Defender of Truth: The Courage of Blessed Titus Brandsma

The first major biography was just published in English by Carmelite Media.

‘The Price of Truth: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite’ sheds light on a holy soul on the path to sainthood.
‘The Price of Truth: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite’ sheds light on a holy soul on the path to sainthood. (photo: Carmelite Media cropped book cover)

Blessed Titus Brandsma was a wisp of a man. He stood at just 5 feet, 6 inches — quite short for someone from the Netherlands, as Dutch men are believed to be the tallest in the world.

He had many health issues that caused him much suffering during his life. Yet anyone who met Brandsma knew that physical stature said nothing about the enormity of his soul and his courage.

He was seen as so dangerous to the German occupation of the Netherlands that the only solution the Nazis believed was to kill him.

Before he died, in Dachau in 1942, he handed his rosary to the nurse who injected him with poison, reportedly showing no bitterness toward his executioner. 

While the Nazis destroyed Father Brandsma’s body, they didn’t account for the magnificence of his soul and how his story of bravery and faith would outlast the fantasy of a “Thousand-Year Reich.” 

Pope St. John Paul II summed up Brandsma’s life when he beatified him as a martyr for the faith in November 1985. He said Brandsma had a “constant vein of optimism” and that he met “hate with love.” 

“It accompanied him even in the hell of the Nazi camp. Until the end, he remained a source of support and hope for the other prisoners: He had a smile for everyone, a word of understanding, a gesture of kindness,” the Pope said.

Now two things have occurred that will help spread Brandsma’s story.

In November, Pope Francis gave the green light for Brandsma to be canonized, after a miracle attributed to the Dutch priest was finally acknowledged as authentic. The miracle occurred for Father Michael Driscoll, also a Carmelite, whose advanced melanoma was cured in 2004 after appealing to his fellow Carmelite. Father Driscoll was given a small piece of Brandsma’s black suit that he rubbed on his head every day.

In addition, the first major biography of Brandsma was just published in English by Carmelite Media. Titled The Price of Truth: Titus Brandsma, Carmelite, by Miguel Arribas, also a Carmelite priest, the book reads almost like a novel — replete with heroes and villains, then tragedy and hope.

“From the feedback I receive, Brandsma’s decision to live out his faith knowing what the consequences would be touches people on the deepest level,” Father William Harry, director of Carmelite Media Publications, said in an interview with the Register. “We need people who show us it is possible to have the strength [to] stand up for what we believe and who we are.” 

Brandsma was born on Feb. 23, 1881, in Freisland, the northernmost province of Holland, and given the name of Anno Sjoerd, after St. Anno, a German bishop who founded monasteries in Northern Europe in the 11th century.

He was born to a devout farming family. His father, Titus Brandsma, prayed the Rosary every evening and would read aloud from the Bible, The Imitation of Christ and the Lives of the Saints.

When Brandsma was ordained in 1905, he took the name Titus in honor of his father.  

He was a topflight academic. In 1923, he was named to the new Catholic University of the Netherlands in Nijmegen. He taught philosophy and theology, but his real passion was the history of Dutch mysticism. 

“We must first recognize God as the deepest ground of our being hidden in the most profound depths of our nature, yet able to be seen and contemplated …” Brandsma said in one of his most famous lectures, as recounted in the new biography. He described mysticism this way:

“Once we have made this way of thinking habitual, we become capable of seeing Him, as it were, intuitively, without any intellectual effort, so that we find ourselves in continual contemplation of God and adoring Him not only within ourselves but also in everything that exists: first of all in our fellow man, but also in nature, in the universe, present everywhere and penetrating all things with the work of his hands.” 

He was deeply loved by his students for the individual care he gave them, though when he was appointed rector magnificus of the university, some, including at the Vatican, oddly complained that Brandsma was too short to occupy such a lofty position. 

Father Brandsma’s other duties were to oversee the vibrant Dutch Catholic press. 

Brandsma’s position was not just a mere honorary or administrative position. As Arribas explains, the Dutch priest saw Catholic newspapers as on the forefront of promoting the truth of the faith.

“Should the Catholic press abandon this ideal of being a weapon of truth, its very existence would make no sense, either for us journalists or for the Church,” Brandsma said.

When the Germans took control of the Netherlands in May 1940, they wanted to not only stop physical resistance but also sway the Dutch people to embrace Nazism. 

The German authorities insisted that all newspapers, Catholic and secular, print pro-Nazi press releases and encouraged ordinary Dutch men and women to join Nazi groups.

The Catholic bishops were having none of it. Their opening salvo was a pastoral letter that Catholics were forbidden from being part of any Nazi organization. Those that ignored the letter were to be denied the sacraments.

Then Brandsma decided to visit Catholic newspaper editors and made it clear that any cooperation with the Nazis would mean no longer being able to call themselves Catholic. 

He could have left this task to the bishops, as it would have been more difficult for Nazi officials to arrest those so high in the Church hierarchy. But Brandsma saw it as his duty and knew he would likely be arrested. 

Titus was taken into custody on Jan. 19, 1942, at the Carmelite Priory in Nijmegen by the Germans. Arribas describes his departure as typical of Brandsma’s calm and trust in the Lord: 

“Father Titus took each one warmly by the hand, and then, as was the custom before leaving the house, knelt to ask the prior’s blessing. At the threshold he turned with a little smile and whispered: ‘Memento mei’ — pray for me — and then departed.” 

He went through another of the camps, finally arriving at Dachau — once described, among other things, as “the largest priest cemetery in the world.” The guards were sadistic. Prisoners who were not worked to death were eventually killed. Beatings were the norm. The doctors performed perverse medical experiments, treating their victims as mere lab rats.

Yet The Price of Truth shows that even with his health getting worse by the day, Brandsma did all he could to encourage his fellow prisoners not to lose heart. He was known to share the little food he received with others. And he prayed without ceasing for all, including the guards.

Brandsma was murdered with a shot of poison on July 26, 1942. He told the nurse to use his rosary to pray. She saw no point of it, as she was not religious.

In 1956, at a German war-crimes hearing, the same nurse voluntarily testified about Brandsma’s last day.

“I sensed immediately that he felt very sorry for me. … Once he took me by the hand and said, ‘What a poor girl you are. I pray for you a lot.’”

The woman, who became a Catholic, told the hearing:

“I have killed a holy man.” 

Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.