Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty bronze memorial by Alan Ryan Hall, located on Mission Road, Kilarney, Ireland. Credit: youngoggo/shutterstock
Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish priest who hid Italian Jews from the Nazis and went on to baptize the former head of the Gestapo in Rome, is world renowned for the heroism he displayed during and after World War II.
They called him the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”
Many of his exploits were portrayed in the 1983 movie “The Scarlet and the Black.” But more details could soon be revealed to the public, as the Vatican archives from the pontificate of Pius XII (1939 – 1958) were opened to historians earlier this year, and mention of O’Flaherty’s work is sure to draw the interest of scholars.
Born in County Cork in 1898, O’Flaherty grew up in Killarney playing golf on the course where his father worked as a steward before discerning his vocation to the priesthood.
As a seminarian, O’Flaherty studied theology in Rome at the Urban College of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and went on to earn doctorates in both canon law and philosophy in Rome.
He was ordained to the priesthood in 1925 and became a Vatican diplomat during which time he served in posts in Haiti, Egypt, and Czechoslovakia.
During World War II, O’Flaherty lived in the German College inside Vatican City State, and worked at the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, then known at the Holy Office.
The Holy See assigned O’Flaherty the task of visiting the Italian prisoner of war camps, where he brought books, cigarettes, chocolate, and hope to the English-speaking Allied prisoners, according to the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society. After these visits, the priest used Vatican Radio to contact the prisoners’ relatives.
When the Nazis occupied Rome for nine months following the fall of Mussolini, O’Flaherty created what came to be known as the “Rome Escape Line” — a network of priests, diplomats, and expatriates in Rome who helped to hide more than 6,000 escaped Allied POWs and Jews in convents, monasteries, and residences.
Secret meetings among members of the Rome Escape Line to exchange documents and information on safe houses took place inside of St. Peter’s Basilica at the foot of Michaelangelo’s Pieta or near the Altar of the Chair, according to Vatican News.
The Museum of the Liberation of Rome is today located in the building that formerly served as the headquarters of the German SS under Kappler, near the Basilica St. John Lateran.
After the liberation in Rome in 1944, the head of the German SS Herbert Kappler was sentenced in 1948 to life imprisoned in solitary confinement in Italy. O’Flaherty went to the prison to visit Kappler, who had previously threatened to torture and kill the Irish priest, every month for ten years.
In 1959, O’Flaherty baptised Kappler and received the converted war criminal into the Catholic Church.
The Vatican honoured O’Flaherty in 2016 with a plaque on the wall of the Teutonic Cemetery inside Vatican City. The cemetery sits above the former site of Nero’s circus, where early Christians were martyred in ancient Rome.
O’Flaherty’s Vatican plaque reads: “Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, born in Ireland 28.2.1898. Founder of the Rome Escape Line. A tireless defender of the weak and oppressed. Resident at this College 1938-1960 from where he saved over 6000 lives from the National Socialists. Died 30.10.1963. Buried in Cahersiveen, County Kerry, Ireland.”
This article was originally published on CNA March 17, 2020.