Pope Francis spoke poignantly last Holy Week of priests needing to have the smell of their flock. The life witness of Rupert Mayer, SJ, whose feast day we celebrate today, speaks to this evocative plea.
One finds in Mayer a priest who was literally with his shell-shocked troops in the trenches of World War I as a military chaplain; a priest who started and celebrated early morning Masses for travellers, restaurant workers, and railway workers in Munich’s main railway station; a priest who traveled throughout Bavaria begging for alms, food and clothes for the poor during the depression; a priest who organized Catholic groups to help ease the struggles of immigrants, who came into the city looking for work; and a priest who was an opponent of the Nazis as early as 1923.
Introduction to Rupert Mayer’s life
The sum total of Rupert Mayer’s writings during his lifetime amounted to two sermons in a spiritual magazine. He was not a gifted writer; described to be somewhat slow, direct, and simple. Yet he saw himself as someone who is a ‘fanatic for the truth.’ And he never lost contact with the ordinary Catholic. He was well beloved by them and achieved much among them because he was with them.
Mayer was born in Stuttgart in January 1876 to a middle class family. He was one of six children born to his parents. He was a mediocre student. His parents made sure his education was complete by teaching him to play the violin. The young Rupert Mayer picked up the violin and played quite well. As a young diocesan priest, before he entered the Society of Jesus, he prepared his homilies, by playing the violin.
One of the most difficult sacrifices Mayer had to make, on entering the Jesuits, was that of his violin. When the Nazis arrested him, among the many questions that were thrown at him was whether he played any musical instrument. His answer was: “They tell me I might have become a good violinist; but for thirty eight years I have not touched a fiddle.”
Rupert Mayer also had a passion for riding horses. He was seen as such a good horseman, the German military lend him horses from the cavalry barracks. Due to Mayer’s prowess as horseback rider, one of the German military officers quipped that Mayer should not be a priest. In his early theological studies, he often attended the lectures in his riding boots and breeches and with a whip.
He finished his seminary education with no distinct marks, but was praised as a thoroughly good, pious, and noble-minded gentleman. He was ordained a priest in 1899. A year later Rupert Mayer entered the Society of Jesus. In 1911 Mayer was missioned to Munich to work with the thousands of immigrants that were flooding the city in search of work. He formed organizations of men and women to help the immigrants find a sense of security and standing in the large city.
The Great War military chaplaincy and the period in between the wars
When the First World War broke out, it was natural for a man of Mayer’s talent and temperament to volunteer as a military chaplain. He was three times decorated: twice with the Iron Cross [Germany’s highest military honor]. This was unheard of honor for a chaplain. He was literally in the trenches with his men in some of the worst artillery bombardment of the war. Military service had cost Mayer a leg.
When he was convalescing in the military hospital he wrote to his parents concerning the lost of his leg:
“… Even though my freedom of movement must from now on be severely curtailed, this doesn’t bother me in the least. There are so many jobs, that they’ll find something for me to do. And besides, I’m still of an age, when I can be trained.”
After the war, Mayer returned to Munich and engaged himself in a variety of pastoral work. He started to celebrate Masses at the main railway in Munich. When the archdiocese was concerned about this attempt to celebrate and bring the Eucharist outside of the Church on a regular basis, Mayer responded that we have to take the church to the people and not wait till they come to the church. The first Mass was celebrated at the central railway station on the feast of the Assumption in 1925. The time was 3:10 a.m. (the celebrant was Mayer). The Masses continued until 1937, when the Nazis shut them down. Masses were said at peak travel season at: 3:10, 4:50; 5:15; 5:50; and 6:25 a.m. He celebrated confession after his Masses and these long hours put a physical toll in his body. On one occasion, a lady saw Mayer to be exhausted and pale, and she expressed her concerns. Mayer replied, “It has not only tired me out; it has been a perfect torture.”
During the workweek, Mayer engaged himself in charity work. During the hardest time of the economic depression, he travelled throughout lower Bavaria begging for food and clothing. The basement of the Jesuit parish St. Michael’s church listed that between 1 November 1930 to 1 April 1931 Mayer had collected 18,000 marks’ worth of clothes and food; 35,390 pounds of food; and distributed in alms 34,000 marks.
The rise of Nazism and the Second World War
Mayer was not considered dogmatic, and was considered a gentle listener. Yet when truth was being coopted, he was its fighter. As far back as 1923 he was invited to address a Nazi gathering on the theme: “Can a Catholic be a National Socialist”” As he rose to address them, the crowd warmly applauded him. He began, “I am afraid gentlemen that your applause has come to soon. For my answer to your question can only be a negative one. No. A Catholic cannot be a Nazi.” The applause turned to boos, but Mayer had made his point.
At the height of attack on religious houses, a Nazi paper had published a sentence: “Whoever casts doubts upon these facts [reflecting on religious houses], counts as an enemy of National Socialism, and we know perfectly well how to deal with him.” The following Sunday morning Mayer took the newspaper into Mass and onto the pulpit, read the sentence slowly, and then said with great emphasis: “And I say this: I cast grave doubts upon them.”
Due to his blunt criticisms of the Nazi regime in his homilies, Rupert Mayer was imprisoned in 1937. From 1937 till 1945 Mayer was either in a concentration camp or in exile outside of Munich. Solitary confinement, rather than withering away his spirit, enabled him an occasion for spiritual maturation. The unintended effect of confinement is revealed in a letter to his mother:
“… one grand thing have all these experiences brought with them. In these last weeks in solitude I believe I have come into far closer contact with God Almighty in my own self and in the same measure I have become more detached and withdrawn from earthly things. So I feel not the very least worry or anxiety about my future. I place all that in God’s good hands. In myself I am completely contented and at peace.”
During the war the Nazis feared that Rupert Mayer would die in a concentration camp and, thus, be seen as a martyr amongst the ordinary Bavarian Catholics. They released him from the concentration camp and exiled him in a Benedictine monastery outside Munich.
When the Americans liberated Munich in May 1945, Mayer gladly returned to his city. Despite failing health, he pressed forth in pastoral work. On Thursday, 1 November 1945, Mayer was saying the 8:00 am Mass in the half-destroyed church of St. Michael. He was never able to finish his short homily. He remained stuck in the middle of the delivery repeating the word three times: “the Lord, the Lord, the Lord.” He leant heavily on the altar and had to be taken from the church. He had a stroke. He died at 11:00 that morning and was buried on 4 November.
An obituary in December 1945 read: Father Rupert Mayer, SJ, … one of the earliest Catholic opponents of Hitlerism has died in Munich after a stroke while offering Mass. He was 70. Fr. Mayer, who lost a leg in the first World War, was sent to a concentration camp for a long period for the strong stand he took against Nazi measures restricting freedom of worship. R.I.P.”
[The above details of Rupert Mayer's life were taken from these two sources: Mary Macken, "Pater Rupert Mayer, SJ" in Irish Quarterly Review, 1946, and John Murray, "An Apostle of the Great City: Father Rupert Mayer, SJ" in Irish Quarterly Review, 1955]