ISA - The First Lecture in Honor of Blessed Titus Brandsma
On March 16, 2019, the Institute of Spirituality in Asia (ISA) held the first of four lectures in honor of Blessed Titus Brandsma, Patron of the Philippine Province of the Order of Carmelites.
ISA Executive Director Fr. Rico Ponce, O.Carm. welcomed the fifty friends and representatives of the various branches of the Carmelite family to the Multi-Purpose Hall of the Teresa of Avila Building in New Manila.
He said “it is our hope that this lecture series will give us information as well as direct our minds to Jesus whom Titus Brandsma strove to follow, and we as Carmelites strive to follow.”
Fr. Ponce was also the first lecturer (topic: Hagiography of Titus Brandsma) in a series of talks on the spirituality of Blessed Titus, a Dutch priest, educator, journalist, modern mystic and prophet for our times.
Defining hagiography as the biography of a saint, holy or venerated person, Fr. Ponce showed pictures of Bolswald, birthplace of Blessed Titus (born Anno on February 23, 1881), in Friesland, north of Holland); of the dairy farm run by the family to make cheese from the milk of Holstein cattle for which the region is famous; and of the church where Anno was baptized.
In Friesland, Catholics were a minority and were very conscious and particular about their faith and culture. Anno came from a fervent Catholic family where five of the six children entered religious life. Their homestead was named Oegeklooster because it was once the site of a religious house, the Convent of St. Hugo.
Until 1887, Anno studied in the school attached to the church where he had been baptized. Afterwards, he went to high school (“gymnasium”) in the Latin School for Boys in Megen which, like his parish, was run by the Franciscans.
As a student, Anno always made the honor roll. He had high grades in Latin, Greek, German, Religion, Geometry, History and Literature. However, he was frail. In late 1900, when he was already studying to be a Carmelite, he suffered a bleeding stomach ulcer which marked the beginning of a series of ailments. He was still sickly in Rome while taking his Ph.D. from 1906 to 1909.
In September 1898, Anno entered Carmel in the town of Boxmeer with its monastery built in 1635. He took the name of his father (Titus) as his religious name following the tradition of that time.
Daily from 5.30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Titus was immersed in seminary activities like the recitation of the breviary, Holy Mass, meditation, spiritual readings, study of the Rule, practice of Gregorian Chant and manual labor. He was inspired by two texts from the Prophet Elias: “The Lord lives; I am in His presence” and “Lord, you have initiated all your works in us.”
With his knowledge of languages, Titus was asked by the Novice Master to translate spiritual works. He came to view this as not just an informative exercise but also as the beginnings of a lifelong interest in spirituality.
On October 1, 1899 Titus professed his first vows. The next year he went to Zenderen as a Philosophy student where he studied the spirituality of Carmel which he called the foundation of all things. There, too, he formed a lifelong friendship with his Philosophy professor Fr. Hubertus Driessen, O. Carm.
Titus did not forget the ideals of Fr. Hubertus about the Order adapting to the changing times when he moved to Oss for Theology studies. In that city, he chaired the association of theological studies, wrote articles in the journal The Catholic Guide and became secretary of Dutch Carmel.
With his friends, Titus thought he was all set for Rome. However, he had a disagreement with his teacher Fr. Eugene Driessen, O. Carm., brother of Fr. Hubertus which postponed his trip. Instructed to do a thesis on the essence of angels, Titus wanted to defend the opposite. As a result, he had to serve as sacristan. Nevertheless, he said the tasks of taking care of church goods and administering payments and receipts was “one of the many lessons I needed.”
Shocked to learn of the assignment, Fr. Hubertus arranged to send Titus to Rome where he arrived on October 31, 1906.
At the Colegio de San Alberto, Titus enjoyed the new world of monastic silence and studies on speculative philosophy, experimental physics, chemistry, physiology, astronomy and social sciences.
He also published articles on socialism for the Catholic Social Weekly saying “though socialism is not acceptable because of its materialistic outlook, we have to understand socialism and its passionate expression of dissatisfaction which is the result of existing injustice.”
In Rome, Titus again met Fr. Hubertus, then the prior of the main monastery in San Alberto, the secretary to the Father General, and the one who told Titus, young as he was, “you could do a great deal in the Order.”
As mentioned earlier, Titus professed his first vows on October 1, 1899. In 1903, he took his solemn profession of vows on June 17, 1905. He was ordained in Hertogenbosch. He was either a member of the Council or the Vice-Provincial from 1912 until his death in 1942.
Titus finished his Ph.D. in 1909 and returned to Oss. Until 1923, he taught Philosophy and Carmelite History. He also worked on his book on St. Teresa The Carmel Roses and on other publications and articles.
In 1923, Titus helped establish the first Catholic university in Holland in the town of Nijmegen and served as Rector Magnificus from 1932 to 1933. For his inaugural address, he read his famous paper “Man’s Image of God” and asked:
How is it that the image of God has been so eclipsed that numerous people are no longer struck by it? Is the defect solely on their side? Or is it something being asked of us as well? Are we perhaps being summoned to let that image shine out more brightly all over the world? And may we entertain the hope that a study of the concept of God will at least assuage this greatest of all human needs?
Aside from teaching, Titus co-founded an important periodical on spirituality (Ons Geestelijk or Our Spiritual Heritage); wrote a weekly column in De Gehderlander on either a spiritual author or a spiritual topic; went on radio; was appointed spiritual advisor to the Roman Catholic Association of Journalists by Cardinal Jan de Jong; and even went to the United States where he gave 18 lectures as documented by Fr Ponce in his bibliography for this lecture..
Blessed Titus was no stranger to Nazism (National Socialism, the government in Germany from 1933 to 1945). As early as 1935, he wrote “Dutchmen Against the Treatment of the Jews in Germany” in the volume The Fallacies of the Weakness in which he declared:
What is being done against the Jews is an act of cowardice. These people certainly act in a mean way when they treat the Jews as they are doing. It is the fallacy of their weakness; they believe that they are showing their nation’s strength or that they are increasing its power.
On May 10, 1940, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland. A year later he ruled that no priest or religious should head an educational institute. The salaries of those who lived in the communities would also be reduced by 60 percent. Furthermore, members of the Catholic press were required to carry advertisements for the Dutch Nazi Party (NSB).
On December 31, 1941, Titus agreed with Cardinal Jan de Jong to travel throughout Holland and deliver a message against the press ruling and to discuss its implications with editors and members of the Dutch hierarchy.
Titus said of his assignment “we are not sure if those responsible will resort to violence. But in case they do, remember, God speaks the last word. He rewards His faithful servant.”
For speaking up for Jews, Catholics and schools and universities, he was adjudged one of the most dangerous men in Holland and arrested on July 19, 1942. He was told by the arresting officer (Mr. Steffen) that he never should have accepted the Commission of the Cardinal.
His reply: “I looked upon such things as an honor and I was not conscious of having done anything in doing that.”
Titus was imprisoned and spent his 61st birthday in one of the camps. He was shuttled around the following camps over six months: Scheveningen concentration camp; Amersfoort transit camp; Scheveningen again for cross-examination; Kleef, Germany for a stop-over; and lastly, Dachau on June 16, 1942.
Titus was subjected to torture, starvation and experimental drugs until he was deemed useless for any more trials On July 26, 1942, he was given a lethal injection and died ten minutes later.
Aspects and dimensions of his spirituality
In this part of his talk, Fr. Ponce discussed how Titus had courageously exposed the evils of Nazism and defended the Jews.
Titus continued to be a man of prayer and a great lover of the Eucharist. Upon waking up 7 a.m., he silently said the prayers of the Mass and of Communion.
He also remained greatly devoted to Saint Teresa of Avila and started writing her biography on the pages of a book he was allowed to keep.
Even in very uncomfortable situations, Titus experienced God. In this regard, Fr. Ponce flashed on the screen his hand-written poem on solitude which has become one of the best-known in the Netherlands.
It begins with “A new awareness of Thy love/Encompasses my heart” and ends with “Stay with me, Jesus, only stay/I shall never fear/If, reaching out my hand,/I feel Thee near.”
Entrusting himself completely to God, Titus wrote on January 23, 1942: “Although I do not know what will become of me, I know myself to be in God’s hands. Who will separate us from God’s love?”
Titus exhibited prophetic spirituality. As evidence, Fr. Ponce gave the following quotes at the start of the talk: “He who wants to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come in conflict with it” and “Never yield to hatred” which is emblazoned on t-shirts made by student friars of the Philippine Province to raise funds for their projects.
Last but not the least, Titus made it a point to talk nicely with his arresting officer (Mr. Steffen) and to pray for the Germans, the camp guards and Heinrich Himmler, largely responsible for the camps (“he is still a human being”).
Fr. Ponce also discussed other aspects of Titus’ spirituality including the steps of meditations on Holy Scripture and Holy Books. Through meditation, we assimilate Scriptural and spiritual teachings and find joy in the possession of faith. Contemplating such truths strengthens one’s love for God and His law.
According to Fr. Ponce, Titus’ heroic acts of suffering were followed by forgiveness because his faith and trust in God were firmly rooted in prayer.
Fr. Ponce also noted how Titus’ joyful countenance is a study in humankind’s sharing the Cross of Christ: “for all Christians, he exemplifies a life of union with God combined harmoniously with involvement based on deep religious roots.”
Fr. Ponce went on to say “he also led a life of identifying with the poor and the little ones; being deeply respectful of different cultures; encouraging all that promotes the growth of the human person; and working selflessly and zealously for Christian unity.”
Fr. Ponce started the question-and-answer session by asking “are we willing to die for our faith like Blessed Titus?”
His confrere, Fr. Perfecto Adeva, O.Carm, likened the present circumstances in the Philippines to the situation of the Dutch people under Nazism and invoked the question which was asked in the hymn opening this lecture: “if we don’t talk, who will?” Fr. Perfecto went on to say “I think this is most important. We are being called to a prophetic mission for the marginalized, who will ultimately be affected.”
He also added that today’s government creates divisiveness “which compels us to analyse the signs of the times. Perhaps, Church people close to the poor, the weak and the widowed may be arrested.
Some may initially be like Prophet Elijah hiding in the cave for fear of being arrested but then, rising to the challenge of protecting the people of God. “In times of repression, who will offer their lives for their fellow beings?”
For his part, Antonio Villasor, University of the Philippines senior lecturer on Philosophy, recalled how the Carmelites, including an elderly Dutch member, were the first to strike during the institution of martial law in the Philippines. At the La Tondena factory in poverty-stricken Tondo district, workers were attacked by military and labor leaders who tagged them as Reds.
To end his talk, Fr. Ponce asked what the participants could “take home.”
A member of the Third Order of Carmelites (TOC) replied that Blessed Titus is a model for defending truth, press freedom, universal rights and in refuting the view that Nazis had more rights than others.
How then do we actualize the ideas of Titus in our communities, Fr. Ponce asked?
Another TOC member offered her reflection that Blessed Titus is like present day Filipinos trying to voice their opinions. Facing questions on the necessity of martial law; on knock-in-the night (tokhang) methods against alleged drug pushers; and on the few who fight corruption, people can take God’s Word as a guide.
She said “if we have the guts of Titus, then we can do much.”
The afternoon ended with a prayer for the canonization of Blessed Titus.
# Perla Aragon-Choudhury; 21 March 2019