Bishop dr gebhard furst joannes baptista sproll – a great shepherd of our diocese 2009

Bishop Dr. Joannes Baptista Sproll was a great shepherd of our diocese. If he has long been referred to as a "confessor bishop," then this honorary title of "confessor" ranks him among a number of spiritual figures for whom I would include, on behalf of many others, Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen of Munster, P. Alfred Delp S. J., P. Rupert Mayer S. J., the Freiburg diocesan priest Max Josef Metzger or – in the Protestant Church – Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as the bishops, pastors and believers of the "Confessing Church. Some of them have paid for their steadfastness with their lives. That in addition to those mentioned, uncounted priests and religious, evangelical pastors, prominent – like Dr. Eugen Bolz – or unknown Christians of all denominations would have to be honored, is shown by the current exhibition of our Diocesan Archives in the Episcopal Palace, which exemplarily documents the courage and credibility of the village priests Hermann Aich of Hemmendorf, Franz Egger of Schwalldorf or Eugen Kottmann of Dettingen.

Joannes Baptista Sproll, the 7. Bishop of the Diocese of Rottenburg, was the only person in the German episcopate, along with Bishop von Galen, who publicly stood up to the National Socialist rulers in an unequivocal and decisive manner – and, it seems, was the first to do so. He was also, in the words of Bishop von Galen, the only Catholic bishop to endure such severe personal consequences. It is all the more surprising that his name and his testimony are still hardly known outside our diocese, let alone that he was honored during his lifetime in the way that Bishop von Galen was honored by being made a cardinal.

There is something of a shadow of misjudgment and loneliness over the life and tenure of Bishop Joannes Baptista Sproll. In doing so, he wrote a piece of resistance history through his life that is still impressive and compelling today. Loneliness can be the downside of radical conscience decisions. Being misunderstood can be a reflection of ignorance, arrogance or even malice of the environment. From all this something belongs to the concomitants of the Vita Sproll. The Catholics of his diocese, however, have always honored his memory. And today, elderly people who knew him personally or experienced him as a bishop still revere him. Some of them are taking part today in the commemoration of this great bishop.

Bishop Sproll by no means received only support during his term of office. I do not need to recite the details of the events surrounding his election and appointment as bishop after the exciting lecture and in view of the book by Professor Hubert Wolf. Some points only I would like to briefly mention again. That after the death of Bishop Paul Wilhelm von Keppler on 16. July 1926 the Rottenburg Sedes had been vacant for almost a year, u. a. The reason for this was that the farmer's son from Upper Swabia was not considered to have the personal stature for this office, and also because the theologian, who had been influenced by the "Tubingen School," was not thought to be able to implement the reform of the theological studies in Tubingen that was desired by Rome and oriented toward Neo-Scholasticism. That these aspects should prove to be completely irrelevant quisquilia a few years later in view of the dramatic circumstances of the time could – probably – not have been foreseen at that time. The disputes between the Holy See and the Wurttemberg state government and the Rottenburg cathedral chapter over the modalities of the Rottenburg bishop's appointment also prolonged the sedis vacancy in Rottenburg; this was a mortgage for Bishop Sproll's assumption of office. That the state government at the time, especially Dr. Eugen Bolz, and the cathedral chapter have remained steadfast, we can only be glad about this in view of the procedural rules that are still in force today. What is disgraceful about the "Sproll affair" at that time, however, are the personal intrigues against him and above all the defamation trial in which he had to fight for his personal honor. I am very grateful to Professor Hubert Wolf for having worked through and clarified these questions once and for all with historical-scientific precision, and thereby helping to pave the way for a beatification process.

All these grievances were relegated to the realm of the unimportant a few years later, when the National Socialists came to power in 1933 and when Joannes Baptista Sproll's episcopal motto "Fortiter in fide – Brave in faith" was put to the test in the utmost consistency. While in 1993 – like the entire episcopate – he had still relied on a kind of mutual standstill compromise with the new rulers and on common cause against communism, he was also aware from the outset of the profoundly anti-Christian and inhumane spirit of the National Socialists, which he soon publicly exposed. Both in the evidence cited by Professor Wolf in his book on the "Sproll Affair" and in the documents in the volume edited by Herbert Aderbauer and Thomas Oschmann, "70 Years of Persecution and Expulsion of Bishop Joannes Baptista Sproll," it is clear that the bishop did not mince words in his criticism of National Socialist ideology. In sermons, pastoral letters and at bishops' conferences with as many as 20.000 attendees, he castigated above all Alfred Rosenberg's "myth of the 20. He called it a "religion of blood and race" and saw in it a "mortal enmity against Christianity and the church," a mania for self-redemption and a "general attack against the cross of Christ," indeed a "general attack against all Christianity. In 1935, he commissioned Jesuit Fathers Mario von Galli and Eduard Haubs, residing in Stuttgart's "Stella Maris" house, to refute Rosenberg's "myth," which he considered the "Nazi doctrine" par excellence, chapter by chapter in sermons throughout the diocese. "If I let my clergy do this," Sproll said to the two Jesuits, according to Mario von Galli's memoirs, "one by one I'll end up in prison, and then who will do the pastoral care? While if you default, the damage is not that great."

But the anecdote, given back as a joke, cannot hide the bitter seriousness and the high risk. In the preface to the fifth edition of his "Myth," Rosenberg speaks of the "Jesuits who have lost all form from the Roman sunstroke" and emphasizes: "The destruction of the German soul is always the goal of both the rabble-rousers and the hand-wringing bourgeois of the Societas Iesu and their comrades-in-arms. Yesterday, today and tomorrow." And surely Bishop Sproll was meant when Rosenberg spoke of the representatives of "all German Catholicism" that needed to be "roughed up" and given the "death blow". Mario von Galli, a Swiss citizen, was expelled from Germany "for life" in 1936. February 1938, the prosecution was ordered on the grounds that his sermons were "consistently the most serious attacks and accusations against the state and the party as well as against individual leading personalities (for example, Reichsleiter Rosenberg, Reichsminister Dr. Goebbels, Prime Minister Mergenthaler as well as the Fuhrer himself)".

As is well known, the hatred of the brown rulers culminated in the brutal riots in Rottenburg in the spring and summer of 1938, after Bishop Sproll had refused to attend the 10. April 1928 to participate in the farce of the referendum on the "Anschluss" of Austria to the German Reich and the associated election of the National Socialists to the Reichstag. The most brutal attacks by the National Socialist hordes in Rottenburg occurred on 23. July 1938. The documentation of our diocesan archive presents this dark chapter of recent history impressively. On 24. August 1938 Bishop Sproll was forcibly removed from Rottenburg. During the following almost seven-year banishment from Wurttemberg, he was ostracized and outlawed, endangered in life and limb. As recently as 12. In June 1945 he was able to return to his diocese suffering severely. On the occasion of his death, the cathedral chaplain and later auxiliary bishop Wilhelm Sedlmeier praised him as a "confessor bishop of the Rottenburg diocese who had been purified by much suffering".

"A great shepherd of our diocese," reads the headline above these remarks. What moves me today about this great predecessor in the episcopal office? I see in him, first of all, an impressive role model to this day in preserving honesty and decency at a time when values are collapsing and immorality is being declared to be moral – nourished by the binding nature of fundamental Christian convictions that cannot be called into question by anything or anyone. It may be assumed that Bishop Sproll already recognized the catastrophic consequences for the Jews in connection with his confrontation with Rosenberg's blood and race ideology. That he was opposed to the increasing oppression of his Jewish fellow citizens is evident from a denunciatory note from party circles, which refers to a men's pilgrimage on the 19th of December. September 1939 on the Hohenrechberg reported. It says: "After a brief introduction about the significance of the shrine, the bishop began by singing the praises of the Jews. The Jews may be a small people, but they are the Lord's chosen people. He did not refrain from adding: 'If one may still say so today'…" That not only the crime, but also the silence can become a serious guilt, Bishop Sproll said unmistakably and quite self-critically to his own church on the occasion of the Jewish pogroms and murders of the National Socialists: "We were silent when the synagogues burned, also our churches will still burn." I take this phrase as an admonition from Bishop Sproll that continues to resonate today. We have the responsibility before God and mankind not to remain silent, not to watch, but to speak out and resist with all due clarity when anti-Semitism and racism try to reestablish themselves in our society – even on the fringes of our Church and even among people who call themselves good Catholics. The relativization or even the denial of the Shoa must be and remain an irrevocable taboo. Devastating fires begin with kindling.

We all know how difficult it can often be, even under the conditions of a constitutional state and under the protection of freedom of opinion and religion, to make the Gospel and its ethos heard in public. Today, too, it can take courage to resist a misunderstood spirit of the times and in this way to do justice to the "signs of the times. There are many examples of this. How much more is the courage of Bishop Joannes Baptista Sproll to be respected, who knew exactly that he was depriving himself of his personal security with every open word?.

I also stand in awe of the bravery with which the bishop suffered and endured the loneliness that came to him from his obedience to conscience – loneliness not only in a society whose godlessness made him an outsider, but also loneliness in his own church, where he must often have felt misunderstood. How it must have hurt him to be repeatedly asked to resign. However, he could be sure of the solidarity of numerous believers and priests of his diocese, expressed explicitly or in prayer. I cannot read the confessions of allegiance documented in the volume "70 Years of Persecution and Expulsion of Bishop Joannes Baptista Sproll" without being moved by them. Loyalty to their bishop brought some of them – especially in Rottenburg – great difficulties. For example, Wilhelm Heberle, a Rottenburg city councilor, was the only one who strongly protested against a council resolution against the return of the bishop and was subsequently ostracized and threatened. The episcopal financial inspector Ludwig Sambeth, whose loyalty to Bishop Sproll was well known, was arrested on April 23. According to the report of a Rottenburg policeman, the bishop was taken from his apartment on April 1, 1938, at night, "amidst great jeering and the most opprobrious expressions" of the street mob, and kept there until April 30. April taken into "protective custody. Shortly before the French invasion in April 1945, Sambeth was warned to get to safety before the intended execution by an SS commando.

These few examples stand for many people who remained courageous and decent in dark times and whom I remember with the greatest respect. The testimony of such people was the moral strength and legitimation with which a new beginning after the self-inflicted German catastrophe was only possible at all. I repeat today what I have said on a previous occasion: We all do not know whether, in the harshness of an emergency, we will have the strength to resist the rulers on earth out of loyalty to God. We can only pray for this strength – and trust that God will come to the aid of our weakness with his power.

In conclusion, I would like to return to Bishop Joannes Baptista Sproll. "Fortiter in fide – Brave in faith" was his motto. Strength in faith can mean the courage to publicly resist the superior power of godless tyranny. Bishop Sproll has truly demonstrated this strength. But there is also a courage in faith which means not to give up trusting in God even in hours of doubt and despair. Being brave in faith also means trusting the promise of the hidden God in times of deepest darkness: "Fear not, for I am with you." (Gen 26:24) "If God is for us, who or what could be against us?", asks the apostle Paul (according to Rom 8,31). It must have been this abysmal confidence that gave Bishop Sproll the strength to confess bishop. He was a great shepherd of our diocese.

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