A look at the courageous German who will be beatified on May 3: Fr John Gallagher, SJ pays tribute to Fr Rupert Mayer
ON MAY 3 a remarkable Jesuit is to be beatified, Fr Rupert Mayer. Born in 1876, the son of a Stuttgart merchant, he applied to join the Society of Jesus at an early age.
After his ordination he was sent to Munich in 1912 to do parish work. It was a time of unrest and violent anti-Christian feeling. He visited all the Catholic families, especially welcoming the new arrivals, and in the evenings visited the working men's and women's clubs, joining in the discussions and giving lectures.
To help with this social work, he and two other priests founded a new order, the Sisters of the Holy Family. They had instant success, bringing order and cleanliness into slum dwellings, and giving the people new hope.
When the First World War broke out he served as army chaplain, with such outstanding courage and devotion that he was awarded four decorations, including the Iron Cross 1st class, the equivalent of the VC: he was the first chaplain to be given this.
In December 1916 a shell smashed his left leg which had to be amputated. He wrote to his parents, "Without having suffered the pain of the wound the war would not have been what I had anticipated, a means of drawing nearer to God."
The war left Germany in a terrible state economically. The people were bitter and ripe for revolt. The Communists played on this and made great headway. Fr Mayer used to attend their meetings and confront the speakers. "A country without religion will perish," he said repeatedly. Several times he was physically attacked.
He carried on regardless, instructing many for reception into the Church, giving retreats to the police, the army, the unemployed. The Nazi reign of terror was beginning. Despite spies, threats, attacks, the Catholic men remained faithful to Fr Mayer.
Later, some shared imprisonment and concentration camp with the priest. Two were executed. Fr Mayer was especially busy in the confessional, spending hours each day there. He organised widespread relief for the poor, there were many of these after the war.
He had become an extremely influential person, and the Nazis tried. to win him over. He spoke at a public meeting in 1919 against Communism. The next speaker was Hitler who said, "Now that the priest has opposed Communism on religious grounds I shall oppose it on political grounds."
But Fr Mayer recognised the movement for what it was. He said publicly: "Hitler is an excellent public speaker but he is an agitator and does not stick to the truth."
He preached extensively on the point that "A Catholic may not be a Nazi". He was ordered to stop preaching and refused. He was arrested in 1936 and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
After his release from Landsberg prison he continued his preaching, stressing the love of Christ and attacking tyranny. He was again arrested, and the reasons given for his arrest were insubordination and supporting aspirations hostile to the State."
On December 22 1939, he was taken by two Gestapo officials to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, near Berlin. He wrote: "As a result of losing weight my stump no longer fits my artificial limb . . . now I really have nothing and nobody but God. That is sufficient.
"I try to exclude all thoughts of. the past and future and concentrate solely on my daily work, then I am at peace. The days pass incredibly quickly, so I hope to be ready when the Lord summons me . . . I think I have come a good bit nearer God, and spiritually the same distance away from worldly things, and I cannot thank our Lord God sufficiently. I am not in the least worried about my future. I leave everything in God's hands."
On August 7, 1940, he was suddenly told to pack and be ready to leave in half an hour. Public opinion had been widely aroused by his arrest, and the Nazis feared that if he died in the camp he would be hailed as a martyr. He was taken back to Munich to the Benedictine monastery at Ettal.
The superior had been told to accept him, and the conditions the Nazis had laid down for his life there were very strict. He was not to leave the monastery, his correspondence was restricted to purely personal matters, he was not to conduct religious services, and he was not to hear confessions.
This exile ended when the war ended in 1945. Fr Mayer at once returned to Munich. The problems were enormous. Countless people came to him about being "de-Nazified", about prisoners of war and the missing, for food, shelter and clothing.
He died suddenly in action on the feast of All Saints. At his funeral on May 23, 1948, vast crowds lined the streets, and 30,000 men from all over the country walked behind the coffin. Today there is worldwide devotion to him.