Hugh O’Flaherty grew up on a golf course, and dreamed of being a professional golfer. He was good enough to receive a college scholarship offer, but decided to pursue his other great love, religion, instead. And the world should be forever grateful.
O’Flaherty had planned on being a missionary priest, but because of his interpersonal and language skills (he was fluent in several languages), his superiors decided that he would be more useful as a diplomat. Between 1925 and 1938, he served in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia, gaining invaluable experience and contacts that would come in very handy when he was transferred to Rome as a Vatican official in 1939.
By then, Italy—allied with Nazi Germany—had set up Prisoner of War camps around Rome, and O’Flaherty was assigned to the papal nuncio as an interpreter and assistant. He visited the POW’s, ensured that they were receiving proper care, and contacted their families to update them on their loved ones. But O’Flaherty got himself in trouble with the Italian government when he began broadcasting on Vatican Radio not just news about the POW’s, but the poor conditions in the camps. The Italian government pressured the Vatican to remove him from his POW assignment, and keep him silent in Rome. This turned out to be providential.
In 1943 Mussolini was ousted from power and thousands of prisoners were released. However the Nazis quickly moved into Italy and the direction changed radically.
Immediately they sought to round up the just-released POW’s as well as the Jews. O’Flaherty responded by setting up Vatican-sponsored underground networks that provided false identification papers for refugees, and employed churches, monasteries, convents, and private homes as escape routes and hiding places for men, women, and children.
Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, head of the Gestapo in Rome, did learn of O’Flaherty’s activities. He had a white line painted on the pavement at the opening of St. Peter’s Square, where Vatican City became Italy—and one left the protection of “neutral” soil. He promised to torture and kill the priest if he ever caught him on the wrong side. This did not prevent O’Flaherty from making his pastoral rounds, disguised as a street cleaner, a laborer, a postman, and even a nun. This was described by one saved prisoner as “The most gigantic game of hide-an-seek you’ve ever seen.”
It is estimated that of the roughly 9,700 Jews in Rome, only 1,007 were caught by the Nazis and shipped to concentration camps. O’Flaherty alone was responsible for saving 1,700 Jews, as well as 6,500 other refugees.
But Hugh O’Flaherty’s most unlikely “save” came years after the war. Month in and month out, year in and year out O’Flaherty visited his old nemesis—the former head of the Gestapo in Rome Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler—in a Roman prison cell. O’Flaherty challenged the hate and the fear, and slowly the walls came down in Kappler, and a light shone in the darkness. And in 1959, fourteen years into his life sentence—and with O’Flaherty as witness—the former Nazi accepted a Jew as his Lord.
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction…and more inspirational.
Hugh O’Flaherty is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.