Cardinal Eijk on the courage of answering Nazis' hate with God’s love
By Deborah Castellano Lubov
Heroic and holy journalist, priest and martyr of the 20th Century, Saint Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite priest and theologian, combatted Nazism, even until it cost him his life. Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht, Holland, remembers his legacy, killed “in hatred of the faith” in the Dachau concentration camp in 1942, after refusing to publish propaganda, speaking out against Nazi tactics, and opposing anti-Jewish laws they were promulgating. Cardinal Eijk argues Titus is not a saint because he was a martyr, but was a martyr, because he “was already a saint.”
In 1985, Pope St. John Paul II declared Titus Blessed, saying that he “answered hate with love." Pope Francis canonized St. Titus Brandsma in 2022.
In this interview, Cardinal Eijk reflects on Brandsma’s impact, as well as the holy witness of a predecessor Cardinal Archbishop of Utrecht, who, with great love, countered the Nazis’ horrors. He also underscores the value of Pope Francis’ recent establishment of a Vatican Commission to gather the testimonies of all modern Christian martyrs for the faith, within the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, in view of the Jubilee of 2025, with the objective of drawing up a catalogue of all Christians who have shed their blood to confess Christ and bear witness to the Gospel.
The Archbishop of Utrecht also speaks on how regular Catholics, in all vocations, can learn from the martyrs and serve Christ, even as he had done as a physician, prior to his future of service to the Church in Holland.
Regardless of his love for medicine, the Cardinal has no regrets about joining the priesthood, saying, “no one and nothing can remove that inner deep spiritual joy that Lord gave me, and it is anchored at the bottom of my soul.”
Your Eminence, Pope Francis has recently dedicated a Commission, within the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, to the new martyrs who lost their lives among such incredible and varied circumstances, out of uncompromising love for Christ and the Gospel. In your view, what is the value of the Church remembering them in this way?
I believe Pope Francis has several reasons for attaching a great interest to the martyrs through this commission. In the first place, we must not forget that Christian faith is the most persecuted faith in the whole world nowadays. Some thousands of Christians lose their lives every year because of their faith to Christ. We should not forget that. It is a shame that one does not speak about that in Western Europe, but it is a fact well established by various organizations.
Second point: you know, we also have in Western Europe, a kind of silent persecution of Christian faith. There's difficulty showing or expressing your faith publicly in Western Europe. I think less in the United States. But people working in business or in hospitals or, for instance, in schools, if they are convinced Catholics, they have to be prudent about expressing their faith. That's a very important point.
The third reason is this: people nowadays are not interested in systematic explanations of the Christian faith. But their main question - when they're still interested in faith – is: “how does your faith in Jesus operate, function in your own life? How is your own experience with Christ?” Personal biographies say more to today's people about the Christian faith than the systematic explanation of faith. People are touched by the personal experience, the personal severances of people!
When I give catechesis about, for instance, how to pray or how to live with Christians, I always introduce something of my own experience, my own illnesses, my own difficult experiences during my life, and the way in which I found my source of joy and hope and courage in Jesus. That says more to people than a systematic explanation of faith. People like to see films or read about heroes. Well, in a certain sense, a martyr is a hero, between inverted commas, in the eyes of today's people.
They are not heroes, in our view. They are saints who had such a love for Christ that they were even prepared to give their life for him. But how can the love for Christ bring people so far that they give their life for Him, that they can endure even the severest torments for Him, that is saying more, as I said, than a systematic explanation of faith. That’s why it is very important to look at the example the martyrs give to us.
Is there a new martyr who has inspired you in your service personally?
My example is a martyr in a certain sense, Cardinal Johannes de Jong, my predecessor as Archbishop of Utrecht during the Second World War, a very good man! Not a hero, but he became so during the Second World War.
Together with the Protestant pastor, he used to bring three messages to be read from the pulpit on Sunday Masses, instead of the sermon, which were read in two Protestant churches and in the Roman Catholic churches. He was a brave man, a courageous man, in doing so, although he was tormented in his conscience. He knew that the Nazis would not capture or attack him. They wouldn't have the courage because the Catholic Church was very, very strong at the time in the Netherlands. But he knew beforehand, the Nazis would punish others for these messages. These messages said that Christian faith was incompatible with the ideology of the Nazis. Through these messages, he protested the deportation of the Jews, and that was very dangerous.
After the last message was read from the pulpit, for instance, Edith Stein and her sister Rosa were captured and brought to a concentration camp, first in the Netherlands, and then Dachau, where they died by gas. The messages he wrote and asked the parish priests to read from the pulpit, other people were punished for that. Nevertheless, I found him to be a very brave archbishop. Pope Pius XII had a lot of admiration for him, and that’s why he created him a Cardinal in 1946, the first Archbishop of Utrecht to become a cardinal. But I see in him a very great example: in expressing the Christian faith, also the difficult parts of faith, with regard to medical ethics, sexual ethics and marriage morality. He did so openly, and had the courage to do so.
Last year, Cardinal de Jong received a as a kind of honor, as “Righteous among the nations,” according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. So, I'm very proud of this predecessor. And in a certain sense, he is a new martyr, a martyr of our time, since the Second World War is not that long ago. The truth was that the Nazi ideology was incompatible with Christian faith, but it was very dangerous to say so, and we suffered very much, because other people had to receive the punishment for that.
And staying with the Second World War in your country of the Netherlands; St. Titus Brandsma, who embraced the faith even until it would cost him his life at a concentration camp, left an immense legacy. What impact does his witness hold?
You know, Saint Titus Brandsma, was a frail man, not big. You would not think before the Second World War he would become a martyr. A very courageous man, a very brave man, he turned out to be, during the war. But he died as a martyr because he was already a saint.
He was what I call a practical mystic. He was a very practical man and an incredible organizer. He promoted his own maternal language, the language of the province of Frisia. He founded Catholic schools. He governed the Catholic University of Nijmegen as Rector Magnificus from 1932 to 1933. People who met him said he was a very ordinary man, very humble, willing to help people, listen to them. They described him as a man of science, philosophy, but also a common believer.
I say he was pretty practical. He had an inner contemplative life, but you must not think of visions, great revelations and so on. They were important in the life of many saints, not in his life. I mean just his very simple inner life of prayer. Titus Brandsma spoke with Jesus in his soul and a very confident way. The message of his life is this that is feasible for every Catholic. Every one of us can have this kind of contemplative inner life, this simple life of prayer, of speaking in your inner soul with Jesus without others hearing it. It was this inner relationship with Jesus, full of confidence, full of love, which gave him the courage.
At the instigation of the Cardinal De Jong, Brandsma went to the head of the editorial board of Catholic Newspapers in order to stimulate them: “Do not accept advertisements of the Nazis.” And, of course, Gestapo discovered that very soon. Therefore he tried to hide himself. But he did not succeed in that for a long time.
Titus was caught and was killed in Dachau by a nurse who at the command of a physician gave him a lethal injection of phenol. There is a witness who said that this nurse was so under impression of the example and the witness of Saint Titus Brandsma, that she decided to convert, and she became a good Christian herself, a good Catholic. In this way you can see how it's an example of a prisoner in a concentration camp can have effects on the people who are tormenting him. Like Jesus forgave the people who killed Him at the Cross, Father Brandsma did the same.
We always pray the “Our Father,” praying “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and that was what Father Titus did. That's a very significant example for us today, because we, like people of all times, were inclined to hate our enemies. Brandsma, a frail man, with weak health his whole life, suffered greatly during his imprisonment in the concentration camp. When he was beaten and terribly mistreated there, that undermined his health. Nevertheless, he was full of love, full of forgiveness.
Your Eminence, you've dedicated your life to serving Christ as a shepherd in the Church. But even prior to this, you were a physician. Can you tell us more about your serving in this way, as a doctor, and how the martyrs of today, how they can bring the church forward through their sacrifice?
People sometimes say to me, “Oh, you are a late vocation”, but my answer is always “no, I am a late answer!” I already had my vocation to become a priest when I was prepared for the first Communion.
I felt in my heart, a very strong desire to become a priest myself. The Lord gives us a calling, makes known that he calls us to a certain state of life like the priesthood, by putting a strong desire to that in our hearts. This was a desire that always remained in my heart. Then I went to high school gymnasium, a Catholic School of a Congregation, during the second half of the 60s, when many priests left the priesthood. Many of the fathers left the priesthood, but at the same time they remained teachers at the school. Like every one, I discovered my own sexuality, as well. So I thought: “well, these teachers are not able to maintain celibate life, how will I then be able to do so? I'm not more than they are,’ and I started to doubt a little bit…
In addition, in the last years of my gymnasium, my mother was suffering from cancer. I visited her frequently when she was admitted in hospital, and started to get acquainted with the world of medicine, the world of healthcare. That brought me to the idea to study medicine, to become a medical doctor, and I did so at the University of Amsterdam. I was very, very glad with the study, which was a very interesting study for me.
But I was always thinking, ‘well, shall I not interrupt the study, my studies in medicine, in order to go to the seminary?’ There was a great temptation, too big, for me at that time, because in one year I would have my medical degree. The professor of internal medicine offered me to work in his section of the hospital, and then I could become an internist, the most beautiful discipline of medicine, for me. I decided to accept this offer. I had to hurry a little bit in order to finish my studies in time. I liked working in the hospital. Nevertheless, the strong desire of becoming a priest remained in my heart and at a certain moment I said to myself, “Now I have to do something.”
“I have to decide whether I remain or remain in medicine, or whether I will give in to this desire”.
As a doctor, how did you continue discerning your priestly vocation?
I did a retreat with a Jesuit to retreat in order to make a discernment about my vocation, and by the end of that spiritual retreat, it was very clear for me: I had the vocation to the priesthood. Once I reached this certainty, I decided to go to the seminary. I could not leave the hospital immediately, as they needed me another half of year. I went to the seminary and never regretted it.
People something say, “Oh, that is a great sacrifice,” but I don't experience it so much as a sacrifice, not because I did not like being a medical doctor, because that was the ideal, one of the man ideals of my life, but the priesthood gave me a great joy, and that joy, during my lifetime, became ever more internalized. It is more, not an emotion, but rather a spiritual joy, anchored at the bottom of my heart. When I was at high school, I thought “well, is celibate life for me?” But later on, I discovered that it is a gift of God to us.
God gives us the celibate life. He makes it possible for us with His grace, which we receive in ordination, to maintain this state of life.
When I go to a medical doctor, I see all these new methods of diagnosing diseases and new treatments, sometimes I think, “Oh, it would be nice to have experienced all these new developments, of having the possibilities to apply these new methods.” But in my heart, I don't regret the choice for the priesthood. I never, never regretted it. I can say in all honesty, ‘yes, I don't regret it.’
I'm glad that God called me to the priesthood. It was a very difficult life as a priest and especially as a bishop because of the critical reactions of the media, and so on. You have to get used to that. Now, I am in a somewhat older bishop, I am 70 years old, with some experience, and have been a bishop now, for practically 24 years. So, it does not hurt me so much. In the beginning, however, that was difficult. Nevertheless, no one and nothing can remove that inner deep spiritual joy that Lord gave me, and it is anchored at the bottom of my soul.