The following is a true story. Some of the names have been changed to protect the privacy of people involved. Our friend, Father Brian, died in Austria two years ago while giving a retreat on Divine Mercy.
The children are lying on the living room rug, their stomachs distended with turkey and Christmas cake. Our guest, Father Brian, turns a beaming smile on them, lights his pipe, and seats himself with a sigh on the old rocking chair beside the wood-stove. He is content just to soak up the family atmosphere and listen to our children’s after-dinner banter.
“Tell us a story, Father,” they cry before long. The priest has a reputation for stories. More than that, he has all the time in the world for children.
“What kind of a story?” he asks.
“A Christmas story!”
“Well,” he says, pondering, his eyes growing thoughtful, “I think I do know a true story about a gift that was given on a Christmas day many years ago. But no, it’s too strange.”
Now they’re hooked. “Yes, yes, that one! That one!”
“It’s full of grown ups,” he murmurs, “Nazis and war and things like that.”
“Yes, yes,” they squirm with anticipation.
His eyes go far away and his brow furrows. He rocks back and forth slowly, slowly, and the room grows quieter.
“I’m quite serious, when I tell you,” he says, “that this is a true story. I saw parts of it with my own eyes. I lived with the family to whom it happened.”
Then he begins…
During the Nazi era there lived in a small city in Germany a devout Catholic family by the name of Schmidt. They attended daily Mass and prayed the Rosary each evening after supper, and the day did not end without the father of the family, Karl, reading a psalm from the Holy Scriptures. Karl was the spiritual head of the family. He was a gentle, kindly man, noted for his subtle sense of humor and a love of youth. He was a high school teacher and was so well respected by his students that many of them accompanied him to Mass each morning before classes. He read to them the papal encyclicals against National Socialism and spoke strongly against the outrages committed by the Brownshirts. Then when Hitler was elected by a large majority, Karl was appalled. He pointed out to his students that only a minority of Catholics had voted for the new leader. Catholicism is a religion built upon objective truths, he taught them, and no Catholic is permitted to vote for an evil law or an evil ruler, even if they appeared to be lesser evils than, for example, economic or political instability. One cannot compromise a part of the Faith without the eventual collapse of the whole, he told them.
During the following years when the Nazi party penetrated to every level of life in the country, Catholics were continually challenged to pay the price of standing for their principles. Karl was warned by the local Gestapo that if he did not cease taking the youth to Mass he would be conscripted into the army and sent to the Russian front. He continued as before, and one by one his students dropped away from those early morning sojourns to the Bread of Life. Some of them, not many, joined the Hitler Youth. Others merely wished to avoid any potential conflict with the State. Karl was soon abandoned by everyone except his teenage children, who chose to accompany him to daily Mass well into the war years.
In that city there was a famous Dominican friar who was renowned for his fervor and courage. He had preached relentlessly against the Nazi ideology for many years, but he was so beloved by the populace of the city that the Gestapo had hesitated to arrest him. When he was eventually arrested and hung, the Dominican order begged for his body and the Gestapo grudgingly returned it. The priest’s body was covered with the marks of horrible tortures. The Order was warned that the funeral and burial must be a private affair. Public notices were posted saying to the effect that any of the public who attended would be interrogated. Karl Schmidt was known to be a close friend of the dead friar. He was personally warned that if he attended the funeral he would be arrested; if lucky, he would be let off lightly by being conscripted into the army and sent to the Russian front.
Needless to say, Karl attended the funeral Mass. The following morning he was arrested and found himself conscripted into the German army as a foot soldier. If he refused to go to the Russian front, they told him, his entire family would be sent, along with him, to a concentration camp. He went to Russia and not long after was captured by the Soviet Army. He remained in their concentration camps for seven long years, working as a slave laborer. There, he was subjected to a constant bombardment of political indoctrination. When the war ended he expected to be released, but Russia had lost so many men that she was suffering a severe labor shortage. The Germans were “invited” to remain as Soviet citizens upon condition of becoming members of the Communist Party. Karl refused. The political indoctrinators tried to convince the prisoners that their families in Germany no longer cared about them. Each Saturday they were ordered to write a letter home. During those seven years they received not one reply.
Some of Karl’s fellow prisoners became communists and stayed. Others refused to comply and, like Karl, they remained prisoners. His faith sustained him, especially his deep conviction that God would bring great good out of the tragedy which had befallen his family. He especially entrusted his life to the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God. His Bible had been confiscated and there was no priest to say Mass, but he prayed the Rosary daily. He taught others to pray, to trust, and to deny the temptation to despair. In the early l950′s he and other prisoners were exchanged for a group of Russians imprisoned in the West, and now found themselves miraculously liberated. They returned to their homes, and later formed an association of ex-prisoners. In comparing notes over the following years, they discovered that none of their families had ever received a letter from them while they were in the Gulag Archipelago. The entire correspondence had been a deliberate trick by their brainwashers.
There was one exception, however. Karl’s family had not received the fifty-two letters a year that he had written. But four times a year a letter of his would arrive at the Schmidt home. Invariably it was stamped with the date of a major feast of the Mother of God. Four times a year throughout those many years Our Lady made sure that Karl’s family knew he was under her care.
In the final weeks of the war, while Karl was in Russia, his teenage sons received notice that they were to be conscripted into the German army. They hid wherever they could. The youngest, fifteen year old Josef, ran to a swamp and stood waist deep in icy water for two days, avoiding capture. When he returned surreptitiously to the city he was overjoyed to find that it was full of Canadian soldiers, and that the German army was retreating towards Berlin. Arriving at his house he found his mother weeping and the family belongings in ruins.
“Gestapo?” he asked.
“No, Canadian soldiers,” replied his mother in anguish. “Because you boys and your father were missing they thought you were in the army or S.S. They broke things. They kept calling us Nazi’s.”
This was the cruelest irony of all for the Schmidt family.
“Why did they do this, Josef? They took many things, they even took your father’s camera.”
The family was heartbroken over the loss. The camera was Karl’s prized possession. If he had one weakness it was a passion for small ingenious gadgets. This was no ordinary camera. It was an experimental model with two apertures and many lenses which simultaneously exposed a photographic film from different angles. When the film was developed the resulting photograph could be placed in a special viewer, and it amazingly appeared as a three dimensional image. The invention was relatively unknown at the time and only a few models had ever been made of it. The soldier who had taken the camera did not understand its peculiarities, and because of that he neglected to take the viewer.
Here Father Brian stopped his story to relight his pipe and to recollect his thoughts.
“Father,” asks one of our more perceptive children, “Is this one of your true stories that never actually happened? You know, like the idea is true but . . . ”
He smiles. He has been caught before using one of his favorite literary devices. But this time he is not guilty. His face grows serious again and the children fall into silence.
“No, this is a true true story. Josef Schmidt is a friend of mine. We were in the seminary together. I lived with his mother and father while I was studying in Germany during the 1960′s. I saw the letters from Russia, I read the dates and I checked them. They were all great feasts of Our Lady. And the rest of the story I can vouch for, because I saw it with my own eyes.”
Not too long ago Fr. Josef Schmidt was visiting Fr. Brian at a famous Canadian university. Fr. Brian, who is a doctor of Theology, teaches there. They were joined in the faculty lounge by a well-known theologian. Fr. Brian had a great deal of difficulty with this man’s theories, and they had debated often. Father considered him a troubled soul. He took care to show respect to the man himself, but he was merciless with his ideas. As a consequence the famous theologian did not much like Fr. Brian.
Nevertheless, they fell into conversation after Fr. Brian introduced Fr. Josef.
“You are German, I see,” said the theologian. “You are a clever people. I must show you a marvelous invention that I got when I was in Germany after the war.”
He quickly departed for his office and returned five minutes later, smiling, with an imposing piece of glass, stainless steel, buttons and knobs. He showed it to them proudly.
Fr. Josef stared at it without a word. The professor described its mechanics and its optics with some enthusiasm.
“Where did you get it?” asked Fr. Josef.
“Oh . . . during the war I was with the Canadian army when we went into Germany. I stayed with a family there. We got to be fairly close. They gave this to me when I left.”
As Josef turned the camera over and over in his hands he asked the name of the city where the man had got it. The professor told him. It was Father Josef’s city.
“It’s a pity, though,” said the theologian, “This thing is a three-D camera and I guess they forgot to give me the viewer that goes with it.”
Later, when they were alone, Fr. Josef mentioned to Fr. Brian that his father had once owned a camera like that.
“That’s quite a coincidence,” said Fr. Brian.
“I think it’s not a coincidence at all. I think it is a God-incident. That is my father’s camera. There is a tiny brass plate on the bottom with his initials engraved on it. K.S.”
“What are you going to do? Should we go right now and confront him!”
“No, let’s wait a while and pray. I’m asking myself what my father would do. I must write to him. And there’s another question . . . what would Christ do in this situation?”
The children interject here. They bring Fr. Brian to a full stop with their protests and questions. They think that bad people, especially proud, bad people should get what they deserve. They want justice! They want the theologian punished for his theft and his lies. They want him shamed! Father Brian smiles. He has the children exactly where he wants them. He goes on with the story:
A few months later, the two priests were together once again. It was Christmas Eve and Fr. Josef had just arrived in the foyer of the college to pick up Fr. Brian. They were on their way that night to celebrate midnight Mass at a nearby convent of cloistered nuns. These ladies lived in a ramshackle house in what had become an inner-city slum. Their community was small, poor, and populated mostly by old women religious. They prayed many hours every day. They fed the poor. They were not intellectuals like most of the people in Fr. Brian’s world, nor like Fr. Brian himself. But they had the most extraordinary gifts of wisdom. Astounding, really, for most of them were rather poorly educated. Not a one of them had a university degree. But they were joyful people and very good at listening, though somewhat short on therapies or psychology. They had a curiously effective psychology and therapy of their own. If you told them something, they prayed about it. Things usually changed after you asked them to say a word to the Lord. The two priests loved them. These women’s lives were a banquet laid out for anyone who might want to come and celebrate. Few people did these days.
Fr. Brian had not seen Fr. Josef for many weeks. He asked him if he had done anything about the theologian and the stolen camera.
“I’ve done the really important things,” he replied, “I wrote to my father, and then I talked to the sisters. They know the professor quite well by reputation. They’re praying very fervently for him. They have been praying for his conversion for years . . . .”
Just then, the famous theologian bustled through the lobby, and with a wave of his hand shouted, “Merry Christmas.”
Fr. Josef called, “Do you have a moment, professor?”
The professor checked his watch and frowned, “Only a minute, Father, I’m on my way to a faculty party. I’m already late. Why don’t you come along? I’ll buy you a whiskey! God knows, we could use one! I’ve been driving hard all week with P and D sessions and inter-departmental warfare.”
The two priests nodded sympathetically.
“No, no thank you, we have to be on our way,” stammered Fr. Josef, “But I have something . . . .”
The priest’s hands trembled as he placed a small package into the hands of the professor.
“It’s for you,” he said gently, “The man who gave you the camera says to you, God bless you. He says that he forgot to give you the viewer that goes with it.”
With that, Fr. Josef bowed and departed without another word, leaving the professor to unwrap the gift.
And here Fr. Brian ends the story, leaving the children to ponder what it means.
Michael O’Brien, father of six, is a painter and writer. He is the author of several books, notably the best-selling novel Father Elijah and his examination of the paganization of contemporary children’s culture, A Landscape With Dragons: the Battle for Your Child’s Mind. You may visit him at his website www.studiobrien.com.