biography of Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, the bishop of the diocese of Münster in Germany from 1933 to 1946, who risked his life by speaking out against the Nazi regime.

Fr. Utrecht corresponded recently by email with Catholic World Report about the book.

CWR: Why did you write this book?

Fr. Daniel Utrecht: I have had a fascination with Blessed Cardinal von Galen for more than a quarter of a century.  This grew when I had an opportunity to meet his nephew in 1991.  Since then I have tried to read everything about him that I could, which was a real struggle, because most of it is in German.  I kept hoping for someone to write a good English-language biography.  Finally, in 2005, when I was with some of the leaders of our World Youth Day group in Germany at a museum that had a display about him, I told them his story.  One of them said, “Why have I never heard of this guy?  Somebody should write a book about him.”  I decided that somebody must be me.

CWR: What is the message of this book?

Fr. Utrecht: First of all it is a story of heroism—of courage and fidelity in an extremely difficult historical situation, and of the struggles of dealing with a regime that attacks the Church and her faith.  As Bishop of Münster, Clemens August von Galen encouraged his people to remain true to their Catholic faith when the Nazi Party which governed Germany was spreading a racist, pagan ideology; and to remain true to the moral law when that same Party ideology taught that might makes right, denying the natural moral law.  He told people not to cooperate with evil even at the risk of martyrdom, reminding them of a German official in a previous time who refused an unjust order of his king by saying, “My head is at the king’s disposal, but not my conscience.”

CWR: Who are you writing for?

Fr. Utrecht: Anyone who is interested in the history of Nazi Germany and World War II.  Anyone who is interested in German resistance to Hitler.  Anyone who is interested in the problem of how the Church and individual Christians deal with an unjust regime.  Anyone who likes true stories of heroism and sanctity.   Because of his outspoken public criticism of the regime’s practice of ‘euthanasia’, his story is also of great interest to anyone involved in pro-life work.

CWR: The title of your new book refers to “The Lion of Münster.” Where did you get this title?

Fr. Utrecht: It was a title that the people of Münster never heard until his funeral in March 1946.  In the funeral sermon, Cardinal Frings said that at Rome, where they had both been recently made cardinals, the people called von Galen the Lion of Münster.

CWR: Your subtitle is “The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis.” How did Cardinal von Galen roar against the Nazis?

Fr. Utrecht: He is most famous for three sermons in the summer of 1941, against the injustices of the Gestapo, the confiscation of the houses of religious orders, and the killing of the handicapped and mentally ill.  This was incredibly brave, because at that time, Germany was doing very well in the war.  He anticipated the objection that he would be criticized for weakening the home front during the war by saying that those who weakened the home front were those who failed to act justly.  He predicted that if Germany did not return to justice, she would collapse from inner rottenness and decay despite the bravery of her soldiers in the field.  The local Gestapo officials urged that he be arrested and publicly hanged, but Berlin argued that making him a martyr would be counterproductive to the war effort.  Revenge, said Joseph Goebbels, is a dish best served cold.  They would take care of him after they had won the war.

However, von Galen’s public opposition to Nazi ideology went back almost to the beginning of his time as bishop.  In early 1934 he condemned the racist, neo-pagan ideology of Alfred Rosenberg.  In 1936, in a sermon about martyrdom, he spoke of ‘fresh graves in German lands’ in reference to Catholics who had been killed by the Nazis.  For years he fought for the existence of the Catholic schools.  He was one of the main inspirations behind Pope Pius XI’s encyclical “Mit brennender Sorge”, and had more copies of it printed than did any other German bishop.

One of my favorite stories is of the time a Nazi heckler interrupted his sermon on family life by shouting, “a celibate has no business talking about family life.”  The bishop pounded his fist on the pulpit and shouted back, “I will tolerate no reflection on the Führer in my cathedral!”

CWR: Although this book is a historical work, you hold a doctorate in philosophy. How did this background influence your approach to this biographical material?

Fr. Utrecht: I am fascinated by the brilliance of his rhetoric—although he did not have a good reputation as an orator—and by the clarity of his thinking and teaching—although he did not have a good reputation as a scholar!  He had a habit of arguing from first principles, whether in dealing with what reason can know about God, or with moral questions, or with questions of political philosophy or social ethics.  My background as a philosopher has led me to quote extensively from his sermons, articles, pastoral letters, and other writings.

CWR: You are a member of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. What traces of your Oratorian heritage, if any, will readers find in this book?

Fr. Utrecht: Interesting question.  They may find something that I am not aware is there, because we become unconscious of what is second nature to us, even though it is obvious to others.  St Philip was a man of prayer and the Oratory takes its name from a place dedicated to prayer.  Certainly I am impressed with Blessed Clemens August’s life of prayer, his piety, and his fidelity to the Holy Father.

CWR: What were some of the blessings you experienced in writing this book?

Fr. Utrecht: I received great help and encouragement from many people both in North America and in Germany who pointed out sources of information I was unaware of, and made comments on the work in progress.  Through the advice of a friend in Germany, I was able to interview a couple of women who could share personal memories of the Cardinal.

CWR: What were some challenges you found in writing this book?

Fr. Utrecht: No doubt the biggest was working through hundreds of sermons, letters, and speeches in German, which is not my first language.  Also that I am not a trained historian.  So, although I was able to make several visits to Germany during the years I worked on this book, most of my research was done in already published work.

CWR: How has your faith grown or evolved over the years?

Fr. Utrecht: I don’t have any idea how to answer this.  I realize that I have been blessed with a strong faith, something for which I am grateful to God.

CWR: Who have been the biggest influences, living and dead, on your faith and ministry?

Fr. Utrecht: St Philip Neri.  St Thomas Aquinas.  St John Paul II.  G.K. Chesterton.  Blessed Clemens August von Galen!  Among the living ones, certainly my confreres in the Toronto Oratory, especially our founder and superior, Father Jonathan Robinson.  And Pope Benedict XVI.

CWR: How do you pray?

Fr. Utrecht: At the Oratory, we have two half-hour periods of mental prayer each day before the Blessed Sacrament.  The teaching of St Francis de Sales on meditation in The Introduction to the Devout Life has been a great help to me.  After many years, there is a simplification, and sometimes one is just there in the presence of the Lord.  At times when distractions or tiredness are overwhelming, I like to picture our Lord waking up the apostles to pray and ask Him to do the same for me.

CWR: What are your hopes for the future?

Fr. Utrecht: Heaven.  In the shorter term, that more people come to know how good God is and come to (or come back to) the Church and the sacraments.

CWR: What regrets do you have about the past?

Fr. Utrecht: We could always do better in bearing witness to Christ.  I am sure there are countless times I have not shown people His true face as I should.

CWR: What is your favorite Bible passage and why?

Fr. Utrecht: I love the first three chapters of the Book of Wisdom: the assertion of reason’s ability to know that there is a God who gives existence to all things warms my Thomist heart.  The description of how the ungodly seek death and of their materialistic reasoning is profound both in its metaphysics and its phenomenology, leading on to their hatred of the righteous man – a prophecy of our Lord’s Passion.  And then the wonderful passage about the souls of the righteous being in the hand of God.

CWR: If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?

Fr. Utrecht: Thank you for telling the world about the devotion to our Lady, Undoer of Knots.

CWR: What do you want people to take away from your life and work?

Fr. Utrecht: Now that I’ve done this book, I would love for more people to know Blessed Clemens August; and through him, as through all the saints, know Christ better.

CWR: Any final thoughts?

Fr. Utrecht: There is very much that is timely in Cardinal von Galen’s struggles, very  much that we can learn from in our own struggles for life and for the faith.  May he be an inspiration for us, and may we repay that by a devotion that leads to his canonization.

Undated photo of Clemens August Kardinal Graf von Galen (Wikipedia)

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About Sean Salai 13 Articles
Dr. Sean M. Salai, D.Min, is the culture reporter for The Washington Times. A former Jesuit, he holds a doctorate in evangelization and digital media from The Catholic University of America and is an author of multiple books on Ignatian spirituality.

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