A message from Father Nick 76
Early September recalls for us the beginning of the Second World War with its image of a world in arms. In that image lie the very darkest human forces. How, we still wonder, could a civilized Christian people have been so fatally deceived by one man’s power to indoctrinate? It was a power which went beyond mere deceit.
Caught up in that darkness and excitement, what could ordinary people do? The threat was personal and the perversion of aims cunningly worked. Some believers let themselves be deceived; others saw through it and remained silent. Even Church leaders often failed to give witness. Certainly, they too were sometimes deceived.
Yet in these dreadful circumstances a hero did emerge. The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) recognised at once the moral danger in Nazism. And almost alone, he was prepared to speak out against it. Two days after Hitler became chancellor of Germany on 30th January, 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a radio speech in which he warned that a leader can become a “mis-leader”, somebody who mocks God. The speech was cut off before he could finish it.
Bonhoeffer showed real courage. Raised in a cultured German family, he was highly educated, an eminent theologian and an accomplished musician – a man of great warmth. He had served as a pastor in Barcelona and London as well as in Germany, and he had studied in New York. His great ambition was to spend time with Gandhi in India, but the turn of events made it impossible.
He was fascinated by Catholicism and he loved Rome which he had visited as a young man. He describes Palm Sunday in St Peter’s: “Seminarians, monks…white, black, yellow faces, the sense of the Church’s universality is immensely powerful.” He goes on, “The day has been wonderful, the first day on which something of the reality of Catholicism dawned on me, nothing to do with Romanticism etc., but I believe I began to grasp the concept of “Church””
Even so, he was adamant that the Church could not hide from what was happening around it. Rather, believers had real responsibility in the moral confusion of the Third Reich. As his country moved towards war, he insisted to the students in his Lutheran seminary, “Only someone who speaks out for the Jews has the right to sing Gregorian chant.”
Bonhoeffer passionately believed that his country’s course would have to be stopped, and to that end he joined the conspiracy against Hitler. Along with friends and members of his family, he was put in prison and finally hanged on 9th April, 1945, just before the end of the war in Europe.
He had written a number of books on theology, but his last work, assembled from smuggled pieces, became famous as “Letters and Papers from Prison”. It is regrettably incomplete. Saturated with his sense of God, this collection of fragments sets before us the germ of a new idea: “religion-less Christianity”: faith which shows itself not just by religious form, but in its willingness to face the kind of crisis it had failed to confront before.
For Bonhoeffer, God was quite simply everything. It is we, he recognised, who have failed, while continuing to pray and worship. Bonhoeffer asked for a new, adult, Christian responsibility which would not be restricted to worship. Instead, we must take up God’s gift of life and accept his challenge to live it.