St Titus Brandsma
Titus was born Anno Sjoerd Brandsma on 23 February 1881. His family lived on a large farm at Oegeklooster in the Frisia region of Holland, an area where Catholicism was very strong. Anno was one of seven children, all but one of whom entered religious life. Just before Anno made his first Holy Communion at the age of eleven, he confided to his parents that he wanted to become a priest. He entered a junior seminary, run by Franciscans, the same year. However, at the age of seventeen, he did not begin his novitiate with the Franciscans, but the Carmelites in Boxmeer. Along with the Carmelite habit he was given the name Titus.
It became clear that Brother Titus was a gifted academic and after being ordained priest in 1905 he was sent for further studies in Rome. During this period he suffered some ill health which hampered his studies but he eventually gained his doctorate in Divinity in 1909 at the age of 28.
On returning to Holland, Titus taught philosophy to Carmelites in formation and began a life-long project to translate the works of St Teresa of Avila into Dutch. In 1923 he was appointed to teach philosophy at the new Catholic University of Nijmegen. His students recalled his wonderful sense of humour and how he always had time for them. Titus was appointed Rector Magnificus of the University in 1932. He also travelled around Europe and to the United States to speak about Carmelite mysticism. In 1935, he was appointed by the Dutch bishops as a chaplain and advisor to Catholic journalists. It was this appointment which would lead ultimately to his imprisonment and death.
The Nazi invasion of Holland took place on 10 May 1940. Their ruthless persecution of the Jews is well known. Titus defended the Jewish people, especially Jewish children who attended Catholic schools, and stated that “the Church in carrying out her mission makes no distinction between sex, race or people.” In late 1941, the Catholic press were ordered to carry advertisements on behalf of the Nazi party. The Catholic hierarchy asked Titus to intervene, which he did with great courage, writing to all editors of Catholic publications and pleading with them to defy the order. Someone betrayed him to the Nazi authorities.
He was arrested on 19 January 1942 and spent seven weeks at the prison in Scheveningen, before being transferred with a hundred other prisoners to Amersfoot concentration camp. He spent nearly two months there, before being sent back to Scheveningen for further questioning. The head of the secret police called Titus “that dangerous little friar.” When it became clear that Titus would not go against his conscience and give in to the demands of the Nazi party, he was sent to Dachau. He was in a part of the camp reserved for priests and religious, mainly Polish, and including another Carmelite brother. The physical labour, harsh living conditions and frequent beatings all took their toll on Titus who was already in delicate health. Towards the end of July he was taken to the camp ‘hospital’- in reality an experimental laboratory where he suffered further degrading treatment. Finally, on 26 July 1942, an SS nurse administered a fatal injection. She testified at the beatification process that Titus had given her his rosary, encouraging her to pray and saying that he would pray for her.
Titus was beatified by Pope St John Paul II on 3 November 1985 and canonised by Pope Francis on 15 May 2022.
We celebrate his feast day on 27 July.
Titus wrote this poem while meditating on a picture of Jesus in Scheveningen prison:
Dear Lord, when looking up to Thee,
I see Thy loving eyes on me;
Love overflows my humble heart,
knowing what faithful friend Thou art.
A cup of sorrow I forsee,
which I accept for love of Thee,
the painful way I wish to go,
the only way to God I know.
My soul is full of peace and light;
although in pain this light shines bright,
for here Thou keepest to Thy breast
my longing heart, to find there rest.
Leave me here freely alone,
in cell where never sunlight shone;
should no one ever speak to me,
this golden silence makes me free!
For though alone I have no fear;
never were Thou O Lord, so near.
Sweet Jesus please abide with me;
my deepest peace I find in Thee.