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A Brave Bishop Leaves Prison: April 29, 1839

Friedrich Wilhelm III, king of Prussia

It was silent night, November 20, 1837. By order of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, troops surrounded the archiepiscopal palace in Köln, on the lower Rhine in Germany. Escorted by police, the governor of the province entered the palace and arrested the 64-year-old archbishop, Clemens August von Droste-Vischering. After being taken from his diocese, the archbishop was imprisoned at the fortress of Minden, about 147 miles northeast of Köln. Such was the price Clemens August had to pay for defending the rights of the Church against the Prussian government.

In Prussia, it had long been the custom in mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants that the mother raised the daughters in her religion while the father raised the sons in his. This seemed an amicable way to deal with a rather difficult issue, but it ignored the fact that religion is about truth. The Catholic Church could not allow the children of a Catholic parent to be raised in what the Church recognized as a false religion. So it was that in 1830, Pope Pius VIII ruled that the Church would not bless any mixed marriages unless the non-Catholic spouse agreed that the children would be raised Catholic. It was because he refused to disobey the pope in this matter that Archbishop Droste-Vischering was imprisoned by the Prussian government in the fortress of Minden. By refusing to submit to the Prussian law, Droste-Vischering was defending not only Catholic marriage practice, but the right of the Church to be free from interference by the state.

Archbishop Droste-Vischering

With the pope, Archbishop Droste-Vischering had insisted that children of mixed marriages (between Catholics and Protestants) had to be raised Catholic. The Prussians, who had taken control of the very Catholic Rhineland in 1815, insisted that the Catholic Church in the Rhineland had to follow the Prussian custom. But, no matter how longstanding the custom was, it violated the law of the Catholic Church — and in a contest between the king and the Church, Archbishop Droste-Vischering knew whom he had to obey.

The imprisonment of Archbishop Droste-Vischering was an inspiration to many German Catholics. It even influenced one young nobleman to change his career plans. The 26-year-old Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler had been preparing to enter the service of the Prussian government; but with the archbishop’s arrest and imprisonment, Ketteler decided he could not serve a government that committed such injustices. Instead, he ended up studying theology; and in 1844, he was ordained a priest. Later he was made bishop of Mainz and became a leading voice for social justice in Germany.

Archbishop Martin von Dunin

Droste-Vischering’s example inspired courage in the hearts of the bishops of Münster and Kolberg, who had at first decided to go along with the Prussian government. They too now refused to follow the Prussian marriage custom. The archbishop of Gnesen and Posen, Martin von Dunin, directly disobeyed the wishes of the Prussian government and told his clergy to follow Catholic marriage practice. For this the government arrested, tried, and deposed him. Although told by the government to remain in Berlin, Dunin disobeyed and secretly returned to his diocese. There he was again arrested and imprisoned in the fortress of Colberg. Catholics in Germany rose up in protest against the Prussian government’s treatment of Droste-Vischering and Dunin.

It was only after it had slandered him as a traitor that the Prussian government finally released Droste-Vischering, on April 22, 1839. As for Archbishop Dunin, he remained imprisoned until a new king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, came to the throne. Upon being freed from prison on August 3, 1840, Dunin returned to Posen and was welcomed by the rejoicing of his flock.

Easter Morning Mass at Köln Cathedral

This video shows the 2012 Easter Sunday Mass (said in both Latin and German) in the cathedral where Archbishop Droste-Vischering once presided. The celebrant is Droste-Vischering’s successor, Archbishop Joachim Cardinal Meisner, who submitted his resignation to Pope Francis in 2014.

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