Perhaps the hardest, and most controversial, of Jesus’s teachings are his commands to not “resist” evildoers, and to love our enemies. These words are found in Matthew 5:38-48, our text for Sunday, September 21.
One person who overcame his hatred of the enemy was Father Hugh O’Flaherty, a Vatican priest in Rome during World War 2. During the war, Colonel Herman Kappler commanded the Nazi SS forces occupying Rome. Kappler was a harsh overlord. When a bomb killed 32 German soldiers in Rome, Kappler responded by executing 320 prisoners.
Father O’Flaherty ran an underground network that aided escaped Allied prisoners of war and Jews. One day Kappler decided to apprehend this troublesome priest when he made a visit outside his Vatican enclave. But discovering the plot, O’Flaherty escaped through a coal shute. Kappler tried other ploys to capture and kill the priest, but was always outsmarted.
After the war, Colonel Kappler was tried, convicted for war crimes, and sentenced to life imprisonment for his slaughter of the 320. Only one person ever visited Kappler in prison. For years, almost every month, Father Hugh O’Flaherty would call on the former Nazi. Though he risked his life to save many whose lives were threatened by Kappler, the priest also knew that he was called to forgive and love his enemy.
Loving this enemy was not easy for Father O’Flaherty. To the end of his life, he was marked by the pain and horror perpetrated by the former Nazi colonel. Yet Father O’Flaherty found the resources to visit him and show him the love of Christ. In March, 1959, former SS colonel Herman Kappler was baptized into Christ by Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.
Loving our own enemies–that is, seeking their welfare regardless of how they have treated us and how we may feel about them–is not easy either. But Jesus seems to think it is possible for ordinary people who have begun to live in God’s reign to do so. And as Father O’Flaherty’s story shows, sometimes our effort to love our enemies leads to reconcilation and their transformation.