Tomorrow, in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis will preside over the canonisation of 10 saints. It will be the first canonisation ceremony after more than two- and-a-half years. Two individuals stand out for their heroic example and what we can draw from this in the contemporary Church.
Born in 1881, the Dutch Carmelite Friar Titus Brandsma was ordained to the priesthood in 1905. He studied in Rome and spent a lifetime engaging with others, either through his efforts in the field of education at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, where he became rector magnificus in 1932, or in the field of Catholic journalism, which was to bring him into direct collision with the Nazi occupiers of the Netherlands in the 1940s.
His characterisation of Nazism was prescient. He described the movement as “pagan” and as a “black lie” – an “insult to God”. The Dutch Episcopal Conference was also resolute in its condemnation of Nazism and suffered greatly for its witness. The Catholic Church was barred from having priests and religious serving as school principals, charitable collections were restricted and the Catholic press was heavily censored.
This was a situation Brandsma could not accept. In January 1942, he hand-delivered a letter from the Dutch Episcopal Conference to individual editors of Catholic newspapers asking them not to print official Nazi documents and propaganda as required by law. On January 19, his work was cut short as the authorities arrested him.
After being held prisoner in various camps, Brandsma arrived at Dachau six months later. During his time in the camps, Brandsma cared for the most vulnerable prisoners and would often share his ration with Jewish prisoners. After several bouts of ill health, he was transferred to a camp hospital, where he was killed by lethal injection on July 26, 1942.
The nurse who administered the lethal injection of carbolic acid later noted that Brandsma never showed any remorse for the reasons behind his arrest. Her testimony is moving and worth sharing. He never offered any resistance: “Whoever had seen him would come away with the impression that there was something supernatural about him.”
Several patients would sit at his bedside and he would console them: “A great majority of the ill prisoners were only concerned about themselves and only thought about themselves but Titus was always in a good frame of mind and was a support for everyone and, in a special way, for me.”
Brandsma, however, was not simply a good and courageous individual. He was also a man whose actions were underpinned by his deep faith. Reflecting on the nature of his Carmelite vocation, he wrote that “the influence of the contemplative soul is not withheld from the apostolate” and that the contemplative life does not oppose the active one. Most importantly, he also advised those who engage with the wider world: “He who wants to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come in conflict with it.”
A Church that is only involved in social engagement without contemplation and prayer loses its credibility and function- Andre DeBattista
Another person who will be canonised on May 15 dared to enter into a conflict with himself. Charles de Foucauld was born in a wealthy and aristocratic family in 1858. In his youth, he abandoned his faith and led a rather dissolute life; mediocre in his studies, indulgent in luxury and pleasure and somewhat vulgar in his manner. His initial military service was undistinguished.
Aged 23, de Foucauld resigned from the military and embarked on a dangerous explorative mission in Morocco. This brought him in contact with different persons of faith – Muslim believers – who challenged him and got him thinking. His prayer was simple: “God, if You exist, let me come to know You.”
He returned to the Catholic faith in 1886, aged 28. He writes about this moment: “As soon as I believed in God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live for Him alone.”
His desire to live the faith more meaningfully led him to the Trappists – the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Despite the strict element of silence and contemplation, de Foucauld wanted a more rigorous life of prayer and desired to live his life as a hermit in the Holy Land.
For a while, he lived this life next to the convent of the Poor Clares in Nazareth. Commenting on this part of his life, Pope Benedict XVI said that it was here that “he discovered the truth about the humanity of Jesus and invites us to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation; in this place he learned much about the Lord, whom he wanted to follow with humility and poverty.”
In 1901, aged 43, he was ordained a priest in France and left to live a more hermitical life in northern Africa, among the Tuareg, to live with those “furthest removed, the most abandoned”. However, he did not embrace this life simply as a lover of solitude but as someone open to the world. He welcomed passers-by – whether they were Christian, Muslim, Jewish or believers in traditional religions. He immersed himself in the culture and compiled a Tuareg - French dictionary.
He wrote several rules for the cloistered hermitical life hoping that others could come to live a similar life. However, none of his initiatives came to fruition. He was killed accidentally by a band of bandits on December 1, 1916.
De Foucauld once said that he hoped to live a good life to the point that people asked themselves: “If such is the servant, what must the master be like?” This saying can also be extended to Brandsma.
These two remarkable persons have much to teach our current Church. Firstly, they show us that a Church that is only involved in social engagement without contemplation and prayer loses its credibility and function. Secondly, they showed that contemplation centred on self-fulfilment becomes a caricature of what it is meant to be – it becomes indistinguishable from modern-day self-help claptrap. Thirdly, they are a symbol of a Church which is not indifferent to the political changes and the culture it finds itself in but it remains distinct and does not allow itself to be swallowed up by this.
Ultimately, they point to a Church which is sensitive to others and whose sensitivity is rooted in the Gospel and Christ. As a Church, this is a lesson that we need to continue rediscovering anew every day.
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