Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, May 27, 2013

A heroic Catholic priest vs. the Sicilian mafia

I have been reading Giuseppe di Lampedusa's great historical novel, The Leopard (Il Gattopardo). It portrays the Italian Risorgimento and the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy through its penetrating, melancholy portrayal of its main character, the Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, who is closely based on Lampedusa's own great-grandfather. I had already seen the famous film, The Leopard, which has been spectacularly restored for the Criterion Collection. The film complements the book almost to perfection, more so than any book-to-movie that I can think of, let alone great-book-to-great-movie, an almost nonexistent category. (The casting of Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio caused great uproar, as can well be imagined, but it turned out to be uncannily successful even in dubbed Italian. It's important to see the Italian-language version of the film rather than the butchered American version.)

The book gives a fascinating portrait of Sicily itself, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, and its relationship to the rest of Italy during the years of the Risorgimento and unification. This very week, therefore, I was electrified to read the story of a modern Sicilian priest. First Things has an excellent article about him. The first paragraph reads,
On May 25, a mere twenty years after his murder, the Italian Catholic priest Don Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi will be beatified. A figure much beloved in Sicily, Puglisi will be the first victim of the mafia to be declared a blessed by the Catholic Church. Puglisi’s beatification is a sign of how a Church once deeply complicit with organized crime came to stand heroically against it.

It's so important, in these days of shame and blame for the Roman Catholic Church, to remember and honor the many priests who have served the Lord and the people faithfully and courageously. I have recently posted a notice about another true story of a priest-hero: 

And here is the link to the Fr. Pino Puglisi story:

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A second film about the Nazi occupation of Rome

After seeing The Scarlet and the Black, a made-for-television movie telling the astonishing true story of a heroic Roman Catholic priest in the Vatican during the Nazi occupation of Rome (see previous post), I went back to my Criterion Collection and viewed Rome, Open City (Roma, Città Aperta) for the second time. A famous masterpiece by Roberto Rossellini, this one was the first major film to make its mark in the now-distinguished tradition of Italian neorealism (The Bicycle Thieves, by Vittorio de Sica, is the most honored of the genre).  Open City introduced Anna Magnani to the world, in an electrifying performance and a deeply shocking and unforgettable climactic scene. The film is a fictional treatment of the terrors of the occupation, the courage of the underground resistance, and the struggles of ordinary people to maintain some sort of decency.

Most notable from the point of view of this blog post, Open City is profoundly Christian (despite Rossellini's repeated insistence that he didn't believe anything). Again there is a heroic priest, Don Pietro, and there are two striking images which refer very clearly to Michelangelo's Pietà and to the crucifixion itself. Don Pietro prays in the words of Jesus that his tormentors be forgiven. Most impressive of all is the scene where Don Pietro is told by a craven fellow priest, obviously a collaborator, to have courage. Don Pietro says calmly but with a touch of irony, "It is easy to die a good death. What is difficult is to live a good life."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A true Christian soldier, insufficiently recognized

Have you ever heard of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, the "Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican"? Despite my lifelong interest in everything concerned with resistance to Hitler and other tyrannies, I knew absolutely nothing about this remarkable Irishman, a Roman Catholic priest who, from his post as senior official of the Roman Curia in the Vatican during World War II, presided over the protection and rescue of some 6,500 Allied prisoners of war and Jews. This was during the period of Pope Pius XII's strict neutrality, which is still being hotly debated as the contested procedure for his canonization continues.

A made-for-television movie, The Scarlet and the Black (not to be confused with Stendahl's The Red and the Black/ Le Rouge et le Noir) was made in 1983, and I have only now caught up with it, at the recommendation of a discerning friend (like virtually everything else in the world, it's available on Amazon). It's stunning, a story that everyone should know. In spite of clunky dialogue, cartoonish Nazis, stereotypical blond German wives and children, formulaic scenes, Christopher Plummer in his villainous mode yet again, and a miscast Gregory Peck (with an absurd pseudo-Irish accent), the film succeeds very well and holds the viewer's attention throughout. A half hour on the Internet seems to confirm that the true story of Msgr. Flaherty was even more remarkable than the movie, which follows the facts fairly closely in its overall plot. The ending is breathtaking, and should be of greatest interest to anyone interested in Christian ethical dilemmas. The various online biographies of Flaherty reinforce the accuracy of the story of his relationship with the Gestapo commander, Herbert Kappler (the Plummer character). The final scenes offer a view of Christian forgiveness that, while somewhat formulaic on the surface, actually goes quite deep and redeems the ending from sentimentality. Plummer's acting here at the end becomes impressive in its subtlety.

Sir John Gielgud does not look at all like the ascetic Pius XII, but turns in a canny performance. It is difficult to make a final determination about this Pope's behaviour during the Nazi era. Just as portrayed in The Scarlet and the Black, Pius XII believed that the physical preservation of the Vatican's art collection was crucial to the survival of the church. But was it? For the most part, it is only the elite who are able to commission art and collect paintings and sculpture. What does this say about the church's commitment to those who suffer most in war--not the connoisseurs who lose their handsome possessions, but those on the bottom rungs who have no resources and no contacts? The entire question of Pius XII is vexed, and bears some resemblance to the question of the present pope's silence during the Dirty War in Argentina, a matter likely to be debated for decades. (See my previous post on this subject.)

The details of Hugh O'Flaherty's life are readily available on the Internet. He is honored in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, was granted the CBE and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yet few have ever heard of him. In these days when the Catholic clergy are suffering from suspicion and disdain no matter what they have done or not done, there should be more efforts to publicize great servants of the Lord like Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty.

I highly recommend this film. It would be an excellent choice for church groups and youth groups.