When I stepped inside historic St. Michael’s Church in Munich, I was surprised to see a constant parade of people stopping before the bust of a particular man in the hallway. Young and old, in a hurry or taking time to linger, they came with suitcases, shopping bags and school book bags. Some would stand for a few minutes and say a prayer. Some would just briefly touch a well-worn spot on the bronze sculpture. All of them were honoring a remarkable man, Father Rupert Mayer.
Father Mayer was a Jesuit priest born in 1899. He served as a chaplain in World War I. He was first sent to a military hospital. At his own request, he went from there to the front, literally crawling through the mud of battlefields under fire to minister to soldiers–both Catholic and non-Catholic. He served in France, Poland and Romania. In 1916, he lost a leg in a grenade attack. He was the first military chaplain to receive the Iron Cross for bravery in battle.
As the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s, he consistently spoke out against them, both in public places like beer halls and in the pulpit. In 1937, the Nazis first put him under house arrest, then jailed him several times in Landsberg Prison. Next they sent him to Sachsenhausen concentration camp for several months. Many church leaders of various faiths were killed during the course of World War II, but Father Mayer was apparently too well-known for the Nazis to dispose of him so easily. In Sachsenhausen, his health was failing. The Nazis did not want to make this popular man a martyr. So he was finally sent to Ettal Abbey, deep in the Bavarian countryside, and kept confined there, forbidden to preach. When the war ended, he returned to Munich to a hero’s welcome. Unlike many opponents of the Nazis, he lived to see them defeated.
The war was barely over when Father Mayer died in 1945. He actually died while celebrating Mass at St. Michael’s Church, of a stroke. He is honored there with displays from his life.
Rupert Mayer was beatified in 1987, a step toward sainthood. Many people would like to see him made a full-fledged saint, which would require a verified miracle. For me, a life like Rupert Mayer’s is miracle enough. I am sure that many people who stop to visit his statue are remembering not only him, but countless others who stood against a murderous regime in the darkest hours of the twentieth century.
Munich today is cheerful and prosperous. Shoppers, tourists, students and business people hurry through the downtown pedestrian area, intent on enjoying their lives. Many of them duck into St. Michael’s Church, though. Like so many others, I paused and placed my hand on the worn spot on the bust of Rupert Mayer. The bronze was smooth and cool to the touch.
Join me next time for more reflections on the art and history of Europe.