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On the extraordinary courage and compassion of Titus Brandsma

 The priest, professor, and journalist saw the good where others didn’t. He saw the evil, too. 

Blessed Titus Brandsma, O.Carm. / public domain

Ink on ink” is this journalist’s most vexing professional pet peeve, but in this case, I’ll make an exception.

The exceptional case is that of a Dutch scribbler born to the world Anno Sjoerd Brandsma in 1881. He grew up Catholic on a dairy farm deep in Calvinist country, and took the Carmelite habit when he was still a teenager.

I’m talking about the fellow we know as Titus Brandsma, the Dutch Carmelite friar and priest and philosophy professor and journalist, who got himself in trouble with his country’s Nazi invaders and paid with his life, who had a miracle pinned on him this week.

The miracle the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has attributed to Bl. Titus Brandsma’s intercession is the inexplicable healing of a Carmelite priest, Fr. Michael Driscoll O.Carm, in the US state of Florida, from very advanced and highly aggressive cancer.

The theological consultors who investigated Fr. Driscoll’s case gave their “thumbs up” to the miraculous character of the priest’s cure in May of this year. The Carmelites apparently were expecting official approval of their finding to come in early 2022, but one doubts there will be any strenuous objection to the anticipation.

Already counted among the Blessed – the Nazis used him for “medical experimentation” in Dachau, where he received a lethal dose – the practical upshot of this development is that Titus Brandsma will soon be canonized a saint.

Titus was a trained philosopher and university professor. In fact, he was among the founders of the Catholic University of Nijmegen and served as the president (rector magnificus) of the institution in the early 1930s, but was not much for scholarship.

Titus was not what we’d call a “champion of orthodoxy” these days. He believed it all – don’t get me wrong – but wasn’t too terribly interested in doctrinal squabbling. He saw the good where others didn’t. He saw the evil, too.

Titus found antisemitism particularly obnoxious, and decried it with exemplary vim for a decade – before, during, and after the outbreak of war and invasion of his native land – never ceasing to organize resistance to the Nazis’ ideas. He was popular enough with local folks to earn himself an offer of an easy way out of trouble from the invaders. To hear Vatican News tell it:

[Titus Brandsma] was arrested when Germany invaded the Netherlands and told that he would be allowed to live a quiet life in a monastery if he would announce that Catholic newspapers should publish Nazi propaganda. Titus refused and he died of hardship and starvation in the Dachau concentration camp on 26 July 1942.

Bl. Titus didn’t just refuse, though. The Catholic Bishops of the Netherlands refused to publish official Nazi “information” in Catholic publications, and put their refusal in writing. Titus Brandsma personally handed the bishops’ order to several editors before the Nazis arrested him. Some reports say Titus thus delivered more than a dozen such letters before the Nazis caught him.

One account of his official arrest record says the Nazis brought him in “for attempting to coordinate collective resistance of the Catholic press to the reorganization of the press as a whole.”

That’s the kind of courage one finds it far easier to admire than to emulate.

Frankly, it’s the kind of gumption one would rather not have the chance to show.

It doesn’t stop there, though. The Carmelite archive has the original handwritten beginnings of a biography of St. Teresa of Avila, which Bl. Titus began while under arrest. He wrote in the margins of a book his jailers had allowed him to keep.

Titus turned over the last of his tobacco several months before his death at Dachau. If you ask this reformed pipe smoker, that’s less than perfect timing. As Bl. Titus told the story, it couldn’t be helped:

On Thursday morning, January 29, it was the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, gentle patron saint of journalists. I had cleaned my pipe and had lighted it for my morning walk when a German soldier entered with a new order. I had to hand over tobacco and cigars, pipe and matches. I was not allowed to smoke any more.

Luckily I happened to think of the mild Francis de Sales, otherwise, I might have said something unkind. I emptied my pipe and gave it up. The soldier said in pity that it was not his fault. I understood. To comfort me, he said that I could keep the other things—books, paper, and so on—which is very fortunate. They will profit me more, though I miss my pipe and cigar. I deleted “smoking” from the daily timetable and the day went on.

Other accounts – including Pope St. John Paul II’s homily for Titus’s 1985 beatification – mention the extraordinary compassion Bl. Titus Brandsma showed to everyone, including the camp “nurse” who administered his lethal dose. Titus reportedly promised to pray for her, and encouraged her to pray, even offering her his rosary. When she said she couldn’t say it anymore, he encouraged her: “Surely you can still say, ‘Pray for us sinners’.”

We can all say that.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 158 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

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