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A fearless Saint for All Saints’ Day: Blessed Rupert Mayer

He didn’t serve a disembodied political cause; he served living, breathing human beings, soldiers who needed encouragement and the sacraments on the battlefield.

Father Rupert Mayer, c. 1938, in a mugshot from Landsberg am Lech (Wikipedia); right: Rupert Mayer's grave in the Burgersaalkirche undercroft (Nheyob/Wikipedia)

On All Saints’ Day, the Church invites us to remember every man, woman, and child who has entered Heaven before us, not just those who have been granted the title of “saint” or “blessed”. Surely every Catholic can think of deceased loved ones who lived simple but faithful lives and who, we can hope, are rooting for us from the other side.

The Church also celebrates twenty-two men and women as saints and blesseds by name on November 1, typically because they died on that day of the year. One of those blesseds is a perfect example of how to live a virtuous, holy life in tumultuous times and who responded to trials with the time-tested Gospel weapons of truth, faithfulness, and fearlessness.

Blessed Rupert Mayer was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1876. He studied theology and philosophy, became a priest and a Jesuit, and settled in Munich. When Germany entered World War I, he volunteered to serve as an army chaplain.

Mayer volunteered not because he cared about being on the “right side” or “wrong side” of history, but because he cared about souls. He didn’t serve a disembodied political cause; he served living, breathing human beings, soldiers who needed encouragement and the sacraments on the battlefield. Mayer was so devoted to his men that he became a living legend to the German people. He was awarded the Iron Cross for the repeated bravery he showed by staying with his soldiers even on the front lines—a commitment that caused him to lose his left leg in a grenade attack.

After the war ended, the people of Germany were devastated and poor. Mayer cared for the desperate souls of the residents of Munich by preaching all over the city, sometimes multiple times a day. He found practical ways to help the needy and those who were unemployed. He even said Mass at a railroad terminal to reach travelers. As the spirits of the German people became more and more depressed by poverty and political instability, Communist and Socialist movements became more and more vocal in offering false solutions to their problems.

Mayer recognized the errors taught by these groups, and he was not silent about them. But he also attended their meetings and shared the stage with their speakers. Rather than just demonizing his opponents—and the racist teachings of National Socialism were certainly demonic—he publicly debated with them and explained Catholic principles in response to their arguments.

When Adolf Hitler came to power and started a smear campaign against religious orders, Mayer spoke out against this persecution of the Church. The Gestapo ordered him to stop speaking in public, so he only spoke in church. A lot. Mayer was arrested by the Nazis three times. The third time, he was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. Conditions in this camp were so brutal that the sixty-three-year-old Mayer became dangerously ill.

But Mayer was a decorated war hero, known all over Germany, and the Gestapo feared that his death in the camp would make him a martyr and make them unpopular. Mayer was therefore moved to a Benedictine abbey in Germany which had been turned into a prison. Mayer was placed in solitary confinement until American forces liberated him at the end of the war.

How did Mayer respond to the brutal, unjust actions of his country’s government? Rather than using violence to oppose their violence, he used reason to win minds. He performed works of mercy to care for those in need. Most importantly, he was willing to suffer for his convictions, suffering which included persecution and inhumane treatment. He chose peace, even in war.

After World War II, Mayer returned to Munich, where he threw himself back into his priestly vocation. But his health had deteriorated during imprisonment, and he was almost seventy years old. He died suddenly, seven months after his liberation from prison while celebrating Mass on this date in 1945.

How would Blessed Rupert Mayer respond to the turmoil, injustice, and uncertainty of our own times? He would tell us to “Be not afraid!” even when opponents of the Gospel outnumber and outspend us. He would remind us that “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword,” and that we should fight our battles with reason and truth, not anger and violence. And Blessed Rupert Mayer would tell us to die like he did: on his feet, fearlessly living his vocation, as a true follower of Jesus Christ.


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About Dawn Beutner 26 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

2 Comments

  1. Father Mayer lost a leg in WWI in a grenade attack. A grenade we assume tossed by a Tommy, Poilu, Yank or maybe a soldier of any number of countries that fought against the Germans. Perhaps even a Catholic soldier. A grenade thrown at a Catholic priest but certainly not recognized as such in the melee, just another German soldier to be killed.

    Fast forward to WWII when Father Mayer was liberated by perhaps the same army that threw a grenade at him roughly 27 or 28 years earlier.

    Father Mayer’s fascinating and inspiring story illustrates the sad irony of war. At one time a German soldier to be killed and later a German to be liberated and by his old foe at that. The irony boggles the mind. Sometimes unfortunately war is the only tool that fits but it is always tragic and a perfect waste. I am consoled by both the fact that Father Mayer survived both wars and by the thought of the souls that he led to Christ. What a priest. What a man.

    Thank you Ms. Beutner for sharing his story.

    • I am reminded of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed.”

      Yes; quaint and curious war is!
      You shoot a fellow down
      You’d treat if meant where any bar is,
      Or help to half-a-crown.

      Seems to say it all.

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