Hugh O’Flaherty: The Vatican Pimpernel

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 12, 2010

Daniel Heisey's article on Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty (1898 – 1963) in the current issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review reminds me to recommend a fine movie called the The Scarlet and the Black. It stars Gregory Peck as O’Flaherty, Christopher Plummer as his Nazi nemesis Col. Herbert Kappler, and Sir John Gielgud as Pope Pius XII. The film, which was made for television in 1983, is based on a biographical novel by J. P. Gallagher entitled The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican. Therein lies a tale.

Hugh Joseph O’Flaherty was raised a strong Catholic in County Kerry, Ireland, in the midst of the Troubles, one of several periods of persecution of Irish Catholics by British Protestants, in the course of which some of O'Flaherty's friends were killed. His mother came from a farming family; his father was a policeman turned golf pro. O’Flaherty grew up hard-working, tough, smart as a whip, charming, a boxer and a golfer. He took all these traits first into the local seminary in Killarney and then to the Urban College of Propaganda Fide in Rome.

Ordained in 1925 and made a monsignor in 1934, he was hoping to be a missionary, but his superiors sent him to foreign shores in a slightly different capacity—as a diplomat. He served in Egypt, the Caribbean and Czechoslovakia until 1938, when he returned to Rome and became a notary in the Holy Office, serving under Msgr. Alfred Ottaviani in what is now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A self-effacing man despite his success, Msgr. O’Flaherty focused on his priesthood even on the golf course, where he realized that a stone storage shed had once been a country chapel. He restored it with his own hands, saying Mass and hearing confessions there every week.

Msgr. O'Flaherty became a recognizable figure from his long walks around Rome, offering a kind word and a helping hand to all he met. This made him intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of the city. Later he even co-authored a 600-page English-language guidebook for use by English-speaking pilgrims during the Holy Year of 1950. Of course he had already made numerous diplomatic contacts with the Roman aristocracy. Such a deep knowledge of the city stood him in good stead when it came time to save both Jews and English Protestant prisoners of war during the Nazi occupation of Italy in World War II.

The POW's were suddenly released when Italy changed sides, but they faced immediate recapture from the Germans. The young Englishmen remembered O’Flaherty’s frequent charitable visits to their camp under Mussolini. Almost by instinct they fled to the Irish Catholic priest for protection. As their numbers increased, O’Flaherty would stand daily on the steps of St. Peter’s praying his Office and awaiting soldiers and airman from the POW camps, whom he would hide in his own residence, other Vatican buildings, or the homes of Roman aristocrats until they could be gotten safely away. When the Germans under Colonel Kappler caught on to him and threatened his life, he resorted to disguise after disguise—coal man, street sweeper, even a nun—to continue his work, taking advantage of his good physical shape and knowledge of Rome to elude capture when the pursuit got hot. Hence he was dubbed the Vatican's Scarlet Pimpernel.

If Msgr. O’Flaherty had to overcome his Irish Catholic prejudices to help English Protestant servicemen (“God has no country,” he would say), perhaps it was easier for him to do the same for the Jews of Rome. When Col. Kappler extorted fifty kilograms of gold from the Jewish community as a condition for freedom, O’Flaherty helped them collect what they needed. Then, hearing that they were going to be rounded up anyway, he found places for thousands of Jews to hide, including 500 in the Vatican alone. Of Rome’s 5,730 Jews, only 1,000 could be found by the Nazis. A chilling statistic demonstrates the importance of O’Flaherty’s efforts: Of these thousand, 990 died at Auschwitz. But nearly 5,000 escaped unscathed.

After the Americans liberated Rome, Msgr. O’Flaherty found havens for European refugees, flew to South Africa to assist Italian prisoners of war, and flew to Israel to help Jewish settlers whom he had assisted earlier. Once the tide turned, he received decoration after decoration as a hero from both the Pope and multiple heads of state, all of which he accepted graciously and then immediately disposed of by sending them to his sister in Ireland. Meanwhile, he quietly visited Herbert Kappler in his post-war prison almost monthly, leading the former Nazi officer to convert to Catholicism in 1959.

Hugh O’Flaherty experienced a stroke in 1960, went home to Ireland, and died in 1963. Gallagher’s biographical novel appeared in 1967. It has been reprinted by Ignatius Press under the same title as the film. Also, Brian Fleming published a new biography just last year. The 1983 movie is not to be confused with a 1993 BBC mini-series of the same name, which covers a completely different subject. The movie, while not perfectly accurate in every detail, comes very close to reality for a dramatization. It is, to put the matter simply, one of the most enjoyable and inspiring dramatic adventure films I have ever seen. It runs for a substantial 143 minutes. And the best thing? In substance, it is all true.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 12, 2010 10:42 PM ET USA

    I've since learned that Ignatius Press reprinted J. P. Gallagher's original biographical novel under the same title as the movie, and I've both updated the blog entry and added the link to the book at the end.

  • Posted by: amber3287 - Mar. 12, 2010 7:45 PM ET USA

    I recently watched the movie with my husband and it was great. I'm glad to read that it is so true to the real story. I wish the original book was more available though!