The Songs of Sanctity

Sometimes when I give talks or retreats about the saints, I ask group members to nominate a saint from our century. Varied responses have been fascinating: Sr. Dorothy Stang, Pope Francis, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Fr. Mychal Judge, the ASC martyrs, first responders. I’ve been mightily impressed by Kaitlin Roig, a first grade teacher at Sandy Hook school, who hid her class in a bathroom when she heard shots. She told an interviewer, “I was thinking… we’re next. So I told them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much.’ I wanted that to be the last thing they’d hear, not gunfire.”

Recently, through GIVE US THIS DAY, the superb monthly collection of readings, reflections, and saints-of-the-day from Liturgical Press—888-259-8470, (truth in advertising: I write for them), I’ve met a new nominee: Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. An Irish pastor explained  that he’s not well known outside of Ireland, but he should be. Born in Cahersiveen, CO. Kerry, also the home of my great-grandmother, he grew up playing golf, because his father was steward of the Killarney golf club.

That skill would help when he arrived in Rome the same year as Mussolini, 1922. Fellow golfers would later give him high social standing, which he would use eventually to rescue over 6500 Jews, US and UK escaped POWs and downed airmen. In German-occupied Rome, he set up and coordinated the “Rome Escape Line,” an ingenious underground of homes, convents and other hiding places which operated beneath the noses of the Nazis.

His arch nemesis was SS Lt. Col. Kappler, head of the Gestapo, who painted a white line around the Vatican, daring O’Flaherty to cross out of safe territory and be executed. In the film, “The Scarlet and the Black” (1983) Gregory Peck playing O’Flaherty jokes with typical Irish wit: “Colonel, do I get the idea that you’re tryin’ to put a crimp in my social life?” Undeterred, he simply mastered various disguises to evade the Germans when he left the Vatican on rescue missions.

Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the story is that when Kappler was sent to jail for life, he invited the priest to visit him—which he did once a month, laughing, “after he put a 30,000 lire bounty on my head, now we’re sort of pals.” Courageously, O’Flaherty advocated fair treatment of Nazi prisoners, which must’ve been excruciating when Kappler had killed 335 people in the Ardeatine Caves, in revenge for 33 German soldiers killed by the resistance—one of the war’s worst atrocities. Eventually, O’Flaherty received his old enemy into the Church. He died in Ireland in 1963; the Israeli government planted a tree in his honor ten years later. Poet Brendan Kennelly wrote of O’Flaherty:

There is a tree called freedom and it grows

Somewhere in the hearts of men

Rain falls, ice freezes, wind blows

The tree shivers, steadies itself again.

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