A Carmelite Novice Reflects on Titus

September 13, 2017 |

On July 26, 1942, 75 years ago, Titus Brandsma, a soft spoken professor and one of our Carmelite brothers, was murdered by the Nazis for his courageous resistance to their genocidal agenda. Titus embodied the Gospel message and lived his life with a radical spirit which is one of the reasons he is so special. People of all faiths have much to learn from Titus, what his sacrifice represents on the 21st century moral landscape and how he unwaveringly stood up to hatred and oppression.

Titus Brandsma wore many hats. He was an integral member of his local Carmelite community, a renowned university professor, and a spiritual advisor to the Catholic newspapers in the Netherlands where he lived. In addition to his formal roles, he often carried out random acts of kindness helping people find employment, visiting with the sick, and counseling dozens of people who sought his wisdom on matters of faith, spirituality and beyond. People of all kinds knew him for his pleasant demeanor, charming sense of humor and the degree of dignity and respect with which he treated every person he encountered.

“A Most Dangerous Man”

It is, thus, only natural that after the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 he would seek to help those most in need: the Dutch Jewish Population. When the Nazis enacted their first anti-Semitic policies in the Netherlands, Titus instinctively sprung into action with a swift denunciation of the Nazi agenda, and words of public support for all Jews, especially Jewish schoolchildren. Titus even worked behind the scenes to devise a plan to smuggle Jews out of the Netherlands to Brazil. When the Nazis sought to mandate the publication of their propaganda in the Catholic newspapers, Titus—as the papers’ spiritual advisor—did not allow this to happen. In many talks with the editors of the newspapers, he emphasized that Nazism is directly in opposition to Catholicism and to human decency. As a result of Titus’s intervention none of the Catholic newspapers in the Netherlands published any propaganda. His stand made Titus a marked man, and his seditious activities were known by high ranking persons in the Nazi propaganda machine who labeled him “a most dangerous man.”

Arrest & Imprisonment

The interior of cell #577 in Scheveningen penitentiary in Holland
— the cell where Titus was imprisoned.

This quiet and gentle friar was somehow a massive threat to the Nazi mission and as a result, was arrested. While in a temporary holding prison he was given the opportunity to write an argument for why he believed Nazism was incompatible with Catholicism: a task he was happy to do. After some time Titus was transferred to the first of two concentration camps where he would be held captive. Despite the vile conditions of the Amersfoort camp Titus remained cheerful. He would pray with, counsel and hear confessions from anybody who asked. He did not limit himself only to Catholics but was friendly and helpful to everyone with whom he spoke; Protestants, Jews, atheists and even the Nazi guards who were taunting and abusing him. His beliefs in the value of all human life greatly affected his interactions with everyone he encountered in the camp.

What I find inspiring is that Titus had the opportunity to leave all this behind, to stop his anti-Nazi rhetoric and return to his life as a friar. Before ultimately ending up in the Dachau concentration camp, Titus was temporarily transferred back to his first prison. There he wrote another argument against the Nazis and his cell mates would later recount that the Nazis would have freed him if he had only recanted. But Titus was not the type of person to recant the truth to save himself. Instead, Titus serenely surrendered himself to the will of God, knowing he had to stand up for what was right. After this stint in the prison he was transferred to the Dachau camp.

Back in Dachau
Dachau was a much more severe camp, especially for Titus. He had always been a frail person and could not keep up with the extreme labor regimen the Nazis imposed in the camp. Even when being beaten and humiliated by the guards due to his inability to work, Titus was firm in his faith. He remarked to one of his fellow prisoners that “I will have to put into practice what I have previously taught others.” He acknowledged that the love and mercy he showed were essential to his faith, a faith that requires concrete action.

This mindset shaped how he viewed his whole mission as a Carmelite and his parallel mission against the Nazis. When Titus eventually could not work at all he was transferred to the “hospital,” which, in reality, was a site of Nazi medical experimentation at the camp. There he went through unspeakable torment as Nazi doctors tortured and performed horrific experiments on him.

Conversion
His spirit was not broken, however. When a nurse came to inject him with a lethal dose of poisonous chemicals, Titus offered her his rosary as a sign of love and of hope for her reversion back to the Christian faith. It was then, immediately after his last act of love and Charity, that Titus entered into eternal life. Though she initially refused Titus, saying that she could no longer pray, the nurse who injected him eventually returned to her Catholic faith and owes her conversion to Titus who showed her love and compassion despite her heinous actions. This final act perfectly encapsulates Titus’s worldview.

We may not face the type of megalithic evil in 2017 that the world saw with the Nazis but we can apply Titus’ story to our own lives. The world we live in is fraught with violence, with bigotry and with hatred of others. When we witness these evils, we must make a stand. As Christians we are called to defend the weak and the helpless, even when it is challenging or dangerous. We need to speak this truth in the way Titus did, with love.

Along the path of justice we must also seek to change the hearts of the oppressors, since they too are children of God and therefore are worthy of our love. Oftentimes it seems impossible to be kind to others while fighting for justice, but we can and we must. Titus was able to do all that he did not solely on his own power but by the presence of God’s grace that worked in his life. God’s grace is working in our lives too, and that grace allows us to respond to injustice with love and conviction just as Titus did.

Stephan Rochefort, O.Carm.
Stephan Rochefort, O.Carm. is a Carmelite novice living in Middletown, New York.
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