It was October of 1977, my last semester as an undergraduate at Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y., and my philosophy professor, Father Richard O’Connor, O.F.M., was giving a lecture in his course on political philosophy.” We were discussing the line from Goethe’s Faust, “What is religion to you?” Father Richard was keenly aware that I was struggling in my discernment to become a Franciscan priest. As the class progressed, one of my fellow Franciscan students asked, “Why does God send people to hell?”
Without any hesitation, Father Richard looked at me with an intense look in his eyes and replied, “I have never heard of God sending anyone to hell; people send themselves.” That provocative answer inspired me to say “yes” to the call to join the Order of Friars Minor. The decision was made not only by the influence of those mere words but also by the example of the Franciscan who uttered those penetrating words: Father Sixtus (Richard) O’Connor, U.S. Army chaplain in General George S. Patton’s Third Army during World War II and the lone Roman Catholic chaplain during the Nuremberg trial of 1945-46. He also witnessed all 10 Nazi war criminals being put to death for their dastardly crimes.
This year I celebrated the 30th anniversary of my ordination and observe the 30th anniversary of the death of Father Richard O’Connor. Here are my reflections.
Richard James O’Connor was born March 15, 1909, in Oxford, a small town in upstate New York. He was one of seven children born to John O’Connor and Elizabeth Ann Cooke (Swiss born and native German speaker who taught young Richard German while he was growing up). After graduating from his local high school, he was recruited to join Holy Name Province.
He took the religious name of Sixtus, pledged his solemn vows on Sept. 17, 1933, and was ordained in 1934. (Father Sixtus returned to his baptismal name Richard in 1968.) Due to his fluent German and desire to teach, Father Sixtus was sent to the University of Munich in 1934 to study philosophy and the classics. Because of the growing Nazi influence in Munich, Father Sixtus transferred to the University of Bonn in 1936 for the same studies. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Father Sixtus was called back to the United States where he taught at Siena College. In 1942, he requested and received permission to serve as a U.S. Army chaplain.
He went to chaplain’s school at Harvard University and, in 1943, was assigned to serve in General Patton’s Third Army. Father Sixtus was one of the unique World War II chaplains who were allowed to accompany their fellow soldiers by jeep or on foot on the battlefield. He witnessed many battles in France and Germany. I vividly recall a conversation we had in his room at the Siena College Friary about the Third Army coming to the aid of General Anthony C. McAuliffe when he was surrounded in Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of Bulge. “The whole world remembers General McAuliffe’s response ‘Nuts!’ to the German request to surrender. The general was very capable of using more colorful language than that,” recalled Father Sixtus with a big smile.
Although Father Sixtus never shared with me the specific horrors of war, he did tell me that he often counseled the wounded and blessed the dead. I often thought of him when I encountered the horrors of war and terrorism during my years as a Franciscan ordained to serve.
I served as a chaplain at the World Trade Center from Sept. 2001 to June 2002. During those months, I blessed numerous bodies and body parts. On each solemn occasion, I thought of the calm demeanor and dedicated professionalism of Father Sixtus. I kept remembering his telling me that priests were to be a light amid the darkness of fear, anger and hopelessness. “Jordan,” as he frequently called me, “find inner strength through adversity.”
Assignment to Nuremberg
As the war in Europe was coming to an end, Father Sixtus figured he would be sent home to teach again at Siena College. Then, in August 1945, General Patton personally asked Father Sixtus to accept a special assignment. When he was informed that he would be the Catholic chaplain to the Nazi war criminals who masterminded both the war in Europe and the Holocaust, he immediately accepted. He would have to be present among them during their trials at Nuremberg until the final verdicts were handed down.
Once I asked Father Sixtus why he accepted this challenging assignment. With that ever-present intensity in his eye, he looked at me and bellowed, “Because that was my duty as an officer and as a priest, and I knew from the beginning that these were no gentlemen.”
According to military records, the Nuremberg tribunal sessions began in the Palace of Justice on Aug. 8, 1945. Presiding over this tribunal was Associate Justice Robert Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court. In October 1977, Father Sixtus told me that Justice Jackson’s insistence on fairness and understanding in the courtroom reminded him of the great U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (“The life of the law is not logic, but experience!”)
The team was composed of Roman Catholic priest and Army officer Father Sixtus O’Connor, Lutheran minister and Army officer Henry Gerecke and prison psyhologist Dr. Gustave M. Gilbert. All three spoke fluent German. Since the majority of the war criminals were Protestant, Chaplain Gerecke was in charge, with Father Sixtus his assistant.
Originally, 24 Nazi war criminals were scheduled for trial, but two committed suicide, and one was ruled unfit for trial. Of the 21 war criminals tried, 15 were Protestant (a majority of which were Lutheran) and six were Roman Catholics. Only four of the six Catholics requested spiritual counsel, and 13 of 15 Protestants agreed to counsel by both chaplains and the Army prison psychologist. The military tribunal agreed to the request by all 21 war criminals to have chaplains.
Father Sixtus told me in October 1977 that his selection and that of Gerecke mirrored the age-old split in Germany between Protestants and Catholics. In Germany the Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther in 1517. Father Sixtus said that the chaplains were selected for their cultural sensitivities, linguistic knowledge and credibility as religious figures. Father Sixtus had proved himself on the battlefield in France and Germany, and Chaplain Gerecke had proved himself as a capable hospital chaplain in the Allied hospital in Munich. These traits and experiences enabled them to interact with prisoners on a personal and pastoral level rather than as military personnel.
Hans Frank: Example of Conversion
Father Sixtus often celebrated Mass for Hans Frank, Nazi Governor-general of Poland who was responsible not only the occupation of Poland but also for putting down the Warsaw Uprising and running concentration camps, including Auschwitz–Birkenau. In Poland alone, at least 3 million Holocaust victims perished under Hans Frank.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Father Sixtus’s service at Nuremberg was his ministry to Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor-general of Poland. Due to his obedience to orders by Adolf Hitler, Frank has been accused of the murders of over 3 million people. According to official documents, Father Sixtus ensured that Frank’s conversion to Catholicism was genuine before he baptized him in late 1945. According to Army prison psychologist Dr. Gilbert, who served with both chaplains, Hans Frank said,“I am glad that you and Father Sixtus at least, still come to talk to me. You know Father Sixtus is such a wonderful man. . . .and religion is such a comfort — my only comfort now. I look forward to Christmas now like a little child.”
Interestingly enough, in 1981, Niklas Frank, the surviving son of Hans Frank went to visit Father Sixtus while he was teaching philosophy at Siena College. Niklas wrote a book about his father which includes his encounter with Father Sixtus. Father Sixtus walked with Hans Frank on his way to execution and remained by his side when he was about to die. Frank’s last words were “Jesus, have mercy!” The book is primarily a struggle of a grieving son trying to come to grips with his father’s dastardly war crimes. However, his father asked for mercy, and this is what gave the son some degree of consolation.
Father Sixtus also counseled Franz Von Papen, Vice Chancellor, Ernest Kaltenbrunner, chief of the Gestapo in Austria, and Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Nazi Governor of occupied Holland and a military adviser to Hitler.
Father Sixtus also reached out to the Protestant war criminals if they requested counsel. One who was later acquitted of charges against him was Hans Fritsche, a former deputy to Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda. In his memoirs, Fritsche wrote glowingly of the chaplain, “Father Sixtus enjoyed high regard of the Nuremberg prison’s inmates, an admiration which was not confined to the Catholic prisoners. He understood life’s realities, and this circumstance was of great advantage for the exercise of his spiritual duties. He turned around Hans Frank and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Austrian Gestapo chief. . . .This man, a cool and sober observer who spoke without prejudice to the high spiritual office he held, was the American Catholic chaplain of our prison in Nuremberg.”
Franz von Papen also wrote in his memoirs, “Father Sixtus O’Connor. . . was a great solace to me during this difficult period.” Von Papen further stated that Father O’Connor was directly instrumental in the conversion of Hans Frank, who was baptized by Father Sixtus in Nuremberg. There seemed to have been a transformation in Hans Frank with his baptism and conversion. Von Papen wrote, “In his newfound faith, he looked death unswervingly in the eye for over a year, and one could only admire the new strength of character he had acquired. His conduct was marked in contrast with that of many of his fellow prisoners.”
Chaplain Gerecke and Father Sixtus were both amazingly compassionate toward the Nazi war criminal defendants. When the trials ended and the judges were reviewing their decisions, the two chaplains convinced their superiors to allow the families of the defendants to visit them through a screen. Both chaplains and an officer were present during these visits.
Thirty one years later, in October of 1977, while discussing Dostovevsky’s Crime and Punishment in class, Father Sixtus remarked with a wistful look on his face, “In the criminal justice system, one may find reason to punish those found guilty. However, that does not mean you punish the family members of the doomed as well.” He did not have to explain it, I knew right away what he meant.
The military tribunal at the first Nuremberg trial lasted 11 months from November 1945 until October 1946. Verdicts were rendered on Oct. 1, 1946. Of the 21 war criminals, 11 were to be executed; seven were given prison sentences — some for life imprisonment and others for specific time periods. Three were acquitted — Hans Fritzsche, Hjalamar Schacht and Franz von Papen. Executions were at midnight Oct. 15, 1946, and completed in the early morning of Oct. 16, 1946.
Before the executions occurred, there was a commotion in the cell of Herman Goering. Someone gave him a cyanide pill and he committed suicide in front of some soldiers and the two chaplains. Father Sixtus told me, “I knew all along that Goering would kill himself — he always thought execution was beneath him. Brilliant intellect, but had no faith.” He then brought up a recent political philosophy class about Karl Marx and alienation. “Alienation is the worst thing that can happen — whether it be an individual or a nation.”
Just before the executions took place, Col. Burton Andrus, the commanding officer of the prison at Nuremberg, made this report of the two chaplains: “Father O’Connor and Chaplain Gerecke were untiringly moving from condemned cell to condemned cell. Prayers were now taking on a new meaning, a new urgency.”
According to official documents, “the place for executions was located in the gymnasium of the prison. Brightly lit, the room contained three wooden scaffolds painted black. Thirteen steps went up to the platform on which the gallows were erected. The lower part of the gallows was draped with a curtain. Hands tied behind their backs, a black hood pulled over their heads, one by one, each man went to his death.”
According to a 1947 interview with newspaper reporter Jimmy Powers, Father Sixtus shared this reflection about the executions that both he and Chaplain Gerecke witnessed “All the prisoners, except Alfred Rosenberg, accepted religious assistance from one of the chaplains or the other. Rosenberg had no last words. With the exception of Streicher, all marched up quietly to the scaffold. As each prisoner entered the gymnasium, the escorting officer turned each prisoner over to his chaplain. At the foot of the stairs, each prisoner was halted and asked to identify himself. This seems to be general Army protocol, just in case there is a mistaken identity.”
The last of the 10 executions was recorded at 2:45 in the morning of Oct. 16, 1946. In the same interview, Father Sixtus said, “We were all limp when it was over.”
After the executions, both Chaplain Gerecke and Father Sixtus served their last few months as Army chaplains and eventually returned home to the States. Father Sixtus retired as a U.S. Army major and returned to teach at St. Bonaventure University; Chaplain Gerecke continued as chaplain for a military base in the United States.
Their assignments at Nuremberg were among the most challenging for military chaplains in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Both abided by the confidential nature of their respective ministries. Through the sacrament of Holy Orders, Roman Catholic priests can never divulge the contents of a confession or a matter held in the strictest confidence without facing penalty by a bishop or local ordinary.
A Lutheran minister is not entrusted to the sacrament of confession, but still must abide by the confidential nature of his ministry. Still, Lutheran minister Henry Gerecke gave an account of his Nuremberg experiences in an article exclusively written for the Sept. 1, 1951, edition of The Saturday Evening Post entitled, “ I Walked to the Gallows with the Nazi Chiefs.”
Within the article, he wrote three interesting sentences. “My assistant, Catholic Chaplain Sixtus O’Connor, and I spent 11 months with the perpetrators of World War II. We were the last to counsel with these men and made 10 trips to the execution chamber. The world has never heard our story.”
This article also asked the question “should the world know the story of these two chaplains, especially with the confidential charge entrusted to them by both their religious vows and the U.S. Department of Defense?” Yes, with a caveat! Proof of my claim lies in the response by an office in the Defense Department about Chaplain Gerecke’s article. Initially, Gerecke’s request to publish an account of his ministry was denied by the Office of the Chief of Chaplains, which wrote in 1951, “The objective was based on the grounds that the manuscript revealed intimate confidences which were deserving the secrecy of the confessional. The War Department discourages anything that would possibly suggest to men that chaplains do not zealously guard intimate knowledge and confidence.”
The key phrase there is “the secrecy of the confessional.” Even though, during the Nuremberg trials, there was an ecumenical effort going on for 11 months between two Christian chaplains — one a Lutheran minister and the second a Roman Catholic priest — a Lutheran minister does not hear confessions but a Roman Catholic priest does and takes them to his grave such as Father Sixtus did.
The Seal of Confession
Although Father Sixtus was asked over and over by many philosophical journals and secular publishers to write an article or short book of his Nuremberg experiences, he said that he would not. He did not explain why, but those who knew him well — like me, his philosophy student — knew that he could not and would not. Father Sixtus would never risk the possibility of breaking the seal of confession nor any secret entrusted to him in confidence — whether by a Catholic, Protestant or even an atheist. Father Sixtus was a true priest, a great philosopher and a compassionate Franciscan.
On May 14, 1983, I was ordained to the ministerial priesthood with seven other Franciscans. About a month later, when I had just finished a long stint of confessions in a church well known for confessions, I told Father Sixtus that I needed advice. He took me aside and, in the recreation room of the friary of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan, he inquired what happened. I told Father Sixtus, without divulging names or specifics, that I had heard genuine confessions with sorrow and contrition for a couple of murders and told him that I absolved these particular penitents. Was I right in doing that? He looked me in the eye with his usual intensity and said, “Jordan, you are now an ordained priest and an educated man. Listen if the penitent is contrite for his or her sins — no matter what they are — murder, whatever — yes, you give them spiritual counsel, a worthy penance and unconditional absolution.” Then he grabbed me by the arm and got closer to my face and uttered those memorable words that I will never forget. “Jordan, you absolve them of their sins but you don’t absolve them of their actions!”
One month later, on July 10, 1983, Father Sixtus died peacefully in his sleep in his room in the Siena College Friary. The estimated time of death was around 2:45 a.m., which ironically was the same time that the last of the executions occurred at Nuremberg in the early morning of Oct. 16, 1946. But Father Sixtus had a peaceful death. In his July 25, 1983, letter of obituary, then Minister Provincial of Holy Name Province Father Alban Maguire noted that Father Sixtus taught at Siena College from 1953 to 1983 and concluded, “still find it hard to believe that the intense light in his eyes has at last dimmed.”
This year I celebrate 30 years of my priestly ordination and I also observe the 30th anniversary of the death of Father Sixtus, my philosophy professor and my inspiration to deal with the challenges of priestly ministry. I vividly recall those conversations during the fall of 1977 both in and outside the political philosophy course at Siena College. I can now finally answer the question in Goethe’s Faust “What is religion to you?” It is the prayer of a worshiping community to Almighty God that brings us together and it is the good that always triumphs over evil! Amen. TP
Father Jordan, O.F.M., a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province, is the chaplain of St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y.