Raymond J. de Souza
National Post, May 15, 2022
“… the empire of lies does not only advance by jackboots and blitzkrieg. Sometimes it slithers in softly and slowly, making it easier for those — priests and journalists both — who wish to compromise with it.”
News about priest journalists is not common. Our tribe is not large, but we do have a venerable history. The news of this moment is joyous — on Sunday in Rome one of our own will be declared a saint.
Titus Brandsma, the heroic Dutch resister to Nazism, will be canonized by Pope Francis, 80 years after his death by lethal injection in Dachau, where the “medical care” provided in the camp “infirmary” was about hastening death, not providing health.
It was a nurse who did the deed, coming to kill rather than to care. Yet even as she corrupted her professional mission, the witness of the Carmelite priest moved her to a deep conversion. Returning to the Catholic faith that she had abandoned to become part of the SS, she eventually found her way to a Carmelite monastery to seek forgiveness.
The camp at Dachau was the largest Catholic “monastery” in history, housing some 2,700 priests. The brutality of Nazi atheism was particularly directed against Catholic clergy. For those not murdered outright, Dachau became a central destination. A “priest barracks” was set up and the clergy were given special treatment, sometimes favourable, in terms of being allowed to worship, and sometimes unfavourable, for example when dozens of priests were tortured in a mocking observance of Good Friday.
Born Anno Sjoerd Brandsma in 1881 to devoutly Catholic parents in the Netherlands, Brandsma, taking the religious name Titus, was ordained a priest in 1905. Though Carmelites are generally oriented toward the interior life, Fr. Titus combined his life of prayer and worship with a remarkable range of activities. A teacher and founder of the Catholic University of Nijmegen, he was a writer, journalist and controversialist.
Controversies were not lacking. Fr. Titus was a fierce foe of Nazi ideology, and as the Nazis rose in the 1930s he sounded the alarm in his own country as chaplain of the National Union of (Dutch) Catholic Journalists. He urged Catholic periodicals to have nothing to do with Nazi propaganda and to take a firm position against Nazi racial theories and antisemitism.
Nazi tanks rolled through Holland in 1940. Fr. Titus emerged as a prominent voice, encouraging both Catholic bishops and editors to speak out against Nazi human rights violations, including the persecution of Dutch Jews.
The writing, so to speak, was on the wall. The occupying Nazis came for Fr. Titus, and he was arrested after personally delivering a clandestine Dutch bishops’ letter to Catholic editors. The underground communication instructed the journalists to defy a new regulation requiring Catholic newspapers and magazines to print official Nazi documents and articles.
Arrested by the Gestapo on Jan. 19, 1942, Fr. Titus was eventually shipped to Dachau, near Munich. He was killed by lethal injection on July 26, 1942.
On that very day, a message from the Dutch bishops was read in every parish in Holland at Sunday Mass, denouncing Nazi atrocities and making public a telegram sent earlier in the week: “The undersigned Dutch churches, already deeply shocked by the actions taken against the Jews in the Netherlands that have excluded them from participating in the normal life of society, have learned with horror of the new measures by which men, women, children, and whole families will be deported to the German territory and its dependencies.”
Both the priest and the journalist are to be servants of the truth; both are by vocation dissenters in an empire of lies. Fr. Titus lived amid the empire of lies in a particularly pitiless period, when it literally invaded in his homeland.
But the empire of lies does not only advance by jackboots and blitzkrieg. Sometimes it slithers in softly and slowly, making it easier for those — priests and journalists both — who wish to compromise with it. Fr. Titus knew that at the altar or at the printing press there was little he could do to prevent the Nazi advance, but that it was something — and not a small thing — to call an evil empire just that. Fr. Titus did so, and paid for it with his life.
Fr. Titus is a model for all journalists, not just religious ones, at a time when our profession is in crisis. Not just a crisis of business model, but of identity. Does ours remain a noble profession?
We need models, which is what saints are. The word remains powerful. It endures more than the sword, or even the needle, in every time and place. For the priest journalist, every word of truth reflects in some way the truth of the Word. We have, in St. Titus Brandsma, a witness and model — and intercessor.
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