Titus Brandsma




Only 28 years after the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy Titus Brandsma is born in 1881 in Oegeklooster, a hamlet of the town Bolsward, in Friesland. He was given the first names of Anno Sjoerd.

In the Frisian Catholic milieu of those days the own identity was anxiously maintained. The fear of being influenced by the largely non-catholic population was present everywhere. In the farmer’s family where Titus was born a spirit of piety and prayer was dominant, remarkable even in those days. Especially Titus’ mother greatly preferred Catholic isolation. The family lived an introspective, sober and orderly life. This has formed Titus and inspired him to choose religious life. The choice was almost natural in this family. His brother and four of his sisters chose to enter religious life. Only one sister married. Anno Sjoerd started his novitiate in the Carmelite community of Boxmeer.

Besides the concern to maintain their own identity Catholics were also driven to progress. Titus has written sometime: “I have the privilege to descend from a family which warmly sympathized with what moved forward the cause of the Frisian Catholics”. Catholic Dutchmen had to catch up in several areas around the turn of the century. There were only few Catholics in government positions and they generally lagged behind in the socio-economic field. Therefore, the Catholic emancipation movement knew next to the religious also a socio-political dimension. This has greatly influenced the life of Titus Brandsma. Brother Titus wrote in 1904: “Who wants to exercise influence, must make sure he has the right to this influence; who strives to regulate relations, to help shaping society, have influence on the general course of events, must be able to contribute matter, just as good or even better than his rivals. In this way he earns the right to cooperate”.

During his time of studies in Rome Titus was also taught by the sociologist Pottier at the Leonine Institute. Even before leaving for Rome he had written a series of articles, published in the Katholiek Sociaal Weekblad (“Catholic Social Weekly”) about the Catholic Church and societal issues. Herein he expressed his understanding for socialism as a “passionate expression of discontentment, created by injustice”.

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Period in Oss

After his return to the Netherlands he was soon appointed to teach philosophy at the philosophicum in Oss and –schedule of classes permitting- to teach sociology. He would live in Oss for fourteen years. It became clearer and clearer that Titus could do anything he put his mind to. He took initiatives in various fields and got involved in all kinds of organizational and managerial activities.
In 1919 he became the chief editor of the daily “De Stad Oss”. He was asked, too, to become the director of the “Handelsdagschool” (a kind of business school). This marked the beginning of his great involvement in Catholic education in the Netherlands. In this time he also took the initiative for a public library, was active for the mission and he undertook the task of putting up a monument of Christ the King. In spite of all these activities Titus showed a deep concern for people he met and who called on him in many fields.

During his time in Oss his intensive involvement in the promotion and emancipation of the Frisian culture and language started. Titus had a sharp eye for the emancipation of the Frisian language in higher education. End 1918 he took a seat in the managerial board of the “Vereniging voor Hoger Onderwijs in het Fries” (The Union for Higher Education in the Frisian language).

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Professor of Philosophy and Mysticism

In 1923 Dr. Titus Brandsma was appointed professor in philosophical disciplines at the Catholic university which was founded in that year. The foundation of this university was seen as a highpoint of Catholic emancipation. Titus Brandsma has made a lot of efforts for the foundation and expansion of this institute.
The task given to Titus Brandsma also included the history of mysticism. Especially in this discipline he has been doing pioneering work. Soon after the foundation of the university he founded the Institute for the History of Dutch mysticism. Some years later he is among those who took the initiative for Ons Geestelijk Erf, a magazine for the study of piety. Next to these publications appeared textual editions of mystics from the Netherlands which aimed to make these products of medieval spiritual literature known and felt by the Dutch population. Titus said: these texts are “beautiful but not easily understood and appreciated because of their archaic language. This endeavor is remarkable in a time when mystical literature was somewhat suspected.

In 1927, Titus Brandsma started the very important work of collecting, describing and copying “Middle Dutch” spiritual literature, which was scattered all over Europe.
In 1938, he had put together in more than 170 albums a big collection of photo copies of texts from about 60 manuscripts. In the framework of the research in the field of mysticism he organized four study congresses. He made many publications, often for a wide readership about his research and findings in this field.
Students have mentioned that his classes on mysticism differed greatly from those in philosophy. In his course on mysticism something came alive in him which was noted by his students. Godfried Bomans wrote:

“I see again Titus Brandsma, his eyes looking over our heads to the far horizon of the almost unspeakable and his soft, somewhat monotonous voice trying to find that “Clara atque distincta” of Descartes that was so dear to him. His finely chiseled and spiritual head I see again in the frame of the window that showed an unkempt garden full of chestnut trees”.

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Against National Socialism (Nazism) 

Although he was sickly in the thirties, Titus clearly realized well the dangers of the upcoming National Socialism. In 1934, he gave a talk to the students about Heroism and the “call for a strong man”. He pleaded for discernment of spirits and to be careful not to be swept away by impressive individuals but the ideals they strive to follow. He warned that one can easily be led astray by appearance. In this talk he fiercely denounced the Race-Blood-Soil mysticism of National Socialism. Titus says about the conceptions: “So one is nobler and purer than the other. The more light it possesses and can bring it to splendor, the more it is also tasked to radiate that light and make it shine over the World. It can only be done if it is free from all stains”. He contrasts this with the unsung “heroism” of the praying and helping person, who honors the countenance of Christ and is his brother’s keeper. “No questioning, no looking back, no judgment. Help”. In 1935, he wrote in the Delusion of Weakness about the persecution of the Jews in Germany. In this he spoke against the “violent eradication of what obstructs the free development of the own strength of the people”. Titus considers as cowardice the act of the small one who pulls down what rises above him to appear not small anymore”. In National Socialist periodicals this drew attention and Titus was accused of sympathizing with communism.
In 1939, he gave a long series of classes about the National Socialist world view in the history of philosophy. In these he expressed plainly his disapproval of the National Socialist positions. Still, Titus, just as the rest of Dutch professors, signed the Arian declaration. Unfortunately, it is impossible to trace his motivations.

When the German army invades the Netherlands in 1940 Titus Brandsma has already for a considerable time a public anti-national-socialist position. With this he has drawn attention. The occupying forces, however, will soon show that they will not leave in peace the Roman Catholic pillar to which Titus is strongly committed. When the independence of education and the press is threatened it is not only his anti-national-socialist stand which Titus defends. It is, too, the emancipation – gained with difficulty – of the Catholic part of the population that is threatened by the invasion of the Roman Catholic identity of education and press. 

In the thirties Titus Brandsma has become a close collaborator of Archbishop de Jong in the fields of Catholic education and Catholic press. After May 1940, he was faced in this capacity, first, with the undermining measures of the German occupier which were aimed at Catholic education. Salaries of religious were reduced so much that the existence of schools was threatened. After this came the order to refuse entrance of Jewish children into these schools. As chairman of the Union for Higher and Secondary Education het took the lead in resisting this education policy.

However, especially the case of the press will drive Brandsma to action. In January 1941, the bishops reiterated the condemnation of National Socialism. Some months later they prohibited any membership of the National Socialist organizations. However, the occupying forces were just about to tighten their grip on journalism. The issue became very critical for the Catholic press when NSB (National Socialist Union) advertisements were submitted and a mandate was issued making obligatory the acceptance of the NSB advertisements. Titus was the advisor of the Roman Catholic Journalists Association. In this capacity he wrote a letter that was addressed to all managements and redactors of the Catholic press. In this letter he communicated that the Catholic papers “may not allow these NSB advertisements if they want to maintain their Catholic identity”. He delivers this letter around and explains it personally­. In the eyes of the occupiers this action was sabotage. It is not fully clear if he was actually sent by Archbishop De Jong to undertake these visits. Was it Titus Brandsma’s own initiative? Archbishop De Jong declared later that Titus has acted in name and on the authority of the episcopate, but that he left it up to Titus to go or not.  

His voyage was betrayed and the reaction did not take long. Monday, 19 January 1942, Titus was arrested by the Gestapo and brought to the jail of Scheveningen. There came weeks of interrogation in the office of the “Sicherheitdienst” (security service) at the Binnenhof in The Hague. In this period he wrote Mijn Cel (My Cell) wherein he gave the daily schedule of a prisoner and that he was ordered to write a defense of why the Dutch people and especially the Catholic population resist the NSB. Not long after this starts his last journey, toward the Dachau concentration camp.

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His Spiritual Journey

The life of Titus Brandsma shows a multitude of activities and a great deployment of his capacities. Already at a young age his inquiring spirit and a great urge to work are remarkable. He is intelligent, expansive and driven. However, he was also and above all a very observant monk. He remained as much as possible in his cell and did a lot of work for his religious order. At a rather Young age, in 1912, he is appointed to the council of definitors of the order of Carmel. This made him influential in his order.

The life of Titus also shows great silence and his limitations. Again and again his expansive nature was called to a halt. Already in the minor seminary he could not be as the other boys were. He had to rest more and get more nutrition. The active life of the Franciscans with their stations and parish work did not fit him. It showed him the way to the more contemplative life of the Order of Carmel.

In the Order of Carmel Titus found the silence of the cell. For the Carmelite the cell has to become an essential part of his life, it has to be “owned”. “Each one of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at his prayer unless attending to some other duty” is written in the Rule of Carmel. In his cell the Carmelite learns that he does not make his life, but that he is a guest in the life given to him. It is a purification that aims to develop a greater capacity to receive God. The cell helps to open up to oneself, so inner movements can be distinguished and purified. The cell, too, keeps one occupied in order that the monk does not scatter but is directed more and more to the One. When Titus is 17 years old he writes to his parents:

“I am very happy in my cell or among the brothers, as is required from me […]. I believe that God has called me here. But pray well for me so that I may know if I am following his Holy Will for me. And if by chance, He has not called me, what I, however, don’t believe and hope, because it is a great fortune, may I then know what I have to do to please him. But as I said, I am happy now”.

Only at the end of his life he would share again about his happiness, in his prison writing Mijn Cel (My Cell). When he has described his prison cell in  details, the now 60 years old prisoner writes on January, 1942:

“Beata Solitudo. I’m already completely at home in that little cell. I have not yet been bored, on the contrary. I’m alone there, yes, but never was our Lord so near. I can exult for joy that he made himself found again by me, without me going to people, or people coming to me. He is now my only refuge and I feel safe and happy. I want to be here always, if He so decrees. Seldom have I been so happy and content”.

In this cell Titus found his calling and destiny as a Carmelite.  He had written three years before about his calling: “”In the calling to the Order of Carmel is included the calling to the mystical life as a gift of God, a pure gift of God, but as a gift that He wants to give to those called to Carmel, if they only open their heart to Him and make themselves receptive for this extraordinary divine blessing.

The cell with four walls is not just the only cell which has existed in the life of Titus Brandsma. Also in another way a person can be limited or be thrown back on his own resources in order that a greater receptivity is born. Many of those forms are brought in by life itself. This happened when the intelligent and inquisitive Titus was not allowed to study in Rome and was given a simple and administrative task. For a short while his scientific formation was brought to a standstill. Initially there was no perspective of change. Later on Titus called “it one of the many lessons he needed”. He did not talk much about it later but it must have been a painful experience. Titus” weak health forced him often in all of his life to a state of separation and passivity. It soon became clear that the hectic daily schedule in novitiate was too much for him. He was not allowed to join the night office prayers and he had to pray matins and lauds in his room. In the second year he spits blood, a very serious symptom in those days. It forces him to take a rest of six months. During his studies in Rome he is bedridden for months with ice in his mouth and artificial feeding. This alternation of activity and forced rest will often be repeated in Titus’ life. It put him in solitude and gave him time to reflect.

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God and the human being

God and the person can never be considered separated from each other in Titus’ opinion. The content of his Foundation Day address in 1932 shows that Titus is greatly concerned with the relation of people with God. He was looking for a God image that could meet the needs of people of his time who turned their back to faith in God in big numbers. For Titus “a world problem greater than that of material needs”. At the same time he gave a method to meet God. The God image he presented in this address to his audience was that of nearby, living God. 

“[…] what I, therefore, defend and consider as necessary for this time is the consideration of all that is in its dependence on and origin in God whose hand we see in this, whose being we discern in it, whom we must recognize in this and adore, first of all, in ourselves. God is there and he reveals himself there to us”. 

These opinions led according to Titus to a feeling of close solidarity with the neighbor. Titus says further in his addres.

“Undeniably, it pulls the individual out of his isolation and makes him see  himself in a relationship of dependence. It not only connects the person with God, but in and through and with God man sees himself united and connected with all other people. Here is a communion founded on the most profound unification of God with all that exists”.

In his speech on Heroism Titus had said: “but then all people are our brothers, even those who hate and fight us”. The consciousness of God’s indwelling in every human being must lead according to Titus to an attitude of service and peace. For him the religious person is a social person. Praying and helping can not and may not be separated from each other. “In thousands of shapes incomprehension, the need of human life goes through the world”. Titus’ eye saw in all those shapes God’s image. Father Titus was first of all concerned about God and people. According to the biographer Henk Aukes Titus Brandsma was the only priest in Nijmegen who went to the municipal social welfare office.

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The end of the journey

After some weeks of stay in the prison of Scheveningen Titus Brandsma was brought to the transit camp Amersfoort on March 12, 1942. The conditions are extremely bad in that time. Hunger and maltreatment were a daily affair. The weak condition of Titus suffered much. 

After a short stay again in Scheveningen he was transported to the prison for convicts in Kleve. After a few weeks he was brought to the concentration camp of Dachau. According to witnesses Titus kept on living his God sense and witnessing to it. It was 1942, the year that was reported in the camp records as the “blood year”. “So, death can mean salvation: there is no more fear of death, because it is better than life” wrote the Carmelite Rafaël Tijhuis who survived the camp. In that hell, however, Titus left behind on people, just as in the other prisons, an indelible impression of God commitment and goodness. 

Titus, already weakened by his stay in camp Amersfoort, wants to follow as exactly as possible all the orders of the warden and ‘Stubenälteste’, but he is not fast enough. “He did not have the skill to save himself out of situations”, say witnesses later on. This draws extra attention. Many of the maltreatments are directed against him. The Carmelite Rafaël Tijhuis who survived camp Dachau writes: “Titus with his innate friendliness tries by talking to them still to achieve something … Afterwards I say sometimes to Titus, don’t talk with those guys, you won’t achieve anything, at the most a severe beating”! But then he answers: “Because of this you should not omit it, for who knows something may stick”. You often will hear him saying:”One has to pray for these people, that they may come to see”. 

More than 20 years before his stay in Dachau Titus has written a passion meditation at the stations of the way of the cross of Albert Servaes. In this he sharply describes how the heart of man rebels against the disgraceful humiliation of the suffering. How people rather escape it, away from the cross to the triumphant redeemer of the resurrection. Titus sees, however, exactly in this extreme humiliation of someone a way. Here lights up love, when all self-orientation comes to nothing and the otherness of the Other is embraced. Titus writes at the third station:

“In your weakness you conquered the world. Let me be weak with you and bow deep under the weight of life. Be insignificant and small in the eye of the world and stand up again with you for new suffering until my death will be the crowning of my offer”.

Titus did not look for suffering. In his imprisonment in Kleve he tried to turn it away through a request to be detained in a German Carmelite community. The suffering that befell him he received in solidarity with the suffering Christ: “the most chosen fate that unites me with you, o God”, he wrote in a poem in the Scheveningen prison. 

The witnesses who survived narrate how Titus kept on telling people about God’s commitment to people. His co-prisoners visited him secretly to listen to him speaking about the “Light which will give us freedom at the end of the dark tunnel”. 

On July 19 Titus has been admitted to the ‘Revier’ (camp hospital). An anonymous source states that experiments were done on him. “He has been humiliated and disgraced”. After a few days he became unconscious and was then ‘abgespritzt’ (given a lethal injection) on July 26, 1942 at  2:00 pm. His commitment to God and love of humankind has left an indelible impression on many.

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