Four decades before Archbishop Romero famously ordered the Salvadoran army to “stop the repression,” the “Lion of Münster” (Germany) had stared down Hitler’s Gestapo, “in the name of the upright German people, in the name of the majesty of Justice, in the interests of peace and the solidarity of the home front,” and had petitioned, “as a German, an honorable citizen, a representative of the Christian religion, a Catholic bishop ... we demand justice!” (July 13, 1941 Homily—von Galen’s homilies cited here are reported in “Four Sermons in Defiance of the Nazis.”) Conversely, forty years after Bishop von Galen denounced the programmatic euthanasia carried out by the Nazis, Romero warned modern medicine against “approaching the theory of Hitler and the German system of eliminating individuals who are useless.” (Oct. 9, 1977 Hom.) In words that presaged Blessed John Paul’s denunciation of a “Culture of Death,” Romero formulated a theological continuum between opposing abortion and euthanasia on the one hand, and promoting integral development and denouncing injustice on the other hand: “If abortion is logical then the process of the elimination of other people also is logical.” (Ibid.)
Like Romero, the noble-born count and bishop, von Galen, “was particularly remembered for his special concern for the poor and outcasts,” since his days as a parish priest. (Beatification Profile.) “His time spent in Berlin was spent in service to the needy” through traditional charitable practices, such as, “helping the poor, checking on his parishioners, and giving what he could to whomever he could.” (Kratofil, Bishop von Galen: A Catholic Leader Who Spoke Out.) In this way, von Galen earned himself “a reputation for helping the downtrodden of society.” (Id.) This concern for the downtrodden would carry through to von Galen’s famous sermons decrying Nazi abuse of power and defending the victims of Hitler’s killing apparatus.
Like Romero after him, von Galen was pushed from traditional piety to prophetic denunciation by the extraordinary events of his day. As a fitting metaphor for their similar circumstances, both bishops literally were forced out of their cathedrals to preach their climactic sermons almost as itinerant ministers or exiled prophets. Romero preached in churches like El Rosario and El Sagrado Corazón while the Metropolitan Cathedral was occupied by rebels, and von Galen preached in the Church of St Lambert and in Liebfrauen-Ueberlassen Church, after his diocesan cathedral was damaged by Allied bombing. (Beat. Profile, supra.)
In a series of remarkable sermons in response to unwarranted attacks by the National Socialists, Bishop von Galen broke away from strictly pious spirituality in his preaching, and began to touch on political themes. In 1936, he denounced the regime’s heavy handed attempts to reign in the Church. “How are the holy church, the Pope, the bishops, the priests, the members of religious orders, how are the faithful children of the church in Germany disparaged, defamed, derided, publicly and without sanction,” he deplored. “How many Catholics, priests and laity, have been attacked and abused in newspapers and in meetings, have been driven out of their professions and positions, and have without due process of law been imprisoned and maltreated.” (Feb. 9, 1936 Hom.) One is reminded of Romero’s words at Leuven: “In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened and slandered. Six of them are martyrs, having been assassinated ... Religious women have also been the object of persecution. The archdiocesan radio station, Catholic educational institutions and Christian religious institutions have been constantly attacked, menaced, threatened with bombs. Various parish convents have been sacked ...” (Feb. 2, 1980 Address at Leuven University.)
Bishop von Galen’s denunciation reached its crescendo the summer of 1941, when his sermons provided a blow-by-blow account of the regime’s persecution: “the attack on the religious orders which has long been raging in Austria, South Germany and the newly acquired territories of the Warthegau, Luxembourg, Lorraine and other parts of the Reich, has now stricken Westphalia.” (July 13, 1941 Hom.). “[Y]esterday, 12th July, the State Secret Police confiscated the two residences of the Society of Jesus in our city.” (Ibid.) “Yesterday, too, the same cruel fate was inflicted on the missionary sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Steinfurter Strasse, Wilkinghege.” (Id.) “[D]uring the past week the Gestapo has continued its campaign of annihilation against the Catholic orders. On Wednesday 30th July they occupied the administrative centre of the province of the Sisters of Our Lady in Mühlhausen.” (Aug. 3, 1941 Hom.) “On Thursday 31st July, according to reliable accounts, the monastery of the missionary brothers of Hiltrup in Hamm was also occupied and confiscated by the Gestapo and the monks were evicted.” Etc. Romero, of course, maintained a similar practice.
Like Archbishop Romero, Bishop von Galen saw himself forced to publically defend one Catholic order in particular: “I testify as a German and a bishop that I have the greatest respect and reverence for the Jesuit order, which I have known from the closest observation since my early youth for the last fifty years, that I remain bound in love and gratitude until my last breath to the Society of Jesus, my teachers, tutors and friends, and that today I have all the greater reverence for them.” (Jul. 13, supra.) Also like Archbishop Romero, Bishop von Galen had to declare: “Do not be surprised if the good Lord sends us times of trial; Our church is the church of martyrs.” (1936 Hom., supra. Compare Romero’s claim that his was, “a Church that is alive, a Church of martyrs, a Church that is filled with the Holy Spirit.”—Dec. 31, 1978 Hom.) Both bishops found solace in John 15:18: “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” And von Galen’s citation of John 16:2 was especially prophetic: “The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.” (1936, Id.)
Both bishops were targeted for execution—the difference is that the attempts against Romero’s life were successful. After von Galen’s 1941 sermons, a Nazi official proposed to Martin Bormann that the Bishop be killed, and on October 10, 1943 the Bishop's residence was bombed. (Beat. Profile, supra.) Like the March 9, 1980 bombing attempt of the Sagrado Corazón Basilica while Archbishop Romero was presiding mass, the bombing attempt against von Galen failed. “We Christians, of course,” von Galen declared, “are not aiming at revolution.” The Church was on the side of the German people, he said, and would not take arms even against “the enemy within” who wished to do it harm: “we cannot fight with arms. Against him we have only one weapon: endurance—strong, tough, hard endurance.” (Similarly, Archbishop Romero described how the Letters of St. Paul provided the “endurance and encouragement that we need today in order to live in this historical time.”—Dec. 4, 1977 Hom.)
Pope Benedict XVI has, not surprisingly, praised, in similar terms, both bishops. “All of us, and particularly we Germans,” Benedict said when von Galen was beatified in 2005, “are grateful because the Lord has given us this great witness of faith who made the light of truth shine out in dark times and had the courage to oppose the power of tyranny.” (October 9, 2005 Greeting.) He highlighted the same traits of witnessing the faith and opposing tyranny in El Salvador’s martyr: “Archbishop Romero was certainly an important witness of the faith, a man of great Christian virtue who worked for peace and against the dictatorship.” (May 9, 2007 Remarks to Reporters.)
And so he was.