He was the kind of villain that we love to hate in the movies. But this was no movie: It was the city of Rome under Nazi rule during the Second World War. Our villain is Colonel Herbert Kappler, commander of the SS forces occupying Rome. As villains go, he has an impressive résumé:
* Upon the occupation of Rome the Gestapo demanded a multimillion dollar ransom for the lives of the Roman Jews. The chief rabbi of Rome, with the help of Pope Pius XII, raised the money within 24 hours, but the Nazis claimed the money was an attempted bribe to prevent the deportations, and under Kappler’s supervision began to herd the Jews away in cattle trucks and wagons bound for the concentration camps.
* Kappler’s SS routinely tortured and executed suspected members of the resistance.
* When a bomb planted by the militant communist underground killed 33 German soldiers in Rome, Kappler responded by randomly selecting 335 mostly civilian prisoners for slaughter – a greater than 10-to-1 reprisal – including political prisoners, petty thieves and prostitutes. They were bound, marched through the streets of Rome, herded onto trucks and mowed down by machine gun fire in the Ardeatine Caves. The entrances to the caves were blown up, sealing the dead and wounded behind hundreds of tons of rock.
For all his brutality, Kappler had not been able to capture the man who was behind the massive underground network that aided escaped Allied POWs and Jews in Rome. Kappler knew who the man was, but there was a problem: He was a Vatican priest. As long as he remained on neutral Vatican territory, Kappler couldn’t touch him.
But this tough Irish priest was not the neutral territory type: Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was a tall, broad-shouldered, accomplished amateur boxer who didn’t run away from a fight. Through his wit and impressive golf game he had won over many of Rome’s elite and was unlikely to sit out the war and allow his contacts to go unused. So Kappler had O’Flaherty watched, and finally, on one brilliant sunny winter morning, had him cornered.
The Nazi SS had the palazzo of Prince Filipo Doria Pamphili surrounded. O’Flaherty was inside. Colonel Kappler stepped out of his black limousine to personally apprehend the troublesome priest. O’Flaherty raced down a narrow stone staircase into the cellar – no way out, nowhere to hide. The Germans were in the building now – he could hear them yelling upstairs. They’d pull the place apart looking for him and would burst into the cellar in moments.
Too much was at stake for too many people for him to surrender to Kappler now – especially for Prince Filipo and the others upstairs who were compromised by O’Flaherty’s presence. If he could somehow escape, the Nazis wouldn’t be able to prove he had been there and would be forced to let the matter drop.
As he edged along the passageway that led to the cellar beneath the courtyard, he noticed a strange sound, like rocks rolling down a stone mountain face. As he moved closer to the sound, he saw light – daylight! The prince’s winter coal supply was sliding into a coal bin through an open trapdoor in the courtyard.
He scrambled up the pile of shifting coal and stuck his head out of the trapdoor. Two Italian coalmen were between him and the courtyard gates where the SS troops were keeping watch for him. The coal truck was parked outside the gates.
O’Flaherty took off his black monsignor’s robe and hat and put them into an empty coal sack. He tore his collarless shirt to his waist and rubbed coal dust all over himself from head to toe. With the cooperation of one of the coalmen who had no love for the Nazis, O’Flaherty strolled right past the two lines of SS troops, who disdainfully gave him a broad berth so they wouldn’t get their uniforms dirty.
When he was out of the soldiers’ sight, he took his priestly robe and hat out of the coal sack slung over his shoulder, tucked them under his arm, and rushed to the nearest church, where he cleaned up and set off for the safety of the Vatican. After several hours, he called Prince Filipo who said that everyone was safe and that Kappler was furious.
A few months earlier, this Catholic priest from neutral Ireland working in the neutral Vatican city-state during the Second World War would never have imagined being in such a predicament. He had grown up an IRA sympathizer who detested the British. As a result, in the early years of the war, he dismissed accounts of German atrocities as Allied propaganda. “I read the propaganda on both sides,” he would say, “and I don’t believe much of it. I don’t think there is anything to choose between Britain and Germany.”
And so O’Flaherty’s efforts to aid escaping Allied POWs could just as easily have been made on behalf of escaping Nazi POWs if he had been in the midst of an Allied occupation. Initially he was simply helping souls in need.
But the sight of the Nazis carting away Roman Jews in 1943 made it impossible for O’Flaherty to remain neutral.
The Nazis’ treatment of the Roman Jews transformed O’Flaherty, who in turn transformed his fledgling, informal network of contacts into a massive partisan effort to save as many Allied soldiers and Roman Jews as possible. He came to understand that the Nazis had to be defeated. As a result, this Irishman who detested the British saved more Allied lives than any other single person in World War II – more of them British than any other nationality. His efforts earned him the nickname, “the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican,” and he was decorated, ironically, a Commander of the British Empire.
Kappler and O’Flaherty played a life-and-death cat-and-mouse game in which O’Flaherty always managed to stay one step ahead of his archnemesis. In frustration, Kappler even attempted to have the Irish priest forcibly dragged off the neutral Vatican territory and assassinated. O’Flaherty’s network got wind of the plan and arranged instead for the two Gestapo assassins to receive a good beating at the hands of four Swiss guards.
The bitter rivalry between this German Nazi and this Irish priest sets the stage for O’Flaherty’s most remarkable rescue.
After the war, Colonel Kappler was tried and convicted for war crimes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the slaughter of the 335 at the Ardeatine Caves.
Over 70 years later, our popular imagination still strains to contrive a villain more detestable than a Nazi war criminal who sent Jews to concentration camps and tortured and murdered innocent civilians. Imagine the hatred of those who actually experienced his evil, the hatred we might feel today for men like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, or Osama Ben Laden, financier of the 9/11 attacks, or Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the “ethnic cleanser” of Kosovo.
Or maybe the stakes are more personal. Maybe it’s our hatred for that vicious gossip at work or next door, or for that pedophile near the local elementary school, or for that no-good son-in-law who treats your daughter so abusively, or for the jerk SOB who just cut you off in traffic.
It’s the righteous hatred we feel when we know we’re right, when we know that someone else has done something wrong, when we’re certain that he owes us or our loved ones or society something. It’s the hatred of the unforgiving servant who throttles his fellow servant and has him thrown in jail. “Let him rot till he’s paid me back!”
Only one person ever visited Kappler in prison. For years, almost every month, a tall, broad-shouldered figure of a man would call on the former Nazi. It was the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, on a different kind of rescue mission, reaching out to a soul in need.
More than most of us, this tough Irishman had the courage to fight evil and to seek justice at tremendous personal risk. But he also knew that we are called to love our enemies and that even villains need mercy.
Peter came up and asked Jesus, “Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times?” “No,” Jesus replied, “not seven times; I say, seventy times seven times.”
The problem with counting how many times we forgive is that we’re not really practicing grace; we’re just extending our patience. Doing the math; that is, keeping count of wrongs is a means of unforgiveness, for the past is never really washed away; it’s just relegated to the archives. When we choose to forgive, we have to be ready intentionally to stop rehearsing and rehashing that moment of pain.
Forgiveness is not saying the offense never happened. It did.
Forgiveness is not saying that everything’s okay. It isn’t.
Forgiveness is not saying we no longer feel the pain of the offense. We do.
For Father O’Flaherty, forgiveness was saying “I still feel the pain, but I am willing to let go of your involvement in my pain.” For Father O’Flaherty, forgiveness was an attitude of faith whereby he was able to turn over to God the business of how the other guy is doing.
Being people of forgiveness means we are not waiting until someone earns our forgiveness. That is as impossible as our trying to earn the love of God, and it’s just as unfaithful. But the tension here is that the forgiveness Jesus calls for is a reckless and seemingly irresponsible practice that could easily lead to the kinds of abusive, imbalanced relationships that plague our world. Surely Jesus isn’t calling for His followers to be doormats, right?
There will sometimes be consequences. We should not forgive serious wrongs when we don’t yet believe there has been true repentance, but once we know there has been repentance, we have to let go of those obstacles that keep us distant from the person who has hurt us.
For Father O’Flaherty, forgiveness was saying to Kappler, “I’m okay, and I am willing to let God deal with whether you are okay, and I am willing to let go of my need to be the instrument of correction and rebuke in your life.” In fact, Father O’Flaherty continued to visit Kappler and show him the love of Christ.
In March 1959, Herbert Kappler, former SS colonel, Nazi war criminal, sought forgiveness and salvation in the waters of baptism poured by the hand of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.
Perhaps the measure of assurance for our own salvation is not some ecstatic religious experience, but whether or not we too will live out the kind of unfair grace that has been shown to us by our Redeemer.