It was an evening in Manhattan twenty years ago, at the Union League Club, with Fr. George Rutler regaling us with his learning and wit. At one moment he remarked, in that off-handed way of his, that he was at the keyboard of his piano when suddenly came coursing through his fingers to the keys was. . .the Lithuanian National Anthem. He would weave together in his talks the most striking leaps and juxtapositions – from St. Anselm to Mark Twain, the Guelphs and the Ghibbelines to the Yankees and the Dodgers. But through it all was a penetrating seriousness, with a mind informed by the ages, in the best things said and done.
His own story reflected that wide darting about the landscape: from Dartmouth College to studies in Oxford, Rome, and Paris; to the Episcopal ministry, but then, in his early thirties, he was received into the Catholic Church and launched into his services as a pastor and chaplain in Manhattan and around the country. Back in the day when Crisis magazine was in paper he would do a regular column on “coincidences” – once again, the juxtaposition of things so dramatically different and yet occurring around the same time. And what was revealed in the weave was the rich variety of the world, with large, momentous things contained in prosaic, small incidents.
In his recent book with St. Augustine’s Press, Fr. Rutler has given us another weave, startling in its details. But that design takes on its power now by its concentration on Europe and the world of priests and bishops in two years of the Second World War: Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-43. The photo on the cover already catches the subject in its grittiness and pathos: American soldiers, some still holding their rifles, kneeling with a chaplain at Mass, and they are in the rubble of the bombed remains of the Cathedral in Cologne in 1945.
In the flash of juxtapositions, Fr. Rutler notes that in October 1942, German U-Boats, far from home, had torpedoed eleven ships in the St. Lawrence Seaway. At the same time, in Poland, the German authorities forbade priests from wearing crucifixes, and all candlesticks and liturgical vessels in churches would be confiscated. From Rome and Pius XII would come the moral condemnation of Nazism and its policies, diplomatically composed, but penetrating nevertheless.
But what is so striking in the record, and Fr. Rutler’s tapestry, are the many acts of resistance by local bishops and Catholic laymen. Between 1942 and 1944, about 11,000 French Jews were sent to death camps, while priests and nuns managed to rescue about 12,000. Bishop Paul Rémond hid children in convents and rectories with forged documents. In one case, of Greta Herensztat, Bishop Rémond himself coached her: “You are now Ginette Henry. You were born in Orange and your parents are dead. You are going to stay in the convent until we can locate your godparents. . . .Do you understand? Now repeat after me.” Rémond would later be honored at Yad Veshem in Israel as one of the “Righteous Among Nations.”
In Athens, Archbishop Damaskinos, refused to support the conscription of Jews for forced labor. Rather, he enjoined his people to hide them. In a house directly across from his residence, as Rutler notes, the Princess Alice of Battenberg, mother of the later Prince Philip of Britain, worked with the bishop in hiding Jews. She would go on to found a nursing order of nuns and wear a habit herself. She would die at Buckingham Palace in 1966. For his acts of defiance, the archbishop was threatened with a firing squad. He responded to the local commander that “according to the tradition. . .our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our tradition.”
Rev. George William Rutler
In September 1942, Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier in Lyons hid nine children in his residence. Adolf Eichmann ordered the Prefect of Lyons to seize them. By the time of the raid, the children were gone. The Prefect insisted on learning where they had been taken. As Rutler remarks, Gerlier’s response was “deliberately devoid of that tact he would have used in addressing a gentleman.” He would write, “Monsieur le Préfet, I would not consider myself worthy to be the Archbishop of Lyons if I complied with your request. Good day.”
In our own day, scholars will argue over a distinction between natural law and natural rights, with “natural rights” referring to liberties detached from any need for moral justification. What is usually neglected is that the terms may simply offer different angles on the same thing, with the judgments anchored in objective moral truths. But there was no appeal to a diminished moral sense when the Belgian bishops denounced forced labor as a violation of “natural rights.” Nor was anyone mistaking the character of the moral claim when Pierre-Marie Theas, the bishop of Montauban, resisted the anti-Semitic measures of the Vichy government on the ground that “all men, Aryan and non-Aryan are brothers, because they have been created by the same God.”
No small part of Fr. Rutler’s meaning is the part so striking and yet unexpressed: The stories are woven of names, of persons, and even places that do not come readily to the lips of most people. And what they reflect is a moral teaching that had once taken hold so deeply in people widely dispersed on earth, but forming “the body of the Church.”