The Anvil of God

Drawing Inspiration from the Preaching of Bl. Clemens von Galen

In a time when his people were suffering and felt helpless to change the course of world affairs, the Lion of Münster1 provided an image and example that gave them purpose and direction. From his pulpit he denounced evil, proclaimed the Gospel and helped his people become God’s anvil for the sake of forging saints in a time of grave crisis. His preaching and example, captured in that powerful image of the anvil, remains poignant and entirely relevant for us today as well.

Blessed Clemens von Galen was the first bishop selected under the Nazi concordat with the Vatican in 1933, and he died a year after the War, his episcopal ministry corresponding almost exactly with the Nazi years in Germany. He preached boldly throughout those years, courageously living out his ministry in a way that is aptly described by his episcopal motto nec laudibus, nec timore (neither for praise nor for fear). The Nazis never arrested him nor martyred him for fear of the repercussions such actions would have on their war effort, but they dreamed of the day when they could do so. Addressing his beloved diocesan people on his return from being made a cardinal by Venerable Pope Pius XII, he explained to them simply, “It was my right and my duty to speak out, and I spoke out for you, the countless people who have gathered here today, for the countless people in our dear German fatherland which the Lord has blessed.”2

The circumstances in which Blessed Clemens preached were clearly different from our own — different in culture, in the crisis of war and national politics, and in the particular offenses he fought against as he shepherded his people from the pulpit. Still, he left us important and inspiring examples in his preaching, from which we can draw help for our own task in our own time — this period of a New Evangelization. In this essay we consider three exemplary, timeless elements that stand out in Blessed Clemens’s preaching: first, the way he speaks to his listeners as their spiritual father, communicating to them a sense of belonging; second, the way he seamlessly weaves together political critique and the proclamation of the Gospel; and third, the way he provokes a response using compelling images, generating an emotional appeal grounded in Scripture and solid theology.

Father of a Family

Blessed Clemens von Galen was a towering man standing six-and-a-half feet tall. With his broad shoulders, deep-set eyes, and square jaw, he could have easily served as a bouncer in a biker bar. His physical stature projected an intimidating aura, but when he addressed his people from the pulpit, he radiated fatherly love through his inclusive expressions, his care for them, and the protection and guidance he provided. In this way he created a sense of belonging for his audience. He never positioned himself against them, but rather stood with them, on their side. He expressed clearly how he was using all his power to protect every one of them, excluding none. He spoke out especially on behalf of the weakest, including those the government authorities considered unproductive and only fit for extermination. He risked his life for their sake and lamented that they were made to suffer for his sake.

The masterful way that Blessed Clemens fostered a sense of belonging is a great example for us and particularly important in our own day. Many books and articles across Christian denominations have explored the 3 B’s of belonging, believing and behaving. Pete Burak, one of the directors of the young adult outreach movement “id9:16,” has identified the young adult’s need for belonging in order to foster believing and behaving. He contrasts that with the prevalent attitude in some Catholic circles that believing and behaving must be proven prior to belonging.3 While much nuance is required to appropriately orient these three B’s, and it is clear that the Eucharistic assembly is primarily for those who believe and Communion reserved to those who are sufficiently well-behaved, we can still recognize the power that comes from having that sense of belonging that Blessed Clemens fostered for all in his care. There is no doubt that today’s parishioners would respond with comparable devotion and support for a pastor who fostered such fatherly inclusion.

To nurture that familial unity, von Galen often addressed his people with the possessive form, using such tender expressions as, “My dear Catholics,” “My Christians,” “My former parishioners,” and “My diocesans.” He truly identified with his hearers, speaking of their relatives as “our brothers and sisters, children of our families.”4 He expressed his concern for “our young people.”5 Using phrases such as “None of us is safe,”6 he joined himself with his hearers, sharing in a common vulnerability to a common enemy. Even when he spoke of his particular affection for some individuals within his diocese, such as his “highly esteemed friend and compatriot Bishop P. Amandus Bahlmann”7 or “our beloved teacher of religious education, Friedrichs”8 or groups such as the sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the convent of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Benedictine abbey St. Joseph in Gerleve,9 he gave a sense of universal concern, making clear how personally he cared for each member of his flock.

Furthermore, Bishop von Galen conveyed his care and protection for his flock by explicitly acknowledging his responsibility as their bishop: “I am conscious of the fact that I as a Bishop am an enunciator and defender of the legal and moral order intended by God which grants each individual rights and freedoms.”10 He reiterated:

The duty imposed on me by my episcopal office to speak up for the moral order, by the oath which I swore before God and the representative of the government to “ward off,” to the best of my ability, “any harm which might threaten the German people,” this duty compels me, in the face of the Gestapo’s actions, to state this fact and pronounce this public warning.11

Bishop von Galen told his people from the pulpit about actions he had taken on their behalf. “I myself called on the president of the Reich . . . On the same Monday, the 14th of July, I sent a telegram to the Reich’s Chancellery . . . I addressed similar requests by telegram to the Governor of Prussia, Marshal Göring, the Minister of the Interior, the Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs and the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht . . .”12 The examples of such intervention are manifold as the loving shepherd made it clear to what extent he was giving himself, using his power and risking his life to defend his flock. Based on their response, it is clear that the people truly felt this love from their pastor. The devotion of his people was so strong that after the war he could identify the life-saving protection they provided for him: “So the National Socialists [Nazis] knew that, if they fought the Bishop, the people would have felt attacked as well. That is what protected me on the outside, but also gave me strength and confidence inside.”13

We can easily appreciate the ways in which his listeners’ hearts were opened by his fatherly love, the first element we wish to draw from Blessed Clemens’s preaching. Aligning himself with his diocesan family through his preaching, he prepared them to follow him into battle. It is important to note that he did this in the context of the Church, from which he received his authority and responsibility for them, so that he was really incorporating them into the ecclesial family and aligning them with Christ the true King.

A Gospel Appeal

When preaching on political issues, one can be tempted to elaborate on details or use secular, political vocabulary, to such an extent that the view of the Gospel gets lost. While perhaps starting from an evangelical concern in the preacher’s heart, the homily may lose its way into mere political critique or worse, into some partisan rant that has no place in the Mass. When using politically charged words and phrases, such as “pro-life,” “abortion,” “immigration,” “Make America Great Again,” “gay rights,” “Black Lives Matter,” or countless others, the homilist engages the hearts of his listeners, but he may also set off internal explosions in a way that can be far more distracting than helpful. Jonathan Haidt, in his insightful work The Righteous Mind, offered scientific analysis to support his claim that our moral decision-making is driven primarily by an emotional response and secondarily justified or communicated by a rational analysis.14 He described this using an image of an elephant and a rider, with the elephant depicting emotion and the rider representing reason. When the elephant sets off in a direction, it is hard to change the course. That’s why a preacher must be so careful in “energizing the elephants” in the congregation. Politically charged words can start the elephants moving before the preacher’s logic has a chance to inform listeners’ thoughts and appeal to their reason.

Avoiding politically charged subjects completely is not possible, however. While the homily should be primarily doxological, inspirational and theological,15 an application to daily life includes subjects that have become politically charged.16 Furthermore, it is clear that part of the priest’s munus docendi is to be carried out through preaching, including teaching on the norms of Christian life.17 The norms of Christian life include such sensitive areas as obedience to civil authority, while recognizing when that authority violates the moral law, and the time has come for protest and civil disobedience. That includes exposing criminal behavior that violates the natural law, even from government powers. Such teaching must have its proper focus on eternal life, rather than placing its hope only in civil reforms.

Blessed Clemens von Galen had particularly treacherous territories to navigate. His government was involved in a war that no one could prove to be unjust. Germany had been highly disadvantaged by the fallout from World War I, and there was a strong argument that fighting their overly taxing, oppressive enemies was justifiable. Even though von Galen may have disagreed with this conclusion, Just War theory leaves the final analysis in the hands of government leaders, not Church authorities. As an obedient son, he did not use his power to preach against the war, but rather focused his attention on supporting the soldiers and their families. Likewise, the National Socialist government (Nazis) had legitimate government authority, so von Galen, respecting that, never led a revolt. Yet he knew the strict limits of their authority when it came to the moral law, and he did not hesitate to call out, in a principled way, their offenses against justice and human rights. In so doing, he was always a Good Shepherd, defending his flock. At the same time, he was their Good Teacher, guiding them in how to walk the narrow line of obedience to the State while still holding a firm stance against any and all of its evil actions.

He accomplished all of that through appeals to the Gospel and to the conclusions of moral theology in the field of social ethics. He recognized the evil perpetrated by the Nazis, but he also pointed to the Hand of God forging His faithful people through their suffering: “What is being forged in these days, are all of you, almost without any exception . . . [W]hat heroic courage is required of those officials who in spite of all pressure remain and publicly confess to be faithful Christians and true Catholics! . . . Through our conscience, which is formed by faith, God speaks to each of us. Always obey the voice of your conscience without any doubt.”18 He punctuated his exhortation with an example from their history: a nobleman who disagreed with the king by stating, “My head is at the disposal of His Majesty, but my conscience is not!”19

Blessed Clemens honored the liturgical setting of his preaching and recognized that these political subjects were not divorced from the Gospel. To the contrary, he brought the power of the Gospel to bear when summoning his flock to recognize the seriousness of all that was happening. Jesus was weeping over Germany! In his August 3, 1941 homily he exposed the Nazi government’s T4 program. That program was systematically executing the elderly and those in mental institutions. The topic was terrifying, both because of what the Nazis were doing and because of how they might react to any resistance. He led into that terrifying topic by starting his homily with a moving appeal to the Scripture proclaimed in the Mass that day:

It is a deeply moving event that we read of in the Gospel for today. Jesus weeps! The Son of God weeps! A man who weeps is suffering pain — pain either of the body or of the heart. Jesus did not suffer in the body; and yet he wept. How great must have been the sorrow of soul, the heartfelt pain of this most courageous of men to make him weep! Why did he weep? He wept for Jerusalem, for God’s holy city that was so dear to him, the capital of his people. He wept for its inhabitants, his fellow-countrymen, because they refused to recognise the only thing that could avert the judgment foreseen by his omniscience and determined in advance by his divine justice: “If thou hadst known . . . the things which belong unto thy peace!” Why do the inhabitants of Jerusalem not know it? Not long before Jesus had given voice to it: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (Luke 13,34).20

Blessed Clemens did not just sprinkle in a little Scripture and Christian faith to baptize his political statements. Especially in his August 3 homily against the T4 program, he made a moving appeal to the consciences of his people by first describing the Person of Jesus Christ and His saving love for us. In his homily in 1937 in Xanten, he prepared his people for the challenge of living their faith in those troubled times by appealing to the martyrs, to the rites of the church for the consecration of the altar, to the meaning of the Mass as a union with the sacrifice of Christ. He called out the national dangers that were steadily mounting, but at the same time he called his people to holiness.21

Calling Forth a Response

In his homilies, the Lion of Münster not only asserted his paternal love for his diocesan family and called out the moral dangers in light of the Gospel, he also engaged the hearts of his people, coupling his rational appeal with an emotional appeal as he summoned them to a response. He did that with powerful images that could feed their imagination as he helped them see themselves through the eyes of Christ, and he guided them in how to live Christ’s Gospel in such troubled times. Though the challenges we face are different, the importance of engaging the heart by capturing the imagination of our people in order to summon a response has not changed.22

In the liturgy for the consecration of a new altar in Xanten, we can hear von Galen stir the hearts and minds of his people giving a moving description of the martyrs and applying that image to their lives:

Like Christ, like the Apostles, like the holy martyrs, we are obedient to authority, loyal to our nation, conscientious in our occupations, at work, in our families, in the community, willing to sacrifice ourselves, even to give our lives, like St. Victor and all soldiers, like our brave soldiers who in the World War by the thousand staked their lives and sacrificed them for the German fatherland. But when we, like those saints, are confronted with the choice between earthly happiness and confession of the faith, the choice between the service of God and death, then, like our brave exemplars, we will with God’s grace stand fast in our faith, for like them we would rather go to our deaths than commit a sin. May today’s celebration and the memory of the holy heroes of our faith whose remains are enclosed in this cathedral [sic], may the power of the holy sacrifice on the cross, which we now reverently celebrate together in the holy mass, strengthen us all in this sacred resolve, so that one day that which Christ promised those who follow him on the glorious way of the cross shall be true for us all: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.”23

We can understand how people felt loved and called to courage by Blessed Clemens, who is a gifted preacher in giving examples to concretize his ideas. His personal knowledge of the situations he preaches about and his personal love for those who are suffering, combined with his careful investigation into the events, come together to have a powerful effect on his congregation. When two religious houses are emptied out and the religious are cruelly cast out into the streets, he speaks out in controlled outrage about the offense. He stirs the hearts of his people through an emotional appeal:

We must be prepared that in the near future such terrifying news will accumulate — that even here one religious house after another will be confiscated by the Gestapo and that its occupants, our brothers and sisters, children of our families, loyal German citizens, will be thrown on to the street like outlawed helots and hunted out of the country, like vermin. And this is happening at a time when we are in utmost fear and terror of further nightly air-raids which may kill us all or make us homeless refugees! Even at such a time innocent and deserving men and women, who are greatly esteemed by countless people, are expelled from their humble possessions; at such a time fellow Germans, fellow-citizens of Münster, are made homeless refugees.24

He even exposes the logical contradiction of the Nazis by showing that they are persecuting the very same people who are serving their cause:

While these German men are fighting for their country in accordance with their duty and in loyal comradeship with other German brothers, at the risk of their lives, they are being deprived, ruthlessly and without any basis in law, of their home, their parent monastery is being destroyed. When, as we hope, they return victorious they will find their monastic family driven from house and home and their home occupied by strangers, by enemies!

Then he presents a powerful image that captures so beautifully his appeal to his people. He summons them to be the anvil. In this he teaches them how to take the blows in a way that is not cowardly nor meaningless. To the contrary, it requires great resilience and conviction and he shows insightfully how effective it is. He precedes the non-violent resistance of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., but I would propose he preaches it more compellingly than either of them. “We Christians, of course, are not aiming at revolution. We shall continue loyally to do our duty in obedience to God and in love of our people and fatherland.”25

But while he dissuades them from taking an external response, he calls forth an internal response: “Become hard! Remain firm! We see and experience clearly what lies behind the new doctrines which have for years been forced on us, for the sake of which religion has been banned from the schools, our organisations have been suppressed and now Catholic kindergartens are about to be abolished — there is a deep-seated hatred of Christianity, which they are determined to destroy. . . . Become hard! Remain firm!”26

The image he provides is the blacksmith’s anvil, describing how it takes the blows without striking back, but it is not merely a punching bag. Rather, it plays an essential role in fashioning the steel, and it generally outlasts the hammer:

Become hard! Remain firm! At this moment we are the anvil rather than the hammer. Other men, mostly strangers and renegades, are hammering us, seeking by violent means to bend our nation, ourselves and our young people aside from their straight relationship with God. We are the anvil and not the hammer. But ask the blacksmith and hear what he says: the object which is forged on the anvil receives its form not alone from the hammer but also from the anvil. The anvil cannot and need not strike back: it must only be firm, only hard! If it is sufficiently tough and firm and hard the anvil usually lasts longer than the hammer. However hard the hammer strikes, the anvil stands quietly and firmly in place and will long continue to shape the objects forged upon it.27

He then describes the way that the suffering and imprisoned are being forged. Also, the young people are being forged, and he encourages his listeners to lean into that, picturing them as “untempered crude metal”:

We are the anvil, not the hammer! Unfortunately you cannot shield your children, the noble but still untempered crude metal, from the hammer-blows of hostility to the faith and hostility to the Church. But the anvil also plays a part in forging. Let your family home, your parental love and devotion, your exemplary Christian life be the strong, tough, firm and unbreakable anvil which absorbs the force of the hostile blows, which continually strengthens and fortifies the still weak powers of the young in the sacred resolve not to let themselves be diverted from the direction that leads to God.28

He repeats the antiphon, “We are the anvil, not the hammer!” for several paragraphs, firmly pressing the image into the hearts and minds of his listeners. At the same time, he gives them an action to take — to stand firm, to mentally resist and also to pray.

Conclusion

Blessed Clemens von Galen was a heroic bishop in a very troubled time. He took his preaching role seriously, standing as a father before his beloved diocesan children, feeding them truth in the light of the Gospel. That truth impacted their daily lives by informing the way they understood the politics of the day, the corruption of the government, the injustices carried out against their neighbors and the heinous attacks on human life. He then used imagery and examples that created an emotional appeal, summoning forth from his people a response of the heart and fostering in them a deep conviction. The end result was that the people remained firm in their faith and resisted the evils that the Nazis tried to carry out in their midst. They were moved to pray and they were absolutely dedicated to their bishop.

Ultimately, the homilies discussed in this article were translated, hand-copied and sent around the world. In fact, one of the early Nazi atrocities, the T4 program, was thwarted almost single-handedly through von Galen’s August 3, 1941 homily and the zealous response it received.

While it would not be reasonable to preach one of von Galen’s homilies from a pulpit in our day, because their length and their style make them more of a discourse or a conference talk, there are still many valuable points to learn from them for our preaching in the New Evangelization. In particular, von Galen’s presence and expressed relationship with his people, his appeal to the Gospel and ability to view everything in light of it, and his heartfelt call for a response using rich images are all elements that are needed in our time. This is part of the new ardor, new methods and new expression of our time’s new call to follow Christ, to proclaim His Gospel and to become saints.

In the economy of grace and the communion of saints, we can also count ourselves as the recipients of the preaching of the Lion of Münster. In our own troubled times when so many of us feel so helpless to change the course of world affairs, when the persecution of the church throughout the world and the steady erosion of Christian values in our own country feel so out of control, we can find strength in the summons of von Galen: be the anvil of God! God is forging saints against the firmness of our faith today as he was in von Galen’s time, so let us count on the prayers of that great bishop to strengthen us now in perseverance.

  1. To read more about Blessed Clemens von Galen, see Fr Daniel Utrecht, The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against The Nazis (Charlotte, North Carolina: TAN Books, 2016).
  2. Bl. Clemens von Galen, Homily at Münster Cathedral March 16, 1946 quoted in the General Vicariate of Muenster, ed., Four Sermons in Defiance of the Nazis: Clemens August Cardinal von Galen 1878-1946, trans. Pia Wissmann (Muenster, Germany, 2009), rbruceelder.com/documents/writing/bibliography/bruce_elder_films/film_texts/brandenburg/texts_read_as_narration/2011_Predigt_Galen_Englisch.pdf.
  3. Pete Burak, “Young Adults” (STL 872 Models of Evangelization module 9, Online recording for Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, MI, August 1, 2020).
  4. Homily from Feb 13, 1941, quoted in Four Sermons.
  5. Homily from July 20, 1941, quoted in Four Sermons.
  6. Homily from Feb 13, 1941.
  7. Homily from Feb 13, 1941.
  8. Homily from Feb 13, 1941.
  9. Homily from July 20, 1941.
  10. Homily from Feb 13, 1941.
  11. Homily from Feb 13, 1941.
  12. Homily from July 20, 1941.
  13. Homily from March 16, 1946.
  14. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Reprint edition (Vintage, 2013).
  15. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Homiletic Directory (Catholic Truth Society, 2015), no. 4.
  16.  Homiletic Directory, no. 11.
  17. Canon 767 §1 states “Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.”
  18. Homily of July 20, 1941.
  19. Homily of July 20, 1941.
  20. Homily of Aug 3, 1941, quoted in Four Sermons.
  21. Homily from Feb 9, 1936, quoted in Four Sermons.
  22. cf. nos 142–144 in Pope Francis, “Evangelii Gaudium: Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World,” November 24, 2013, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.
  23. Homily from Feb 9, 1936, quoted in Four Sermons.
  24. Homily from Feb 13, 1941.
  25. Homily from July 20, 1941.
  26. Homily from July 20, 1941.
  27. Homily from July 20, 1941.
  28. Homily from July 20, 1941.
About Fr. Boniface Hicks

Fr. Boniface Hicks, O.S.B. became a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1998, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2004. He became the programming manager and an on-air contributor for We Are One Body® Catholic radio in 2010. At St. Vincent Seminary, he became the Director for Spiritual Formation in 2016 and Director of the Institute for Ministry Formation in 2019. He is also currently enrolled in the STL program at Sacred Heart Seminary on the New Evangelization. He is author of Through the Heart of St. Joseph and, together with Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB, he is author of the books Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love and Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love.

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