Martyr of Dachau: Blessed Titus Brandsma’s Cause Moves Forward
Anti-Nazi efforts by the Dutch priest saw him imprisoned and killed for his Christian witness.
In 2004, Father Michael Driscoll, a Carmelite priest in Boca Raton, Florida, underwent surgery for Stage 4-5 melanoma, a type of skin cancer. The prognosis was not good. Doctors told him this sort of cancer always returns.
Understandably concerned, he turned to a man he called his “hero,” a Dutch Carmelite priest and scholar murdered by the Nazis at Dachau, Blessed Titus Brandsma. Praying for the diminutive friar’s intercession and touching a second-class relic to his head, Father Driscoll hoped for the best.
Nearly 15 years later, the cancer has not returned.
A miracle? Maybe. As Father Brandsma’s canonization cause’s vice postulator, Father Mario Esposito, told the Sun Sentinel newspaper earlier this year, “There are very exacting standards, and Rome is going to go over this case with a fine-toothed comb.”
Nonetheless, “It appears there is no medical explanation for his cure,” Father Esposito said.
And Dr. Anthony Dardano, an associate dean of Florida Atlantic University’s medical school who helped prepare a medical report for the Vatican says, “Is there a scientific explanation for why he’s alive? No.”
The Register has exclusively learned that Father Esposito was to take the report to Rome Tuesday and present the findings to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints sometime this week.
If approved by the congregation’s medical commission and accepted by the Holy Father, the miracle will qualify Father Brandsma for canonization.
While considered one of history’s “Top 50 Dutchmen,” Blessed Titus is practically unknown outside of Holland and Carmelite communities (although Wikipedia, Dutch and English, and the CarmelNet websites are a wealth of information).
Born as Anno Brandsma in 1881 in northern Holland, his parents, Titus and Tjitsje, were dairy farmers who made and sold their own cheese from their herd of Holstein cows and took their brood of eight to daily Mass. Although Catholics made up just 5% of their native district of Friesland, the elder Brandsma was a community leader and widely respected.
Anno knew his priestly vocation from childhood, so when it came time for high school, he entered a Franciscan-run secondary school for boys interested in becoming clergy.
Following graduation, the 5-foot-1-inch student entered the Carmelite novitiate in 1898, took his first vows and the name Titus after his father the next year, and received ordination in 1905.
After finishing doctoral work in Rome in 1909, he taught high school until 1923, when he helped found the Catholic University of Nijmegen.
Fighting the Nazis
By 1930, Father Brandsma had served as a priest for 25 years. Two years later, he became Nijmegen’s rector, overseeing the expansion of the school and building a priory for his fellow Carmelites.
In the same year he became the university’s rector, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists came to power in Germany. As Hitler grew in notoriety, so did concern about him.
Chief among such people in Holland was Father Brandsma. He lectured, preached and wrote against Nazism. He rightly identified it as a neo-pagan system, one that would ultimately seek to subsume all religion, and ultimately Christianity, under its dominion.
Less than one year after its decisive defeat of Poland, Germany invaded Holland, on May 10, 1940. Fighting there effectively ended just five days later.
Two factors put Father Brandsma on a collision course with the now-occupying Nazis. In addition to the bishops having made him spiritual adviser for Dutch Catholic journalists, they had also made him president of the Union of Directors of Catholic Schools. The press and schools were to prove important battlefields between the Church, the occupiers and the latter’s collaborators.
First came the schools. Shortly after taking over the government, the Dutch National Socialists (NSB) demanded information on every Jewish pupil in Catholic institutes. Additionally, the Germans decided to cut the pay of priests and religious who taught in schools by 40%. Next, the Nazis demanded the removal of all Jewish students from parochial institutions. Father Brandsma told headmasters to resist.
Simultaneously, the Dutch episcopacy ratcheted up pressure on Catholics who cooperated with the occupiers, denying some the sacraments. This enraged the Nazis, but they knew they could not hit the bishops. Instead, they sought a surrogate.
Shortly after the new year in 1942, they found one.
In December 1941, the government decreed the Catholic press could no longer refuse to run NSB press releases or advertisements on account of “principle,” which the Nazis defined as ideology but which the Church saw as faith and morals. Since two Church-run periodicals had already been suppressed and another one was barely allowed to operate, Father Brandsma saw the need for Catholic media to resist.
At the end of the year, he consulted with the head of the Dutch bishops, who sent him to embolden the journalists. Over the first two weeks of 1942, he crisscrossed the country, speaking with his colleagues in the press. Observing these actions, the secret police correctly conjectured Father Brandsma’s objective and accused him to Berlin of “sabotage.”
Then, on Jan. 16, the Catholic press printed a pastoral letter by the nation’s episcopacy condemning the Nazis’ tactics. In response, on Jan. 19, the Germans arrested Father Brandsma. The next day, as Nazi planners in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee developed the “Final Solution,” Father Brandsma began his interrogation under SS Hauptscharführer (Master Sgt.) Hardegen of Gruppe IV (Church Affairs).
After an exhausting game of cat and mouse between the two lasting several weeks, Hardegen understood that the priest could not be turned. This essentially sealed his fate.
Reporting to Berlin, Hardegen wrote, “Brandsma is genuinely a man of character with firm convictions. He wants to ‘protect Christianity’ against National Socialism. He has written against our policy toward the Jews. He is anti-Nazi in principle and shows it everywhere. He does not deny any of these things, but openly admits them. Thus he is to be considered a ‘dangerous man’ and confined accordingly,” as recounted in the book Titus Brandsma: Friar Against Facism by Carmelite Father Leopold Glueckert.
Sent to Dachau
The Nazis shuttled Father Brandsma back and forth between various prisons before Berlin finally decreed he be sent to Dachau concentration camp, where it confined most clergy political prisoners. He arrived June 19.
In the concentration camp, despite unrelenting pain caused by his terrible health and abuse, Blessed Titus maintained his inherent cheerfulness and optimism, as Joseph M. Malham recounts in By Fire Into Light: Four Catholic Martyrs of the Nazi Camps.
Because of this and because he was weak, the guards hated him. One broke his glasses out of spite. His fellow prisoners did what they could to help, but, ultimately, his condition irreparably deteriorated.
Wasted by dysentery, lack of food and other maladies, Father Brandsma had no option but to go into the camp’s hospital. Far from being someplace to convalesce, it was actually where the Nazis did medical experiments on prisoners who were beyond all hope.
During his days in this place, he went from bed to bed offering comfort to those who were in the same situation and heard several confessions.
Watching all of this was a Nazi nurse of Dutch origin whose job it was to give people lethal injections and who hated religion, especially clergy. As she observed Father Brandsma, she would sometimes mock him and religion. This prompted him to engage her in conversation, asking why she hated faith so much.
Not long before she killed him July 26, 1942, at 1:50pm, he gave her his handmade rosary. He told her to pray, and when she laughed at him, he simply told her again to pray.
Sometime in the 1950s, at a Carmelite community in Germany, an aging woman presented herself to the friars, wanting to talk. It was the nurse. She came asking forgiveness for hastening Father Brandsma’s death. Later, at Blessed Titus’ beatification in 1985, she was among the congregants.
As Father Esposito told the Register, “One of the things that strikes one about Blessed Titus is that he incarnated forgiveness. Even when people acting brutally to him, he reacted with the supernatural virtue of charity.”
When asked what Father Brandsma teaches us today, Father Esposito responded, “He’s worthy of people trying to know something about him. When they say the Church was silent in the face of Nazism, that’s just not true. He was part of those voices who stood for the truth in times of real horror and devaluation of human life and all that came with Nazism. His commitment to principles and Christian life are worthy of reflection and veneration.”
Register correspondent Brian O’Neel writes from Quarryville, Pennsylvania.