Just being a Christian is perhaps the most difficult thing,
for we never are, and only can be in death a little bit, at most.
“Can only Catholics become saints?”
It’s a question I frequently get when I start talking to my mostly Protestant students about the saints. I do my best to lay out for them the Catholic vision of the economy of salvation – actual and sanctifying grace; sacraments, works, and faith; the connections between the church militant, suffering, and triumphant; the difference between living saint, canonized saint, and saint as citizen of heaven – but it’s like a foreign language, and their faces say it all: “Huh?”
That’s when I play the Charles Lwanga card.
Charles Lwanga and his companions were 19th-century Ugandan Christians. Most of them were lay catechists, including Lwanga, or catechumens being catechized. They were executed en masse in 1886 by a Ugandan chief who resented being rebuffed after making homosexual overtures to the young Christian pages of his court. The story of the Ugandan martyrs is one of immense valor and fortitude, but what’s of particular relevance to my students is that the group included both Catholics and Anglicans – and they all suffered the same fate for the same Lord.
When Pope Paul VI canonized the group, he made special mention of the Anglican members, and while they couldn’t be formally included in the Roman calendar, their sacrifice was acknowledged. It was a clear and intentional example of the Church commemorating an ecumenism of blood – a phrase that Pope Francis has been using frequently, and which he directly tied to Lwanga’s mixed communion of martyrs in 2015:
And 50 years ago Blessed Paul VI, at the canonization of the young martyrs of Uganda, made reference to this: that for the same reason, their Anglican catechist companions also shed their blood. They were Christians, they were martyrs. Forgive me, do not be scandalized, but they are our martyrs because they gave their lives for Christ! And this is the ecumenism of blood!
Like Charles Lwanga and companions, the German wartime resistance group known as the White Rose was ecumenical, and its martyred members similarly shared in the same glory, regardless of church affiliation – Lutheran, Orthodox, Catholic, and even vaguely atheist.
Taking its name from a Paschal image in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the White Rose came together in 1942. The group comprised students from various backgrounds and regions who were all were utterly opposed to Nazism. They were particularly dismayed that the German populace seemed to have accepted the political status quo, especially with regards to the monstrous genocidal aims of the Third Reich. Based largely in Munich, White Rose students took inspiration from a variety of thinkers and writers who sketched out a vision for freedom that was antithetical to Hitler’s reigning Aryan-supremacist ideology. Some of that inspiration was Catholic-tinged and even outright Catholic, including ideas drawn from Aquinas and Augustine.
Most White Rose members and leaders were Christians of one sort or another. This included Catholic Willi Graf whose involvement in White Rose was directly tied to his faith commitment. As a lad, he instinctively rejected Nazi ideology and refused to participate in Hitler Youth programming – and also refusing associate with anyone who did. Instead, Graf joined alternative, illegal Catholic youth groups, which in turn landed him in jail for a period of time.
After his release, Graf continued his schooling and eventually began training in medicine. Wartime service was mandatory for students, and Graf served as a medic on several tours to the front, serving with tremendous courage and compassion that drew notice of others. On one of those tours, he met Hans Scholl, raised a Lutheran, as well as Alexander Schmorell, a practicing Russian Orthodox, who were also fulfilling their student service at the front. The three found they shared a revulsion for the war and the Nazi regime, and began discussing what could be done. After returning to Munich, they, along with Hans’s sister, Sophie, and a trusted mentor, philosophy professor Kurt Huber, began meeting to discuss how to turn popular opinion against the Nazis.
They drew inspiration from the sermons of Blessed Clemens von Galen, the Bishop and “Lion” of Münster, whose fiery rhetoric denouncing Hitler and Nazism was propagated throughout Germany in mimeographed form. “Finally someone has the courage to speak,” said Hans Scholl of Von Galen’s sermons, “and all you need is a duplicating machine.” The White Rose members decided to adopt a similar tactic, and they composed a leaflet urging their fellow Germans to revolt against their overlords and put down the Nazi hegemony. They made copies and distributed them through the mail, focusing on college professors as recipients (and bar owners). Later, they began distributing by hand, not just in the Munich area, but other cities as well.
Graf contributed to the leaflets and helped distribute them. On one occasion, as Hans and Sophie Scholl were distributing their sixth leaflet in the University of Munich, a loyal Nazi janitor turned them in. Hans had a draft of a seventh leaflet on him which had been handwritten by Christoph Probst, a young husband and father, and Scholl tried to destroy it before the Nazis found it. He failed, and the Nazis matched the handwriting to Probst. Subsequently, the two Scholls were arrested as was Probst.
The Scholls had a chance to briefly visit with their parents during this period; Probst had no visitors because his family wasn’t aware of his being detained – not even his wife nor his baby daughter whom he had not yet met. On Feb. 22, 1943, there was a trial, but the outcome was never in doubt, and the three White Rose rebels were summarily beheaded the very day their death sentences were handed down. Other arrests followed in the weeks and months ahead, and while some received prison sentences, three other White Rose members were eventually executed – Schmorell, Graf, and Professor Huber.
It’s noteworthy that Probst had only vague religious notions while active in the White Rose resistance, but after his arrest and sentencing, he decided to be baptized in the Catholic Church – minutes before his execution as it turned out. Consequently, and without second-guessing the economy of salvation, it’s not inappropriate to surmise that Probst is truly a saint – that his death immediately after baptism meant admission to Paradise, just like the Good Thief who surrendered himself to Christ on Golgotha.
Yet, does that make Probst a martyr? What about Graf and the others – what’s the bar for the martyr label? The Catechism teaches us that martyrdom is about witness – witness “unto death.”
The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude (§2473).
Certainly Probst and the other White Rose members demonstrated fortitude, and their resistance to Hitler was rooted in their faith as well as Christian teaching on justice and solidarity. Yet their executions at the hands of the state were more directly tied to political offenses, and they were not being singled out for their religious convictions. Indeed, their accusers would’ve forcibly argued that the actions of White Rose rebels flew in the face of true Christianity – that authentic German followers of Christ, Lutheran or otherwise, would support the state, especially during wartime.
However, the Orthodox cleared away this line of argumentation by canonizing Alexander Schmorell in 2012. “The death of a martyr is always comprised of both the love for Christ,” said Fr. Niolai Artemoff at the Munich Glorification ceremony, “as well as, through this love, the exposure of wickedness of evildoers in this world.” Here is how Schmorell summarized his sacrifice in a letter to his parents – his last: “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!!” The Orthodox canonization of Schmorell seems like a compelling argument in favor of recognizing the saintliness of the other White Rose martyrs, regardless of their tradition. It would be an ecumenical gesture in line with Paul VI’s canonization the Ugandan martyrs, not to mention a tremendous witness to the kind of heroic fortitude that all Christians should be aspiring to today.
The story of the White Rose martyrs raises other questions aside from ecumenical ones. For instance, what’s the proper calculus when weighing risks and benefits with regards to civil disobedience – even in an unquestionably just cause? And what are the obligations of the faithful in extreme such circumstances (such as those faced by the White Rose), and do those obligations extend to us all equally? I’m thinking especially about dads here – like Probst, a husband and father of young children. Should he have prudently avoided involvement in the White Rose’s seditious activities given the risks and despite his sympathies? The acts of commission and omission that lead to martyrdom can have weighty ethical and prudential dimensions that require consideration, but may not be thoroughly resolved before action is required.
But these are hypotheticals, and most of us will never face real martyrdom. Nonetheless, we can ask ourselves if we live as martyrs anyway – that is, like those unwilling to alter our loyalty to Christ and his Church when it’s expedient to do so? And for us parents? Do we raise our children that way? Do we model it for them?
The need for such models today is clear. “Our society is poor in Christian models,” said Msgr. Helmut Moll of Cologne anticipating the 2005 World Youth Day. “We need figures who are an example of faith, hope and charity.” Moll went on to suggest that the White Rose represents precisely the kind of role models that World Youth Day attendees, as well as all young Christians, need in these times. “These martyrs are real models of faith who have something to say to all our young people.”
Their stories say it loud and clear: “This is what sanctity looks like.” Are we listening?