The Oratory Calvary that was installed in 2012 is an internationally eclectic ensemble. The magnificent sculptures were carved in Seville. The background depicting Jerusalem is the work of an English painter, and the classical rail protecting the Calvary was copied from the altar rails in the former abbey church of Ursberg in Bavaria.
A Premonstratensian foundation of the twelfth century, Ursberg was secularized in 1803 and eventually entrusted to the care of an order of nursing sisters. The abbey church does not appear in the guidebooks dedicated to the ‘baroque trail’ of southern Germany, but its interior is a beautiful monument to the creative genius of local craftsmanship in eighteenth century Swabia. Surrounded by farmland and forests, the impressive abbey buildings are home to a community of nuns who provide education, employment and accommodation for 2,500 handicapped men, women and children.
Standing in the courtyard in front of the abbey church it is hard to imagine that this tranquil spot was the scene of a terrible crime that cried to Heaven for vengeance. In 1941, government officials arrived to load hundreds of the handicapped residents, including children, onto buses. Tears streamed down the cheeks of the nuns as their helpless charges were driven away, never to be seen again.
The residents of Ursberg were victims of the Nazi euthanasia programme, euphemistically called ‘mercy killing’ by the regime that perpetrated it. When this crime was introduced as a policy, it seemed for an awkward moment that many Church leaders had been struck dumb in the face of such horror. But the Church’s prophetic voice found robust expression in the pulpit of Bishop Clemens August von Galen, the ‘Lion of Munster’. His fearless denunciations actually succeeded in forcing a halt to the programme being carried out as a public policy, although in reality the murdering continued to be perpetrated undercover. Needless to say, the moment the war was over, Sadducees who had formerly questioned von Galen’s belligerence suddenly became quite eloquent in hailing the Lion of Munster as a national hero, and by the time von Galen returned from Rome with a cardinal’s hat in 1946, many who had previously given him a wide berth jostled with each other to be immortalized standing next to him in the ‘welcome home’ photographs.
Historic events like the ‘mercy killing’ of the handicapped patients at Ursberg should make us reflect on developments closer to home in our own day. In 2006, the Royal College of Obstetricians presented a proposal calling on the medical profession to consider the ‘active euthanasia’ of disabled children – for ‘the overall good’ of families, and to spare the parents the emotional and financial burden of bringing up sick babies. The Timesreported that this submission received strong support from geneticists and medical ethicists. In 2012 a respected Oxford academic and doctor, originally from Milan, published an article in the British Medical Journal in which she argued that doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies because they are disabled, too expensive or simply unwanted by their mothers. In another article published in the Journal of Medical Ethicswith a fellow Italian bioethicist, she recommended allowing the infanticide of healthy babies in cases where mothers no longer have the time or energy to care for them.
The debate continues, and the British press occasionally reports unsettling allegations of the illegal ‘mercy-killing’ of sick children in hospitals in Britain. Last year Belgium became the first European country to legalise the ‘mercy-killing’ of children at any age. The underlying argument – that once you gain acceptance for abortion it also makes sense to dispose of unwanted children after birth – contains a chilling logic.
When considering the ideological dangers that threaten our civilization, we should avoid making statements such as “It’s like living in Nazi Germany.” One significant difference is that we are free to speak out. As Catholics we should value this hard-won liberty, and use it to engage with public life. Young Catholics should consider involving themselves in politics, in order to keep the Christian voice alive in Parliament. The rest of us can at least support pro-Life groups, which keep us informed and alert us when we should write to our M.P.s. Under National Socialism, any German who made a fuss about the inviolability of every innocent human life from conception to death, regardless of race or any other consideration, could expect a knock on the door from the Gestapo. In the Soviet Union, such views could earn a one-way ticket into a mental asylum. In England in 2015 we are free to proclaim the sanctity of human life as much as we like.
We also have a secret weapon: prayer. Cardinal von Galen was beatified in 2005. Please pray for the miracles that will secure his canonization. The Lion of Munster would make a fitting patron for our age. Pray that through his intercession, the prophetic voice of the Church will sound loud and clear in defence of the Gospel of life. And when you kneel down at the Oratory Calvary, reflect on what happened at Ursberg, and take hope: the witness of the nuns who pray and work there today is a wonderful testimony to the triumph over evil of faith, hope and charity.
Fr Julian Large