Priests de la Résistance! The loose canons who fought fascism in the twentieth century, by Fergus Butler-Gallie 

by
08 November 2019

John Arnold on 20th-century Christians who saw and fought an evil

IN CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL last year, we celebrated the addition of the name of Jonathan Daniels to the list of Saints and Martyrs of our own Time. He was a bright young American Episcopalian ordinand, white, rich, and privileged, who in a shoot-out in Alabama in 1965 took a bullet for a poor black girl, laying down his life for a friend.

His is the last in this splendid collection of 17 pen-portraits of Christians who in the encounter with Fascism knew the difference between right and wrong and were prepared to act on it. It would make a good present for an enquirer who wanted to know what difference faith makes. “This book . . . is written in the hope that, should Fascism rear its head in the West once more, it might come up against the figure of Christ again.”

Butler-Gallie is well aware of the complexity of the relationship between the Churches and Fascism in Germany and Italy, not to say complicity in the clerical-fascist states of Croatia and Slovakia. (Strangely enough, there is nothing here from Francoist Spain. Perhaps that could be rectified in a second volume, together with the tale of Pastor Trocmé and the Huguenots of Le Chambron-sur-Lignon.)

Fortunately for the reader, the author has a penchant for lovable rogues such as the two French priests with whom the book begins: the bibulous trencherman Canon Kir, after whom Kir Royale (white wine and cassis), is named, and Henri Marie Joseph Grouès, better known for his later work for the homeless as Abbé Pierre. Both are characterised by exceptional physical and spiritual courage, self-confidence, and, especially, confidence in Christ and his gospel; both were a nightmare to authorities in Church and State alike, as were the Italian Don Pietro Pappagallo and the Hungarian Sister Sára Salkaházi.

Others, but not all, were also members of the awkward squad. Some, like Clemens August Graf von Galen, were pillars of old Establishments: pious, conventional, and conservative. Indeed, it was for precisely these qualities that he had been chosen to be Bishop of Münster in 1933; and, when his time came, it was the old virtues that stood him in good stead as he helped the Pope produce Mit brennender Sorge (the only encyclical not in Latin) in 1937, protested against enforced euthanasia, and preached three resounding sermons in his cathedral in 1941 — the high points of official Roman Catholic opposition to fascism.

Others who profited from high social standing or aristocratic birth include Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Superior Alice-Elizabeth, Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark, mother of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Yet others, like Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens and Cardinal de Jong of Utrecht, were able and, above all, willing to use their position to support resistance and aid Jews. De Jong overcame centuries of separation to co-operate with the Calvinist Koeno Gravemaijer and thus lay the foundations for the exceptional contribution of the Dutch to the ecumenical movement since then. And yet, perhaps best of all, Jane Haining, who chose to die with her Jewish pupils from the Church of Scotland School in Budapest, was distinguished by nothing except simple goodness and the willingness to pay the cost of discipleship.

All shared an unwavering belief in the common humanity of all humankind in Christ. Butler-Gallie serves them and their stories well with background information, a fluent narrative style, and a fine eye for the quirky and telling personal or historical detail. These heroes and heroines are all gloriously different, real, and recognisable children of God; the villains are all boringly similar.

Only the title is misleadingly clerical: not all were priests, and only Kir was a canon. The otherwise helpful section on further reading would have done well to recommend Schlingensiepen’s more accurate Bonhoeffer 1906-45 (Books, 18 June 2010) in place of Eric Metaxas’s rumbustious Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy (Books, 4 March 2011).

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

Priests de la Résistance! The loose canons who fought fascism in the twentieth century
Fergus Butler-Gallie
Oneworld £12.99
(978-1-78607-672-4)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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