Known as the ‘Apostle of Munich’, Blessed Rupert Mayer survived two world wars – the first as chaplain-in-service of those who fought and died, and the second as prisoner. He was imprisoned for his opposition to the Nazi regime which had taken power in his home country and because he refused to remain silent about the atrocities being committed around him.
Rupert Mayer was born in Stuttgart in 1876, one of six siblings. When he had finished his secondary education he wanted to enter the Society of Jesus, but was convinced by his father to become a diocesan priest, and enter the Jesuits afterwards if he still wished. After studying philosophy and theology in Munich, Tubingen, and at Freiburg in Switzerland, Mayer was ordained in 1899. He then followed through with his plan to become a Jesuit, and entered the novitiate a year later. He completed his novitiate and went first to the Netherlands for further studies. He then began a preaching role, travelling from parish to parish across northwest Europe.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Mayer volunteered as a chaplain. He worked first in a military hospital, but later asked to be sent to the front so that he could be with the soldiers in the thick of the fighting. He was fearless in his efforts to help and minister to the sick and dying out in no man’s land, and was the first chaplain awarded the Iron Cross for bravery. In 1916 however, a grenade cost him his left leg and he was forced to return to convalesce in Munich, where he had been assigned two years before the war broke out.
Mayer remained in Munich after the end of the Great War, and in 1921 was made leader of a Marian Congregation there. This congregation grew in size until it covered fifty three parishes. This meant that Mayer had to travel relentlessly across the city and the surrounding area to reach all of his parishioners.
He was keenly aware of the social movements gaining traction within Germany at this time. Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933 and the closure of church affiliated schools underlined the Nazi Party’s anti-religion and anti-church leanings.
Mayer was vocal in his opposition of the fascist regime taking hold of his country and denounced it from the pulpit time and again. His influence on the people of Munich was such that the Nazis could not allow him to continue; in 1937 he was ordered by the Gestapo to cease speaking in public. He refused to comply, and saw himself landed in prison for his defiance. He was sent to Landsberg Prison, where Hitler had spent time years earlier for his involvement in the Beer Hall Putsch.
After serving five months in jail, a general amnesty meant he could return to Munich, but his continued opposition meant he was no less of a threat. Accordingly, in 1940 Mayer was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. His health deteriorated so badly in the camp that the authorities were afraid he would die, and be seen as a martyr. So he was moved to a Benedictine abbey in the Alps where he remained under effective house arrest until the end of the war.
Returning to Munich, Mayer was received as a hero, and returned to his role as pastor. However, the years of persecution and imprisonment had taken their toll; while celebrating Mass not long after his return to Munich, Mayer suffered a stroke and died, at the age of sixty nine. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987.