I was reading The Abomination by Jonathan Holt when something pulled me up short. It’s an upmarket Dan Brown style whodunit set in Venice. Someone – perhaps the Vatican – is behind the assassination of female priests. Watch out lady vicars, Pope Francis is behind you! That was too silly to give me pause. But then an old Italian partisan popped up in the story, remembering how the cowardly local priests ran away from the Nazis during the war. I recall rather different stories about partisans, priests and Nazis in Italy – true stories.
The news that the Vatican had refused a public requiem Mass for an unrepentant Nazi reminded me of one real abomination. The Nazi in question, Erich Priebke was an SS officer in charge of carrying out a reprisal for a partisan attack. On 24 March 1944, 335 people, mainly civilians from a rural Roman suburb, were taken into the tunnels of some disused quarries, forced to keel, and shot individually with a single bullet to the head. One prisoner, who confessed he was a deserter from the Austrian army, was permitted to live. He later recalled the courage of Father Pietro Pappagallo who had been arrested for helping Jews, allies and partisans escape the Nazis. The priest had blessed each victim before they died, knowing that he too would be shot – as indeed he was.
Other similar massacres took place in Italy during the war – did the local priests run away there? In the hill village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, the SS murdered about 560 villagers and refugees on 12 August 1944. The priest Fiore Menguzzo was shot in the church point blank before the hundred parishioners gathered with him were machine-gunned, including pregnant women and children. Finally, in the early autumn of 1944 the Nazis killed seven hundred and seventy civilians from the village of Marzabotto south of Bologna for the support they had given to partisans and resistance fighters. Described as “bandits” 45 of the dead were less than two years old and 110 were less than ten. But many other lives were saved by the parish priest Don Giovanni Fomasini, who was caught burying the victims against Nazis commands, and was shot for his actions, one of five priests the Nazis killed in the area.
Fiction has a nasty way of insinuating its way into claims of being “fact”. As Priebke lies buried with the contempt of the Vatican heaped upon him we should remember not only the abomination he took part in, and others like it, but also the courage of the priests who died with the victims and for them. It’s not enough to uncover scandals to make a better world, the light of the good should also be seen, as an example to us all. We hear a great deal about priests who have erred, less about the good done by the vast majority of the clergy, or the exceptional sacrifices of a few.