Church never gives up on us

Been away from confession? Think about this story. Archbishop, later Cardinal, Adam Sapieha of Krakow, Poland, is in the history books because, in 1946, he ordained to the priesthood Blessed John Paul II. It was a great distinction, but the archbishop has to be remembered for his heroic, bold confrontations with the German invaders who occupied Poland beginning in 1939.

The occupation was hell on earth. Directing it was the German governor, Hans Frank. His rule was unspeakably cruel.

At the height of the occupation, the archbishop invited Frank and his wife to dinner in the archbishop’s residence. Assuming that the invitation meant that Archbishop Sapieha’s determined condemnation of German atrocities was relenting, Frank and his wife immediately accepted.

The archbishop met them cordially and escorted them into his residence’s grand dining room. The table was set with sparkling crystal and fine china. The Franks were seated, and waiters appeared with plates beneath silver domes. Everything suggested that an elegant meal was to be served.

The plates were set before the Franks, and the domes were lifted. On each porcelain plate rested a small piece of stale barley bread. Stunned, the German governor and his wife looked at the archbishop, who said, “Your occupation has so impoverished my people that this is all many of them have to eat. I eat what my people eat — and so do my guests.” Furious, the Franks left.

Starving the Polish people by diverting everything edible to Germany was just one of Frank’s outrages. His rule resulted, historians say, in the murder of millions of Poles.

When the war ended, the allies captured Frank and charged him with crimes against humanity. He was one of Hitler’s subordinates tried at Nuremberg in the war crimes trials.

As the trial was being organized, the allied officer in command appointed two German-speaking American Army chaplains to the contingent overseeing the prisoners. One was Franciscan Father Sixtus O’Connor from New York.

Many of the prisoners refused to see the chaplains. Frank, however, did meet with Father O’Connor. In time, the priest had an effect on Frank. Frank began to pray. Then he began attending Father O’Connor’s Mass. Eventually, he admitted his terrifying deeds in Poland, and he repented.

The trial ended with death sentences being delivered for most of the prisoners, including Frank. They were to be hanged. When Frank went to the scaffold, Father O’Connor walked beside him. Of all the condemned men, only Frank asked God’s forgiveness. He died praying, “My Jesus, mercy!” and with Father O’Connor’s blessing.

Not long ago, a TV documentary featured the trials, and it included scenes from that period. It covered the executions. Someone I know saw the production and noticed that a priest stood on the scaffold beside a prisoner who made the sign of the cross as the priest blessed him. The prisoner was Frank. The priest was Father O’Connor.

I was asked, how could a priest associate himself with such a despicable criminal?

This is what priests do. Their job is to be with the sinner and bring the sinner back to God.

One of the most beautiful interruptions in the otherwise frightful story of the Lord’s crucifixion is the all-forgiving word of Jesus to the thief dying beside Christ. “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). In the language of today’s Church, the Lord canonized the thief.

The Church never gives up on anyone. When my time comes, I devoutly pray that a Father O’Connor will be standing at my side. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.