[November 28, 2020] The hero’s journey is a common template of stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.1 Hugh O’Flaherty, a Roman Catholic monsignor, fits that mold. Monsignor O’Flaherty is a hero for saving the lives of thousands of Allied POWs and Jews during WWII.
Hugh O’Flaherty was born in 1898 in Ireland and raised playing golf on a course that his father managed. Hugh became a “scratch golfer,” meaning he was quite good.2 He was intelligent, earning a scholarship to a teacher training college. Instead, at 20 years of age in 1918, he enrolled in a Jesuit school training as a missionary.
With the Irish War of Independence in 1919 and making life difficult, O’Flaherty was sent to Rome to finish his studies. He was ordained three years later as a Catholic Preist. Impressed with his abilities, he was appointed to the Holy See, the Vatican’s governing body. In 1934, he was appointed Monsignor.
By 1943, the Italians had suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Allied powers. They deposed Mussolini and freed all Allied POWs. Hitler was furious at the betrayal and retaliated by invading Italy. With a portion of Italy under German occupation, those POWs were at risk of being recaptured. The Monsignor decided to help.3
Estimates vary, but most believe that Monsignor O’Flaherty’s group hid over 6,500 people for the remainder of the war in farms, convents, churches, and private apartments. The Nazi SS governor Colonel Herbert Kappler didn’t take long to figure out who was behind it. A white line was pained at the entrance to St. Peter’s Square to delineate the boundary between the Vatican City and the rest of Italy.
Monsignor O’Flaherty was informed that he would be killed if he crossed the white line, but that didn’t stop him from going about coordinating the effort to hide escaped POWs and Jews. He donned disguises, hence his nickname, “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”4 The Scarlet and the Black (1983) is a movie starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer that is based on events during the war.
The Allied capture of Rome occurred in June 1944. Colonel Kappler was captured and sentenced for several atrocities. While imprisoned, Kappler asked to speak with the Monsignor and was surprised when O’Flaherty agreed. Over the years, a strange friendship developed. Kappler’s only visitor was O’Flaherty until 1959. Kappler converted to the Catholic faith while imprisoned.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) is a novel set in France during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. The title is the nom de guerre of its hero, a chivalrous Englishman who rescues aristocrats before they are sent to the guillotine. – https://www.gradesaver.com/the-scarlet-pimpernel/study-guide/summary