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Saints in the Making

The canonization of Titus Brandsma – Dutch journalist, priest and martyr.

On July 26, 1942, a young Nazi nurse administered a lethal injection to a patient in the Dachau hospital. The patient was a Dutch clergyman named Titus Brandsma; he passed out of this life within 10 minutes. That moment doubtless seemed of little consequence. The clergyman had been in poor health and unrepentant of his crimes against the “thousand-year Reich.” The doctors and nurses were executing the will of an ascendant empire against a member of a small, seemingly fading religious order. 

Yet this May, long after that short-lived regime fell, Pope Francis officially recognized Titus Brandsma as a Saint of the Catholic Church. This concluded a lengthy process known as canonization: an investigation into the life, faith and works of someone whom there is reason to believe may be a Saint. Canonization recognizes individuals who lived heroic lives for Christ and who are now in the heavenly court lifting the prayers of the faithful before the throne of God. The Nazi nurse eventually converted to the Christian faith through Brandsma’s witness and testified about his final moments. Catholic journalists around the world wrote an open letter to Pope Francis on May 10, 2022, asking him to recognize Titus Brandsma as the patron saint of journalists. 

Why should non-Catholics readers of Christian Courier care about a new Catholic Saint? As Catholic novelist Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” All Christians are called to be saints. However, some do so with greater heroism. These heroes are examples of Christ-like love not just for members of their own tradition, but for all who follow Christ.

The process of canonization starts locally, with a Catholic institution recognizing someone as a “Servant of God” and collecting evidence about the potential Saint, and that is where we will start. 

A journalist martyr

Titus Brandsma was born in the province of Friesland on February 23, 1881. His birth name was Anno Sjoerd Brandsma. From a very young age, he felt called to serve God as a member of a monastic order. His first interest was the Franciscan order and at the age of 11 he began studies in a Franciscan seminary. Their rigorous physical life was too difficult for him, however, and he was not admitted to the order. He joined the Carmelite order instead as a teenager.

(Titus Brandsma Regional archive Nji).

As a member of the Carmelite order, the young Brandsma took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and became a friar. In 1905, he was ordained as a priest. The Carmelites, a once numerous and influential religious order, had fallen on hard times in the nineteenth century and the monastery at Boxmeer in Holland was one of only two to survive the troubles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anno joined with Titus Brandsma as his religious name while the monastery was experiencing renewed growth and vigour.

Despite being the son of a farmer, Titus Brandsma had a frail constitution. However, he was a gifted writer with a sharp mind. His religious order put him to work in education as a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. He worked as a journalist for De Stad Oss and De Gelderlander. Bradsma worked to improve conditions for Catholic journalists, and to emancipate Frisian language and culture, specifically of Catholics. For these reasons in 1939, Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962) knighted Brandsma in the Orde van de Nederlandse Leeuw (Order of the Dutch Lion). Like all of Europe in the early twentieth century, Titus Brandsma had to reckon with the rise of Nazism. Even before Holland was invaded by Nazi Germany, Titus Brandsma was an outspoken opponent of Nazi treatment of the Jews and of Nazism in general, which he called a “black lie” and characterized as “pagan.” 

The Nazis introduced a number of measures aimed at curtailing the freedom and influence of the Catholic Church in Dutch society.  Dutch bishops were more outspoken than many regional bishops in other occupied countries, which brought them increasingly in conflict with the Nazi leadership in Holland. Titus Brandsma worked with the bishops, appearing before The Hague to protest the expulsion of Jewish students and restrictions on academic priests.

In 1941, Brandsma agreed to represent Archbishop De Jong by visiting Catholic editors throughout Holland to relay instructions that Catholics were not to comply with a Nazi directive to print Nazi propaganda in their newspapers. While doing this, he was arrested by the Nazis. He wrote a letter while in prison that read, ‘Our Catholic principles are at conflict with their principles.’ In April 1942, when it became apparent he would not collaborate in exchange for his freedom, he was moved from the prison at Amersfoort to Dachau, a concentration camp that had a special clergy section made up overwhelmingly of Catholic priests.

Life in the camp was hard. Titus Brandsma had found the physical rigors of both farmwork and the Franciscan life difficult; he now did poorly with the trials of life in the camp. Knowing the reputation of the camp hospital, he and his friends worked hard to keep him functional enough to avoid it, but he was unable to stay healthy. 

That is where he met the nurse, known by the pseudonym ‘Titia’, who administered the lethal injection that ended his life. Titus Brandsma had been in the hospital long enough to get to know Titia a little and had spoken with her about prayer and given her a rosary.  She insisted that she didn’t pray and didn’t know how, but kept the rosary. After the war, she began to ask for Titus’s prayers, and ended up converting to the Catholic faith in 1956. She entrusted the rosary to a priest named Father Gemmeke. Years later, she spoke at an ecclesiastical tribunal in Kamp-Lintfort investigating Titus Brandsma, sharing her memories of Father Titus in the hopes of helping his cause for sainthood.

Becoming a saint 

Once the life and heroic virtues of a potential saint are investigated, the information is taken to the Pope. Titus’s investigation ended up with Pope John Paul II, who declared Titus Brandsma a martyr for the Christian faith in 1985, forty-three years after his death. As Blessed Titus Brandsma, only one thing was missing to complete the canonization process and recognize him as a Saint – a miracle.

Many years later, in 2004, Father Michael Driscoll, a Carmelite priest in Florida, was diagnosed with severe metastatic melanoma cancer that was spreading and in its later stages. Rather than despair, he and his parish community turned to his Blessed Titus Brandsma for prayer. Father Driscoll had been a follower of Titus’s cause for canonization, and hoped for the saint’s prayers to help more than just himself. His prayers were answered. Father Driscoll is cancer free, to the bafflement of his doctors who cannot explain what happened medically. 1,232 pages of documentation showing his medical condition and outlining the miracle were sent from Florida to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to review, the final piece to Blessed Titus Brandsma becoming Saint Titus Brandsma.

Pope Francis officially recognized Saint Titus Brandsma on Sunday, May 15, 2022. Saint Titus Brandsma is someone who showed us what it means to follow Christ, as is true of any Saint. As a journalist and a teacher, as someone caught in uncomfortable and evil times, he became someone who brought the light of Christ to the world rather than a source of despair. His legacy lives on – in Titia, in Father Michael Driscoll and the many others throughout the world who will be inspired by his Christ-like example.

Author

  • Scott Moelker

    Scott is a Catholic educator and father of two three children. His interests include theology, board games and good books. He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, and by the grace of God, he was received into the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil in 2016. He and his family attend St. Timothy’s Parish in Toronto. He retains a deep appreciation for his Reformed roots.

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