The Press Saturday, January 17th 1998

There are some stories so startling, strange, and profound that newspapers can only squeeze them onto the obituaries page. The life of Fr Raymond Bruckberger, OP, as revealed on the Independent's obituaries page, seems to have been written by Anthony Burgess, though his obituarist was the distinguished historian Douglas Johnson — and had it been almost anyone else, one would have been tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a spoof. Bruckberger was successively a monk, a writer, and an enthusiast of the cinema. In 1939, when he was 32, he was given permission by his superiors to serve in a fighting unit of the French Army. "Given permission" is nice. One imagines his superiors would not have been devastated if the accidents of war had robbed them of Brother Raymond.

He displayed a talent for fighting unusual in 2oth Century monks, was wounded and taken prisoner during the fall of France, but escaped after a month and made his way to Nice, in the Vichy territory. There he was re-united with Joseph Darnand, his former commanding officer, a fascist like so many French Catholic idealists. Together, the two men founded a "League of ex-Servicemen", whose patriotism was supposed to purify France from the unworthy intrigues of politicians.

But by 1942 his sympathies had moved towards de Gaulle. He was imprisoned by the Germans, and only Darnand's intervention rescued him. He took off for the hills of the Massif Central, where he met and befriended Albert Camus and helped to make a film, Les Anges du Péché. While making this film, he added to his duties the clandestine post of Chaplain to the Free French Forces of the Interior. It was in that capacity that he attended the liberation of Paris, cycling around the city while the fighting rage, in Dominican robes stained with smoke, dirt, and blood, until the time came for the Mass of Liberation in Notre Dame, when he took it upon himself to lock the Cardinal Archbishop Suhard out of his own church, as a punishment for receiving the German commander there.

During the service, there was an exchange of gunfire inside the church (for purely secular reasons). The congregation, all but De Gaulle, threw themselves on the floor. Bruckberger continued to keep the Cardinal out. After the war, he served as Chaplain to the foreign legion, and seems to have been the man who secured a pardon for Paul Touvier, one of the most scandalous Vichy collaborators to survive the score-settling at the end of the war, in which Bruckberger's friend and rescuer Joseph Darnand had been executed.

The penultimate paragraph of Johnson's obituary is too exquisite to paraphrase:

"There were many quarrels: with the Pope over the Second Vatican Council, for example. There were many scandals, notably the presence of an American mistress called Barbara, or his holiday on the Greek island with Albert Camus in 1958, when he dressed as a check-suited cowboy."

I do not think there are an British Dominicans quite like that, though I know one Jesuit who was volunteered to Latin America by Curial enemies in the hope that he would get killed; and one, distinguished Dominican philosopher who nearly had us all thrown out of the Polish Hearth Club, first by expounding the doctrine of the Trinity until we laughed so loudly we upset the other drinkers, and then, for exquisitely orthodox motives, offering to shoot the Pope.

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