You couldn’t say it was an ordinary Sunday that day—after all, the Nazi occupation had ravaged a shell-shocked Holland and nothing was the same. Nothing would ever be the same.
But the Mass would have been the anchor for Dutch Catholics, an eternal constant in a world of dangerous variables. And on the morning of July 26, 1942, as they put on their Sunday best and stepped out into the summer sunshine to gather for the liturgy, Catholics in the Netherlands were unaware that they were about to hear a very important message from their bishops.
At every Mass that day, a letter from the Dutch bishops was read aloud at the pulpit. Words that were clear in their meaning and firm in their resolve. The bishops revealed to the people that, “deeply shaken” by the horrors of the occupation, they had sent a telegram to the Nazi authorities condemning their treatment of the Jews which offended “the deepest moral convictions of the people of the Netherlands” and “God’s precepts of justice and mercy.” Then the Church’s spiritual fathers begged their flock to return to God in a spirit of repentance and humility in order to avert the judgment of God:
“We can still avert that judgment if we recognize the time of grace, if we will even now see what will serve as our way to peace. And that is only a return to God from whom a part of the world has already turned away for so many years. All human remedies have proved to be in vain—God alone can help anymore…
“When we look inward we must realize that we have all failed. Peccavimus ante Dominum Deum nostrum, we have all sinned before the Lord, our God.
“But we also know that God does not despise a humble and contrite heart.Cor contritum et humiliates non despicies. Therefore we turn to Him, and filled with childlike trust, beseech Him for mercy…
“And so, dear Faithful, let us implore God, through the intercession of the Mother of Mercy, that He may soon grant the world a just peace. That He may strengthen the people of Israel who are being so sorely tested in these days, and bring them to the true redemption in Christ Jesus. May He shelter those whose lot it is to work in a strange land and to live far from their loved ones at home. May He shelter them in body and soul, protecting them from bitterness and loss of courage, keeping them true in the Faith and strengthening their families at home. Let us implore His help for all those in tribulation, for the oppressed, for prisoners and hostages, for so many over whom hand the clouds of threat and the peril of death.—Pateant aures misericordiae tuae, Domine, precibus supplicantium (Open the ears of Thy Mercy, O Lord, to the prayers of those who beseech Thee.)”
For a week, the people of Holland held their breath. They knew well enough that such a public protest was not likely go to unanswered. For seven days there was a deafening, awful silence.
And then—retaliation. “Since the Catholic bishops have interfered in something that does not concern them, deportation of all Catholic Jews will be speeded up and completed within the coming week,” wrote the Commanding Officer of Security Police. “No appeals for clemency shall be considered.”
And on August 2, 1942, the Gestapo arrested all Catholics of Jewish descent in Holland, calling Catholic Jews “our worst enemies.”
One of them was a Carmelite nun who a few years before had asked permission from her Mother Prioress to offer herself as a sacrifice “to the heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of propitiation for true peace, that the dominion of the Antichrist may collapse.” Another week later, Edith Stein—St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—was dead, among the first to be gassed at Auschwitz.
Hers was a tragedy with a glorious final act—she was not only canonized but became a saint with a martyr’s crown since her death was an act of vengeance and hatred against the faith she professed.
Today, too, we witness violence against life and against Christian moral principles on a daily basis. We long for courageous leadership, for our Church authorities to call evil out for what it is, to condemn grave—but legal—sin, and we are ready to rally behind them when they do. We applaud bravery in the face of arrogance and hypocrisy. We know well that every injustice or act of violence against innocence is, in fact, very much the Church’s concern.
But like the Dutch bishops reminded their own people, we must first look inward. Where is the hatred or hypocrisy in our own hearts? We offer to God our own sinfulness, brokenness, asking for mercy on us, all the while begging for His mercy on our country and our people—and if we mean it, then we can certainly expect a kind of martyrdom, too.
Maybe we won’t shed blood, but we’ll have to stand as witnesses within our own history, and we’ll have to die a thousand deaths. We’ll face ridicule, derision, and scorn. We’ll be silenced and censored. We’ll be threatened and canceled. We’ll be made irrelevant and we’ll be called ignorant, intolerant, and even evil. We may lose businesses, friends, and freedoms.
So be it.
This July 26, only 79 years later, let us ask God to give us the courage to proclaim the truth and the hearts to embrace the suffering that will necessarily follow. We will not be the first to do so, nor the last. And so we will never be alone.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and protector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1