Bl. Rupert Mayer, SJ
It is easy but unjust to blame the whole German nation, as some have done, for the rise of Hitler’s Nazism. As we move farther away from World War II, we begin to learn that there were many in Nazi Germany who strove heroically, if not at the time effectively, to counter their insane dictator. One of these, a truly prophetic man, was a John the Baptist to Hitler’s Herod. He was the German Jesuit priest, Father Rupert Mayer. Like St. John, Mayer laid his life on the line to rebuke the errors of Nazism. Like him, also, he triumphed after death.
Rupert, a native of Stuttgart, was the son of a prosperous merchant. He was well educated, having attended the universities of Fribourg, Munich, and Tubingen. Then, feeling called to the priesthood, he entered the seminary at Rottenburg. He was ordained a diocesan priest in 1899, but in 1900 entered the Jesuits and went on to further studies. When his flair as a preacher was discovered, he was assigned to preach parish missions in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
Father Mayer’s principal center was Munich. Appointed there in 1912, he was soon faced by the welfare problems occasioned by the migration into the city of countless country people searching for a better life but finding only poverty. Mayer at once began to forage for food, lodgings, and jobs. He helped hundreds of families to survive, and to be strong in hope and concern for each other.
World War I broke out in 1914. True to his character, Fr. Mayer volunteered as a military chaplain. He served the Catholic troops in the front lines of France, Poland, and Romania. Such was his bravery in assisting the dying that he was awarded the Iron Cross military decoration for courage. A month later he was badly wounded, and his leg had to be amputated.
Retired now from military service, Mayer returned to Munich. The German people suffered much in the aftermath of the struggle, so the Jesuit found much to keep him busy. In 1921 he was appointed chaplain of the Men’s Sodality, a Jesuit-backed Catholic Action group. He co-founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, a community dedicated to helping the very poor. He also established “Bahnhofsmission”, (Railroad Station Mission) to give assistance to travelers. All Munich came to know and respect this compassionate priest.
Still a good theologian and powerful preacher, Father Mayer was one of the first to recognize that Nazism and Christianity were incompatible, and Hitler’s racist rejection of the Old Testament and of anything “Jewish” in the New Testament was “hysterical”. He did not hesitate to condemn these notions from the pulpit.
When Hitler assumed national power in 1933, the Ministry of Justice warned Mayer against denouncing Nazist ideology. Since he did not obey, in 1936 he was forbidden by the government to preach anywhere in Germany. Later he was arrested, but released when he promised, under duress, to cease preaching, on the condition that his priestly and social ministrations would not be interfered with. Nevertheless, he was again arrested in 1939, and sent to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. During his seven months there, his health began to fail. Fearing that this popular priest might die and be held a martyr, the government transferred him to house imprisonment at the Benedictine monastery of Ettal, near Oberammergau.
When the war ended in 1945 and he was released, Father Mayer returned to Munich, to the pulpit of St. Michael’s Church, and to his beloved works of charity. But his health did not mend, and he died on November 1, 1945, while he was preaching about the saints of God.
Rupert Mayer was entombed in the Sodality Chapel in downtown Munich. His tomb quickly became a center of loving pilgrimage. (I well remember witnessing this devotion in 1950.)
Pope John Paul II beatified Father Rupert on May 3, 1987. The ceremony was held in the Olympic Stadium of Munich.
An appropriate place to honor an “athlete for Christ”!
--Father Robert F. McNamara