Italian Layman Who Defied the Nazis Deemed ‘Blessed’

Pope: ‘For his great moral and spiritual stature, he is a model for the lay faithful, especially for dads.’

Blessed Joseph Mayr-Nusser
Blessed Joseph Mayr-Nusser (photo: OTFW, Berlin via Wikipedia (CC 3.0))

VATICAN CITY — Italian layman Joseph Mayr-Nusser — who refused to take the Hitler oath — was beatified March 18 in his hometown of Bolsano.

In 1944, Mayr-Nusser, a Catholic husband and father, refused to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler, after being drafted into the German army. He died on the way to the Nazis’ Dachau concentration camp, to which he had been sentenced.

On Sunday, Pope Francis said that Blessed Joseph is a model for all laymen and fathers, “on account of his great moral and spiritual stature.”

Joseph was born on Dec. 27, 1910, to a devout family. Since his family was poor and his older brother Jakob was in seminary studying for the priesthood, Mayr-Nusser didn’t study himself, but worked on the family farm and later as the clerk for the Eccel company in Bolzano.

At the age of 22, he joined the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an international Catholic volunteer organization dedicated to serving the poor and disadvantaged, in an effort to imitate the charity of the charity’s namesake saint.

Mayr-Nusser was also involved in Catholic Action and became head of its division in the Diocese of Trent in 1934. In 1937, he became president of the Bolzano branch of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, spending a large amount of his time visiting the poor and providing them with both material and spiritual support.

When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, Mayr-Nusser joined the anti-Nazi movement “Andreas Hofer Bund.”

A few years later, civil war also broke out in Italy, following the 1943 ousting of Benito Mussolini from power, which led to the German occupation of the northern half of the country.

The Nazi regime had established the “Schutzstaffel,” or “protective squadron.” The regime called not only on local men from Nazi Germany to join the squad, but also took volunteers and conscripted men from both occupied and non-occupied territories.

Mayr-Nusser was among those conscripted from northern Italy, and so in 1944, he was enrolled in an SS unit, forcing him to leave his wife and newborn son for training in Prussia.

However, when it came time for the SS members to swear an oath to Hitler, Mayr-Nusser refused.

According to a fellow comrade, he was “pensive and worried,” but told the general with a “strong voice,” “I cannot take an oath to Hitler in the name of God. I cannot do it because my faith and conscience do not allow it.”

Although his friends tried to convince him to retract his statement and take the oath, Mayr-Nusser refused, believing that Nazi ideals could in no way be reconciled with Christian ethics and values.

As a result, he was jailed, put on trial and sentenced to death for treason.  He was ordered to march to the Dachau concentration camp, where he was to be shot by firing squad.

Dachau held many religious prisoners of Nazi Germany and became known as the “largest monastery in the world” because of the number of clerics there. The camp housed some 2,700 clergy, roughly 95% of whom were Catholic priests from Poland, making it one of the largest residences for priests in the history of the Church.

Joseph fell ill with dysentery before he reached Dachau and died on Feb. 24, 1945. When his body was discovered, he had both a Bible and a rosary with him.

Mayr-Nusser’s cause for martyrdom was launched by the Diocese of Bolzano in 2005. Pope Francis declared him a martyr in July 2016, paving the way for his beatification.  

On Sunday, the Holy Father spoke of the beatified man’s holiness during his Angelus address:

“For his great moral and spiritual stature, he is a model for the lay faithful, especially for dads.”