I have written about Titus Brandsma before, but I thought the fact that I am going to visit Dachau in a few months time, I thought it would be a good time for another post on the Dutch Catholic Friar. He also has a connection to Ireland, where I live now.
Titus Brandsma was born in the Netherlands on Feb. 23, 1881. His parents named him Anno Sjoerd Brandsma and he grew up in the rural setting of Oegeklooster in the province of Friesland. His family lived on the proceeds of the milk and cheese produced by their dairy cattle.
His parents, who ran a small dairy farm and were devout and committed Catholics, a minority in a predominantly Calvinist region. Except for one daughter, all of their children (three daughters and two sons) entered religious orders.
The grounds of the Franciscan friary in Megen where Brandsma did his high school studies. From the age of 11, Brandsma pursued his secondary studies in the town of Megen, at a Franciscan-run minor seminary for boys considering a priestly or religious vocation.
Brandsma felt a calling to the religious life and joined the Carmelite monastery in Boxmeer, Southeastern Netherlands, in 1898, taking his father’s name, Titus, as his religious name.
Although the Carmelites are known for separating themselves from worldly affairs and engaging in contemplative prayer, Brandsma felt called to a second vocation, journalism, that would draw him into the drama of interwar Europe.
Brandsma was ordained to the priesthood on June 17, 1905. After studying in Rome, he returned home to work in the field of Catholic education.
When the Catholic University of Nijmegen was founded in 1923, he joined the faculty, rising to become the institution’s Rector Magnificus, or head, in 1932. With fears of a second world war rising in Europe, Brandsma was asked by his superiors in Rome to undertake a lecture tour of Carmelite foundations in the United States in 1935.
To improve his English, he visited Ireland, staying with Carmelite communities in Dublin and the picturesque coastal town of Kinsale. Titus Brandsma stayed with his Irish Carmelite brothers at Whitefriar Street in Dublin and Kinsale, Co Cork. He later wrote with warmth about his time in Ireland where he met, among others, the president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State Éamon de Valera. The same Éamon de Valera would offer condolences to the German people after Hitler killed himself.
After Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, the authorities imposed severe restrictions on the Church. They ordered Catholic schools to expel Jewish students, barred priests and religious from serving as high school principals, restricted charitable collections and censored the Catholic press. The Dutch bishops asked Brandsma to plead their cause, but without success.
He came to the notice of Nazi authorities even before their occupation of the Netherlands in 1940 as he had written critically of National Socialism at the Dutch Catholic University of Nijmegen, where he was a professor and the press. Accused of being an ally of communism, he was dubbed by the Nazis as “the Dangerous Little Friar”
During the occupation of the Netherlands by the Nazis he actively opposed the publication of Nazi propaganda in Catholic newspapers and in the press generally. In his role as an adviser to the Archbishop of Utrecht he encouraged Dutch bishops to speak out strongly against the persecution of Jews and the infringement of basic human rights by Nazi occupiers.
In January 1942 he delivered a letter from the Catholic bishops to editors of Catholic newspapers in the Netherlands instructing them not to comply with a new law requiring they print Nazi advertisements and articles. He was arrested by the Gestapo at the Carmelite priory in Nijmegen.
The friar was taken to a prison in the seaside town of Scheveningen, where the interrogating officer demanded to know why he had disobeyed state regulations.
“As a Catholic, I could have done nothing differently,” Brandsma responded. The officer, Captain Paul Hardegen, later asked Brandsma to express in writing why his countrymen scorned the Dutch Nazi party.
“The Dutch,” the friar wrote, “have made great sacrifices out of love for God and possess an abiding faith in God whenever they have had to prove adherence to their religion … If it is necessary, we, the Dutch people, will give our lives for our religion.”
After being held prisoner in Scheveningen, Amersfoort, and Cleves, Brandsma was transferred to the Dachau concentration camp, arriving there on 19 June. His health quickly gave way, and he was transferred to the camp hospital. He died on 26 July 1942, from a lethal injection administered by a nurse[of the Allgemeine SS, as part of their program of medical experimentation on the prisoners.
The nurse, known as “Titia,” testified that Brandsma gave her his rosary. When she responded that she could not pray and did not need it, he encouraged her to recite the second part of the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners.”
“I started laughing then,” she recalled. “He told me that, if I were to pray a lot, I would not be lost.”
Brandsma is honoured as a martyr within the Catholic Church. He was beatified in November 1985 by Pope John Paul II. His feast day is observed within the Carmelite order on 27 July. On Sunday, 15 May 2022, in front of more than 50,000 people from around the world, Pope Francis canonized Brandsma and nine other saints at a Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in Rome.
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