PERE JACQUES – His Spiritual Battle in the Face of Evil (Part III)



This is the third and final part of our series from ‘Venite Prandete’ on the heroic life of the Christ-like priest, Père Jacques, with the spiritual challenges and battles he was forced to face at a time of great evil.

Pere Jacques

So often we like to tell ourselves that, confronted by something so immoral and patently evil as the mass murder by the Nazi war machine, we would withstand the pressure to conform and would emerge with a morality unbowed. Perhaps we would join the Resistance. Perhaps we might not be so brave, but, in any event, we would never succumb to the brutal descent into the abyss of evil that the world witnessed in the Holocaust.

The reality is never so sharp – of course ordinary people, confronted by an order to commit murder would not comply in normal circumstances. The situation that prevailed in the Nazi holocaust, however, as stated by Hannah Arendt, was not ‘normal circumstances.’

Hannah Arendt, in her study of Adolf Eichmann, observed that the prevailing assumption is that a ‘normal person’ would not commit such atrocities as committed by Eichmann or those in the Nazi command – those who perform such cruel and heartless acts cannot be normal, but must be ‘monsters’. Arendt however, asserted that, under the conditions created by the Third Reich, only ‘exceptions’ could be expected to react ‘normally.’ To apply the moral framework which we take for granted was, in fact, to step outside what had become ‘normal’ and it was these exceptional people who stood against the regime who were, in fact, not normal. The reality was, that Germany’s leaders had created conditions whereby a conscience grounded in the prevailing sentiments was quite able to acquiesce in events that would have horrified in other circumstances. Arendt portrayed Eichmann as a ‘joiner’ and a ‘conformist’, a man whom she described as a leaf in the ‘whirlwind of time’. It was this aspect of his character, rather than a rabid hatred of Jews or deeply held ideology that sustained his actions.

As Catholics, it is worth considering – Eichmann was acting by reference to the prevailing morality, one which had been inculcated in the militantly atheistic Nazi ideas of race and eugenics, justified by their adherence to a pseudo-science based on Darwin’s theories, coupled with eugenic interpretation of ‘race improvement.’ Such ideological ideas could only operate in an environment that denied the universal family of man to whom the father of all was Adam and for whom the prospect of salvation was given through adherence to the Divine laws. Such an ideology could only operate in an environment in which the objective Truth had been annihilated, where the Divine Judge was negatived and where man had elevated himself to become God – the ‘Idolatry of race and blood” as Pope Pius XII described the Nazi philosophy.

In a modern environment of relative morality, where virtues are expounded because they are ‘good ideas’, it is mindful to bear in mind the fragility of man’s nature – the original sin with which we are all stained. Such a morality, based upon fleeting fashions, is exactly as described by Arendt ‘a leaf in the whirlwind of time’, capable of variation and change as the fashions demand. It is the political leaders who possess the ideological foundations for the persecution of designated opponents or obstacles to their political objectives. But the ordinary person? What does it take?

In the context of World War II, in the world of the concentration camps, there were people who were not ‘normal people’ – Pere Jacques was not a ‘normal person.’ Here was a man who was first and foremost a priest – a father to his people; a man who had trained himself through an ascetic life of mortification and prayer to withstand privation. He was a man who had contemplated the face of Christ and meditated on His salvific act, the reality that Christ not only died for us, but endured torture for our sakes, all voluntarily undertaken with love for us. An act of Salvation preceded by His physical endurance of carrying the instrument of His death – Picking up His Cross; most importantly, His was a persecution and death undertaken with love and forgiveness, not only for His friends and supporters, but for His enemies. This was the God to whom Pere Jacques gave himself – the God who created and who humbled Himself.

The sheer enormity of the human suffering of World War II was mirrored in the concentration camps of Mauthausen and Gusen. A fellow prisoner of Pere Jacques, Louis Deble, identified the evil: ‘Life at Gusen was a continual straining of one-self not to go under, as the guards would have wished. Each minute was one of flagrant injustice, the triumph of brigandry, of degenerates who crushed you with their arrogance. This injustice perhaps also exists in civilised life, but it is clothed in many forms. In the camp it appeared in all its hideous nakedness.”

In this context, in the words of a fellow prisoner – the very presence of Pere Jacques, described as “the Christ-like French priest” at Gusen was “proof of the living God.”

“First Pere Jacques had mastered the art of contemplative prayer in an environment where he was shut off from both the sacramental life of the Church and the beauty of nature. Nonetheless he could experience God’s transcendence in contemplating the vastness of the heavens in the still of the night and he could find the presence of Christ in caring for the sick in their misery. Second, the priest educator, deprived of every possibility of teaching except by example, found that he could fruitfully undertake the Lord’s work wherever there was a need for compassion and relief of suffering. His fellow prisoner, Captain Petrou portrayed Pere Jacques at Neue Bremm in these words: ‘It was there that we came to know the strength of Pere Jacques’ character. In his simple habit, despite gibes, beatings and deprivations, he never once bowed to the will of the Nazis. Both physically and morally he cared for the very neediest in every way he could.’”

The self-discipline and asceticism that had marked his life enabled him to organise himself in such a way as to maximise his service to others. He saved his meagre morsel of bread with which he was rationed to give to those who needed it in order to sustain them with a bit of added nourishment – an act that, in circumstances of such deprivation, amounted to a question of life or death. His day began at 5am when he would visit the sick – a risky act in itself. “On one such visit, he met Roger Heim, a distinguished scientist, who lay gravely ill. Professor Heim later recalled him in these words: ‘I first saw Pere Jacques in May 1944 through the bars of block 27, in the infirmary of Gusen where, devoured by fever and stretched out on a pallet, with an arm slashed by a scalpel, I longed for a comforting smile from heaven. He brought it to me…In these furtive pre-dawn visits, I drew deeply from this miraculous source the stamina sorely needed for my own victory over an apparently definitive decline’.”

Most importantly, his compassion extended to his persecutors: “In general, German soldiers who routinely stood guard over the prisoners at Fontainbleau were far more humane than their Gestapo counterparts. Willi, an Austrian Catholic recruit, actually befriended Pere Jacques and his cellmates, who had already bonded into a close-knit community…. The most touching moment of those weeks at Fontainbleau came when Willi received news of the death of his only son on the Russian front. On an improvised altar, in a spirit of unconditional charity, Pere Jacques celebrated Mass for Willi’s son in a prison cell where Catholics and Communists, French and Germans joined together in a prayerful union that transcended all their divisions.”

The sanctity of Pere Jacques is the sanctity of a person who was not normal. It is tempting to erect pedestals to those whom we see as holier or stronger than ourselves – to tell ourselves that their characters are remote from us. True it was, that Père Jacques had experienced serious illness as a small child – a fact which may have awakened a sensibility to God’s presence and the veil of eternity. But his goodness was attained by focussed and discipline effort. His selflessness was attained through overcoming tendencies that weakened him in his love for Christ. He was never ordinary, but he, like the other prisoners, had to come to terms with the environment of evil in which he was placed, and the temptation to despair and to let the brutality overwhelm the goodness in every human being. In addressing these challenges, in not succumbing, first “Pere Jacques realised that he must maintain and intensify his own union with God. The sacraments and rites of the Church, the normal sources of spiritual vitality for Christians, were categorically forbidden. However, he could still practice his habit of contemplative prayer. Even when the beauty of nature was sealed off by stone walls, the splendour of the heavens could still be savoured. As he reminded his close friends in the camp, Christ was as surely present there as He was on Calvary.”

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13 Responses to PERE JACQUES – His Spiritual Battle in the Face of Evil (Part III)

  1. It is good to see Hannah Arendt quoted here. Her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” was a bestseller after Trump’s election in 2016, because her theory about the rise of fascism and the “banality of evil” (the phrase for which she is best known) drew clear comparisons to Trump. The “banality of evil” has rightly been extended – as a key philosophical idea – from analysing Eichmann and the death camps to the question of abortion. In his groundbreaking book “After Virtue,” (which I first read in a mountaintop abbey, Saint-Martin-du-Canigou in the Pyrenees while in my first year of conversion to the Catholic Church) philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed how Western debate has become stuck in irreconcilable arguments including over abortion.

    He noted that some say a woman’s rights extend to the embryo she is carrying and she can do as she pleases including depriving it of life. Others – and Catholics must be counted – say abortion is a form of murder. In a society where these positions are both affirmed as normal (under laws determined in different jurisdictions) what do we do? The basic premises contradict each other.

    For as long as the Church remains a shouting match divided down the middle on these matters we will neither make progress nor much impression on the world outside the mission of the people of God, so it needs to be resolved. I have no solution, you’ll be pleased to hear, since some trigger happy people always assume I am now some sort of ‘libtard’. But I do wish some of the Catholic blogosphere would wake up and realize it’s hard work trying to find common ground.


  2. kathleen says:

    You are going off topic again Gareth, but as the subject of the article is about the spiritual battle of a courageous and faithful priest in the face of tremendous evil, perhaps we can swing it around to our own battles against evil in our “anything goes” wicked times.
    You say:

    [Alasdair MacIntyre] noted that some say a woman’s rights extend to the embryo she is carrying and she can do as she pleases including depriving it of life.

    Then Alasdair MacIntyre was wrong, wasn’t he?, no matter how many fancy credentials he may have added onto his name! Killing an unborn child is indeed murder: he should have made that clear.

    Life begins at conception when the child is infused with an immortal soul. This is a fundamental Catholic teaching… and also that abortion is one of “the four capital sins that cry to Gods for vengeance”. So why even hint that a pro-abortion opinion might have any relevance to us?

    If you are searching for “common ground” with apostate ideas, Gareth, you won’t find them here… or on any other traditional Catholic blog!

    Those “shouting matches” you abhor (although one could ask how that is possible when tapping out a defence of your Faith on a keyboard) are provoked by the enemies of God’s Divine Law. Okay, sometimes things get overheated, especially when people use ad hominem attacks, but blame Original Sin for that. But this is paramount: the truths of the Church’s teachings cannot be compromised for any false illusion of unity, or “common ground” as you call it.
    Besides, wake up, arguments are nothing new. Our Blessed Lord, the Sinless One, faced many in His public life, with His strong rebuke to the hypocritical Pharisees being the most notable. And as I mentioned before, it is not charitable to remain silent in the face of grave error, and when those errors, or sins, are harming others.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Since “off topic” now seems to include responding directly to a person mentioned in an article, i.e. Hanah Arendt (or didn’t you read the article?), I’m not sure what ‘on topic’ might involve! You say “arguments are nothing new” while missing the point that I am celebrating arguments. You couldn’t make it up!

    Whenever I make it up, I prefer the medium of comedy.


  4. kathleen says:

    Ok, calm down… of course I read the article; I helped re-publish it from its original site.
    I was only referring to your mention of abortion as being “off topic”, but which I felt needed some sort of response. (And your insinuation of Trump as a fascist but which I preferred to ignore, having not read Arendt’s book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”.)

    As long as we never lose either our calm or our sense of humour (e.g., like good old JH) we’ll sidestep tiresome shouting matches 🙂 .


    Catholics who take their faith seriously have become the new abnormals in the world today, even for those of us who live in once-Christian countries that have since embraced militant secularism. Holy men like Père Jacques have left us an amazing legacy on how to keep our eyes fixed permanently on Christ, even in such radically inhuman circumstances as he had to endure.

    His “goodness was attained by focussed and discipline effort. His selflessness was attained through overcoming tendencies that weakened him in his love for Christ.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “I was only referring to your mention of abortion as being “off topic”

    Oh the irony! On a blog that rarely mentions anything else, I’m off topic for mentioning abortion. Priceless! But at least, since you agree humour is a necessary balance to serious Christian moral debate, you’ll find that hilarious now I’ve mentioned it. (Nope. You just want to scold me again? OK. That too is fine.)


  6. kathleen says:

    No Gareth, honestly it was not irony, but that’s ok if you don’t believe me; I’m not perturbed. But okay, sorry, in retrospect I agree your comment was only a tiny weeny bit “off topic”, nothing more. Happy now?
    Would you just sit down with a nice cup of tea and wind down a bit. Why should I want to scold you? You are so touchy, always taking things the wrong way.

    And no more “porky pies” please (as old Toad used to say)…. If you had been looking in regularly you would know that most of our blog posts do not mention abortion, and definitely it is not mentioned in the article above, except for the reference to eugenics. But when we do, it is right and fitting. When millions of human beings are being denied the basic right to life, should we not protest?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “You are so touchy, always taking things the wrong way.”

    Not at all, and happy to be compared with Toad. As always, the humour is misinterpreted and the offering of relevant rational argument is ignored. Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most important philosophical thinkers of modern Catholic dialogue. Don’t brush him off because you missed the importance of the debate on his work thirty years ago: he’s still relevant. (As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI would be keen to explain to you!)


  8. mmvc says:

    Does it trouble you, Gareth, that CP&S has become a go-to blog for many readers from all over the globe?

    The reason I ask is because your criticisms (CP&S has become too political, too traditional, has lost its way, rarely mentions anything other than abortion(!)) and snide remarks (go there at your peril or some such nonsense) are multiplying. And frankly it’s getting boring.

    You have bowed out of here on numerous occasions promising never to return… and yet you can’t seem to be able to stay away – despite the ‘perils’!

    And that’s fine. We’ll try to take it as a compliment.

    But remember, we’ve never criticised your blog or its ethos, content or direction on either this site or yours.

    Please do us a favour and kindly show us the same courtesy.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. kathleen says:

    Your apparently “relevant rational argument” was anything but ignored, Gareth. I simply didn’t agree with some of the ways you presented it. However,I agree with you that (as you state in your first comment) that we will never “make progress” in trying to reconcile the two opposing sides of abortion, because it is impossible to do so. Abortion is the killing of an unborn baby – that is a scientific fact – and unless the pro-abortion advocates admit this, that’s where the buck stops, as the Americans say.

    ” Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most important philosophical thinkers of modern Catholic dialogue.”

    He is now; I don’t deny it. Prior to his highly acclaimed book “After Virtue” that was published forty years ago, not thirty, he harboured certain Marxist sympathies. His later conversion to Catholicism when in his fifties, and his subsequent moving away from many former views can only be seen as a special grace from God. (This could explain his change of heart on the subject of abortion.)


  10. mmcv: There are plenty of ‘pure and simple’ Catholics who regard the echo chambers of the ‘super-Catholics’ as super embarrassing. The problem is, if you are so far down the rabbit hole of somewhere like the utterly mad Lifesitenews (at least CP&S isn’t that bad…!) you will only regard outsiders as a threat. Any discussion is ‘rude’ and anyone who offers an alternative view is simply a ‘troll’.

    But you you are quite right: I should qualify my remark about the issue of abortion; my emphasis was wrong in relation to other general topics. I suppose I really mean that it is the single social issue that comes up most, while other social issues, such as poverty for the majority of Catholics who live in the developing world, don’t get a look in.

    I would agree with Burrito’s quiet critique a couple of weeks ago: that CP&S used to have all original material, but now it is heavily dependent on republishing articles from elsewhere. Is it OK to agree with Burrito, whose view went unchallenged, or would that be another ‘snide’ remark if made by me?

    Yes, Kathleen, MacIntyre once “harboured certain Marxist sympathies”. He is a philosopher. He does thinking for a living. The greatly lionised Malcolm Muggerige – now a great hero of the US Catholic right, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear to me – was so Marxist he even lived in the Soviet Union for some time, before his life developed further. Now he is quoted by every pro-Trump ‘super-Catholic’ blog! People change. That’s faith.

    I remember how you all struggled with Toad. (Paddy O’Gara who lives on the Camino in Moratinos could do with your prayers as his health is not too brilliant these days.) All he wanted to do – for ages commenting here! – was try and revive some spark of his own Catholic faith by learning something from you. In the end he found the ‘super-Catholic’ world you represent too suffocating. At least he managed to be more polite than me, apparently, for all I hear from you is “don’t be so rude.” Well, sorry to be rude, but a wake up call sometimes hurts: particularly when you just want to roll over and go back to sleep.

    Finally, I notice mmcv says, “You have bowed out of here on numerous occasions promising never to return…” and yes that’s true. And I’m reminded of that any time I comment! I’ll probably be blocked soon anyway!

    The reason I’ve had to spend more time here than usual, and take one more look at CP&S recently, is I’ve been asked by to write an article about how a traddy blog was first set up. How it changed over the years (I’d say hijacked), and how it became a mouthpiece for the very worldly pro-Brexit, pro-Trump, etc. political views. (Don’t take it personally: many other ‘super-Catholic’ blogs did the same.) Do I think that was inherent in the project we first created? I think it was, because it did not have sound spiritual oversight, but I haven’t finished the analysis yet. It’s interesting reading the development over a decade, all the same. I recommend a long overview.


  11. kathleen says:

    So who’s a “super-Catholic” Gareth? Are you? We certainly don’t pretend to be any such thing. What ridiculous derogatory remarks you make sometimes. With this provocative attitude you constantly display to people who once considered you to be a friend, it is really no wonder you cause such mayhem wherever you go…. as JH rightly told you a few days ago.

    As we have repeatedly said: all we try to be is traditional and faithful Catholics and to uphold all the Church’s timeless, unchanging teachings, certainly not sharing the liberals’ pick and choose type of false Catholicism. Is that so repellent to you now? Or is it just too difficult for you to understand?

    As The Raven told you, but you weren’t listening, on other worldly concerns and yes, even politics, (e.g., Trump, Brexit) we do not all agree…. but as on the most fundamental we are all of one mind we can respect each other’s different views on less important issues, and thus work very well together. Even when dear Burrito left because he found he had more progressive views than the rest of us, there were no hard feelings and we are always pleased when he looks in again.

    We also welcome new commentators, some who perhaps have not received a good catechetical education and are searching for answers, some who bring interesting news and ideas, and others who simply want to share their stories with us. Nor do we shun non-Catholics whose beliefs may differ from ours but who are open to civil discussion.

    I’m sorry to hear about Toad; we will certainly pray for him. You say:

    All he wanted to do – for ages commenting here! – was try and revive some spark of his own Catholic faith by learning something from you.

    That, I’m sorry to say, is untrue! He had no intention of learning anything from us, or from any of some of our very patient and well-informed readers, who all spilled rivers of ink in trying to explain and clarify varying tenets of the Catholic Faith to him, over and over again. As soon as he felt the indiscutible power of the Catholic position, and his reasoning drawing towards the Faith (which I honestly think did happen on a few occasions) he panicked madly and made a quick dash back to his cynical agnosticism where he felt safer. Admitting he’d been wrong for so long was too much for him to bear.
    That, Gareth, is the truth!
    He’d commented profusely here for so many years and we‘d had endless discussions. Sometimes he was clever, interesting, amusing, often he was rude and even vulgar, but it was when he became openly blasphemous that we had to draw a line. He is a hardened unbeliever and he wanted to stay that way. It is actually really very sad! For us, but especially for him.

    P.S. LifeSiteNews is anything but mad. It is a thoroughly orthodox, devout and Catholic website, God bless them. That’s why libtards hate it!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. mmvc says:

    Well said, Kathleen. Thank you for putting the record straight so eloquently.

    I wonder if Steve Skojec and the folk at OnePeterFive might like to take a look at these exchanges before publishing Gareth’s magnum opus…?

    Traditional Catholic blog bashing has become quite a thing and sadly this is playing into the hands of none other than the great deceiver, divider and father of lies. Don’t do it, Gareth. Instead, pick up those rosary beads and join us in prayer for the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Oh, good grief! Did I actually write onepeterfive? It’s gotta be the ‘traddy/libtard’ equivalent of a Freudian slip! wherepeteris 😉


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