Rome, Italy, 1943. World War II rages and Rome is occupied by Nazi Germany. Italy has surrendered. Allied prisoners have been released from Italian prisons but still must elude capture by Nazi forces. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty masterminds a rescue network to save them.
As the sun set over Vatican City, a Catholic priest, tall in stature, stood on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. He wore a broad-brimmed black hat and cassock edged with red. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty read prayers in his breviary until a noise interrupted his devotions. A sleek black car pulled up three hundred yards away. Colonel Herbert Kappler, commander of German forces in Rome, stepped out of the car, followed by two men, members of the dreaded SS: the Gestapo Secret Service.
Kappler pointed. “That is O’Flaherty. He is a dangerous man and gives us more trouble than anyone in Rome. I have ordered this white line painted around the Vatican. If he steps over the line I will torture and kill him.”
This began a deadly cat-and-mouse game between the Irish priest and Nazi commandant, a man who ordered a machine gun massacre of Allied prisoners. Known for his courage and compassion, O’Flaherty often sneaked over the white line in various disguises, including that of a coal man covered with dust. Priests, nuns, and lay people worked in secret with the rescue network hiding refugees in convents, monasteries, and private homes.
In June, 1944, Allied forces liberated Rome. More than 6,000 escapees were still alive. Kappler was tried as a war criminal and sentenced to life imprisonment. One person visited him in prison, faithfully once a month. That was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. By the good priest’s example of heroic charity, and through discussions of literature and religion, Kappler had a major conversion and was received into the Catholic faith.
O’Flaherty’s inspiring story was portrayed in a fine major motion picture starring Gregory Peck. The Scarlet and the Black accurately portrays the kindness and courage of this heroic priest.
On October 30, 1963, Monsignor O’Flaherty passed away in his native Ireland. He was 65 years old. Fifty years later, a permanent memorial was unveiled in Killarney. The plaza shows a life-sized statue of the priest striding with prayer book in hand, unafraid and with a smile on his face.