Titus Brandsma, born in 1881 and named Anno Sjoerd, was a Dutch Carmelite priest who also worked as a university professor and a journalist. When he joined the Carmelites in 1898 he took a new name according to Carmelite tradition, Titus, his father’s name and the name of the author of a New Testament epistle. He was a founder of the Catholic University of Nijmegan, now Radboud University, where he taught philosophy and the history of mysticism. His studies in mysticism centered on St. Teresa of Avila, whose works he had translated into Dutch.
In 1935 Brandsma was also appointed as spiritual advisor to the 30 Catholic newspapers in Holland, the context in which his final great work was to be done. As the Nazi ideology began to rise in Germany Brandsma became a critic of both the Nazi oppression of the Jews and the Nazi threats to freedom of the press. He issued strong public statements as early as 1935. “The Nazi movement is a black lie,” he proclaimed. “It is pagan.” Even before the war broke out his critiques made him a marked man for Dutch fascists.
When Germany invaded Holland in May, 1940 and Jewish students were ordered expelled from all the universities he personally protested to the authorities. Brandsma drafted a pastoral letter which was then issued by the Dutch Catholic bishops to be read in all the Catholic churches in Holland. The Pastoral Letter said that Nazism was incompatible with Catholic teaching at its very core. It condemned the anti-Semitic measures of the Nazis and decried the first deportation of Dutch Jews. The Catholic sacraments were refused to Nazi sympathizers because National Socialism was viewed to seriously corrupt the Christian conception of life for all who participated in it.
Then Brandsma wove together his criticisms of the oppression of the Jews and the denial of press freedom in a defiant action against the Nazi occupation government. All newspapers had been ordered to run Nazi propaganda against the Jews as well as the various edicts. As spiritual advisor to the Catholic press Brandsma traveled throughout Holland to meet with each Catholic editor to urge their resistance to this order. He knew the risks of such defiance, but he was determined to act in accordance with his conscience. He made it halfway through the circuit of editors when he was arrested by the Gestapo at the Boxmeer Monastery where years earlier he had begun his novitiate. Gestapo Captain Hardegen who interrogated him later explained that Brandsma was basically “an enemy of the German mission” and that “his hostility is proved by his writing against German policy toward the Jews.”
Father Brandsma was sent to various Gestapo prisons before finally ending up in the Dachau concentration camp. Though he was sickly at his arrest, he was brutally treated at Dachau. Witnesses in the prisons and camp spoke of his prayerfulness and how he refused to become bitter. They also spoke about his pastoral care toward his fellow inmates, both Christians and Jews. His pastoral services often drew violent responses when they were noticed by the guards. Following severe beatings with clubs, Brandsma exhorted his fellow prisoners: “Do not yield to hatred. Be patient. We are here in a dark tunnel but we have to go on. At the end, the eternal light is shining for us.” In Dachau as his health continued to deteriorate he was put into the sadistic medical experimentation program. The Nazi doctors injected him with a lethal dose of acid. His body was burned in the crematorium. Titus Brandsma was the first victim of the Nazis to be officially declared a martyr, and in 1985 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II.