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Vive la résistance cléricale!

15 November 2019

Fergus Butler-Gallie celebrates the exceptions who defied the norms of complicity and cowardice


Jane Haining and “her” girls on Lake Balaton, Hungary, where summer holidays were spent in a rented villa

Jane Haining and “her” girls on Lake Balaton, Hungary, where summer holidays were spent in a rented villa

I THINK the first time I ever drank a Kir Royale was at refreshments after an All Saints’ Day service. While purists of every sort will, no doubt, be horrified — not only does the crème de cassis turn a sparkling crémant into a sort of alcoholic Ribena it also dyes it a deep Advent purple, wholly inappropriate for that great feast of the Church — I thought its effervescence, sweetness, and hint of camp perfect for a time when we celebrate the men and women of faith who often exhibited one or all of those qualities.

It was only later on, in the early stages of research for my book Priests de la Résistance!, that I realised just how appropriate a beverage it was, for Felix Kir, after whom the tipple is named, was a priest, a Resistance fighter, and a master of the dramatic act.

When Dijon was liberated from Nazi forces in September 1944, the figure at the head of the procession into the city was not a general, but a canon of the diocese. Squatting squarely on the front of the first Allied tank was a figure in a black cassock and beret who had, for the previous four years, made life a misery for the occupiers.

Kir, who was in his sixties by the time war broke out, had simply wandered into the town hall at Dijon after the city’s democratically elected mayor had fled in the wake of the Nazi advance. There he plonked himself behind a desk and awaited the invading troops. When a German colonel came in and demanded his surrender, Kir studiously ignored him until the soldier managed to elicit a demand from him; Dijon was, the bullfrog-like cleric said, a city of the first order, and so he would not surrender it to anyone under the rank of a general.

This episode set the tone for Kir’s war. From liberating thousands of prisoners from the Longvic concentration camp (saying that he needed them for “infrastructure projects” — which, of course, he had no right to commission), to tricking the Nazis into saving the synagogue in Dijon by suggesting it as their main military store, taking care to remove the religious artefacts beforehand (which he personally hid and then returned to the congregation’s rabbi after the war), Kir made it his mission to be as stubbornly difficult as possible.

His bravado had two sources: one, the monumental amounts of crème de cassis and white wine which he consumed every day; and, two, his deep and earnest faith in the supremacy of Christ over all things. His resistance activities caused him to make some unlikely allies. The local Communist resistance were in awe of him, but could not work out how it was that he believed in a God whom he could not see, even going so far as to challenge him about his belief. “Well,” Kir replied, “we can’t see my arse, and yet we know that exists.”

Such relationships were to serve him well when the Gestapo arranged for a hit squad to visit him one evening, and, in typical Pooh-like fashion, he was fixing an evening snack. Kir was shot several times, but, before his would-be assassins could administer the final coup de grâce, he heaved himself up and, like the soldiers at the resurrection, the Fascists fled in fright.

Resistance members spirited him away to recover until his triumphal entry, on liberation, a few months later. After the war, he remained Mayor of Dijon, continuing his consumption of blanc de cassis to such an extent that it soon became known as a “Kir”.

THERE are numerous other examples of clerical bombast in the years of the Second World War, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-documented bravery to the remarkable sangfroid of Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, who, when told that he would be shot if he continued to order his priests to hide Jews, sent a scribbled note back to the Nazi officer in charge of the Greek capital, simply saying, “In Greece our prelates are hanged, not shot; please respect our traditions.”

Many of these remarkable figures were not individuals whom one would necessarily want on deanery chapter (after all, “collaborative ministry” had something of a different meaning in Occupied France). But, in times of great evil, it is often the outliers, the awkward, and the antagonistic who prove to be the most effective vessels of God’s grace, while the mainstream conspicuously fails.

Sister Sára Salkaházi was rejected for life profession by her order just before the war, in part owing to her fiery temper and her chain smoking. When the conflict came, she sacrificed her own life on an icy embankment in Budapest to save the members of her own Order, and the many Jewish people that they had smuggled to comparative safety.

The history of Christianity in the past 100 years is not a pretty one: complicity and cowardice have been the norm. By drawing attention to these men and women, who took seriously the line in the Epistle of St James, “I shall shew thee faith by my works,” I would seek not to expiate the Church’s sin, but to draw attention to the lights of Christ which were not put out by that great century of darkness.

Of course, resistance takes many forms. Much as I love the booze-soaked bombast of Kir et al., many Christians did resist in quieter ways. Jane Haining was a lay Church of Scotland mission worker who took up a position as matron at a Jewish girls’ home in Hungary. Despite numerous chances to escape and return to Britain, she chose to stay with her charges, writing to a friend: “If these girls need me in times of sunshine, how much more do they need me in times of darkness.”

When Admiral Horthy’s collaborationist regime finally collapsed in 1944, Jane was high on the list for arrest by the Nazis. When they came for her, she calmly told her girls that she’d “be back by lunch”. Instead, she endured the horrific journey to those grey Polish plains. En route, it was noted, she made sure to comfort the scared children who found themselves on their own in the cattle trucks.

Not long after her arrival at Auschwitz, she died, presumably gassed alongside Hungarian women and children. Sometimes, Christian resistance is not about preaching or prison breaks. Sometimes, it is saying you’ll be back by lunch. Sometimes, it is holding the hand of a frightened little girl.

IT IS unlikely that Christians of our time and place will be asked to make the sort of sacrifices described above. But, while only a madman would seek to write a timely book in this effluent and ever-changing age, if the spectre of totalitarianism is to rear its ugly head in the West anew, it is to be hoped that it will come up against the figure of Christ in persons like Kir and Haining again.

Until then, it does us no harm to work out what it is that we might be prepared to die for — because, one would hope, it might help us to work out what it is that we want to live for. Either way, if you are stuck for some post-service refreshments in the aftermath of your All Saints’ celebration, why not consider a Kir Royale?

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is Assistant Curate of Liverpool Parish Church.

Priests de la Résistance! is published by OneWorld at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70).

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