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.
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.”