Virtually everyone is familiar with the parable of the merciful father who welcomes back the prodigal son, as it has been told and imitated a thousand times in Christian history. Here, however, we would like to describe an actual historical exemplification of this parable. In the following story, fatherhood is encapsulated in the act of the merciful “regeneration” of a lost soul who converts even as she is responsible for killing the person who prompted her regeneration.
What follows is the powerful story of Father Titus Brandsma (1881-1942), a Dutch Carmelite priest who was deported and killed by the Nazis in the infamous Dachau concentration camp. (Source: Romeral, F. Millan. II coraggio della verita. Il Beato Tito Brandsma. Ancora, 2012.) At 59 years old, Father Brandsma was a professor of philosophy and the history of mysticism at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where he also had the title of Rector Magnijicus.
As early as 1936 — in an era when news was not well disseminated or very reliable — he collaborated on a book entitled Dutch Voices on the Treatment of Jews in Germany. He wrote: “What is happening now against the Jews is an act of cowardice. The enemies and adversaries of that people are truly wretched if they believe they must act in such an inhumane way and if they think such action manifests or increases the strength of the German people. This is an illusion of weakness.”
German officials responded by classifying him an “evil professor.” Yet he was aware of his responsibility as a teacher, and he did not back down. In the academic year of 1938-39, he was already teaching on the “disastrous trends” of National Socialism (Nazism). His course dealt with the following fundamental arguments: the value and dignity of each and every human being whether healthy or sick; the equality and inherent goodness of all races; the indestructible and primary value of natural law over ideology; the presence and guidance of God throughout human history against political messianism; and idolatry of power. And all the while, he was aware that there were (Nazi) party spies present in his audience.
In 1941, the question exploded as to whether or not Catholic newspapers in the Netherlands should publish press releases and advertisements of the Dutch National Socialist Movement as required by a new law. Father Titus — who was then spiritual director to Catholic journalists — wasted no time in circulating the following memorandum: “Publishers and editors should know that they will have to formally reject such communications if they wish to preserve the Catholic identity of their newspapers. And they should do so even if such refusal leads to the newspaper being threatened, fined, or suspended temporarily or even permanently. There is nothing else possible to do. With this, we have reached our limit. Otherwise, they shall no longer be considered Catholic ... and they shall not, nor will they be able to rely on Catholic readers and subscribers any longer, and they shall end in disgrace.”
A few months later, Professor Brandsma was arrested and deported to the notorious Dachau concentration camp where he was subjected to every manner of humiliation and torture. And when it finally became necessary to admit him to the field hospital, his fate was sealed. We know what happened due to an exceptional eyewitness: the following account comes from the woman herself who killed him and who later converted because she could not rid herself of the memory of Father Titus.
She was a nurse by profession, but she obeyed the inhumane orders of the medical officers out of fear. She said that when Father Titus “was admitted into the infirmary, he was already on the ‘dead list.”’ She also described how sick experiments were performed on the patients (which she opposed) — including on Father Titus — and how its memory was burned within her. She said that the priest endured the abuse, repeating over and over, “Father, not my will, but may yours be done.” She related how all the patients hated her and routinely insulted her with the most disparaging names. (Such hatred was cordially reciprocated.) However, she was struck by the way the elderly priest treated her, instead, with the gentleness and respect of a father. She said, “He once took my hand and said to me, ‘What a poor girl you are, I will pray for you.’”
The prisoner gave her his own poor rosary made of copper and wood. However, this only irritated her, and she said she had no need of such an object because she did not know how to pray. Father Titus, however, responded: “You need not say the entire Hail Mary. Say only, ‘Pray for us sinners.’”
On that fateful day of July 25, 1942, the ward doctor handed her the syringe filled with carbolic acid to inject into Father Titus’ veins. It was a routine procedure which the nurse had already done hundreds of times. Yet the poor woman later recalled “feeling sick for the rest of the day.” The injection was administered at 1:50 p.m. and Father Titus died at 2:00 p.m. “I was there when he died,” the nurse later testified. “The doctor was sitting next to his bed with a stethoscope for the sake of appearances. When Father Tito’s heart stopped beating, he commented, ‘This pig is dead.’”
Father Titus always spoke well about his captors and torturers: “They, too, are children of the good God, and perhaps something still remains within them.” And God would grant him this final miracle. The camp doctor sarcastically referred to the poisonous syringe as an “injection of grace.” And while the nurse injected it into his veins, it was the intercession of Father Titus that truly instilled the grace of God within her. And during the process of canonization, the poor woman explained that the image of that old priest remained forever impressed in her memory. She saw something in his face that she had never before experienced. She said simply: “He had compassion on me.” Like Christ.