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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Friday, November 22, 2002  
Cheers for Archbishop Philip Hannan

With JPII, St. Louis Cathedral, 1987

JFK's eulogist in 1963 was then-Bishop Philip Hannan, who has remained outspoken on matters of church and state. Herewith, a salute to "the Jumping Padre," chaplain to paratroopers at the Battle of the Bulge; archbishop of New Orleans from 1965-89, and at the recent bishops' conference, a singular voice of common sense:

"Now, I would like to make one point clear," Hannan said. "I have seen the results of the atomic bomb. I have seen also and had the opportunity to empty two concentration camps near the end of World War II. I would like to assure all of you that if we allow some despotic power to rule the earth, or to rule even a portion of it, we are in terrible shape, both for our religion as well as for the protection of all of our rights, particularly in the use of nuclear or atomic weapons."

From another account:

It was too much for retired Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans to take. As his younger brother bishops Tuesday moved toward telling President Bush how deeply skeptical they are of the morality of a war against Iraq, Hannan, at 89 still the peaceable fraternity's most reliable hawk, rose and argued the other side.

When the globe's only superpower "allows some despotic power to rule the earth, or parts of the earth, we're in terrible shape" morally and politically, he told an audience of about 250.

Hannan is the senior archbishop in the United States and something of a legend among his colleagues for his relative conservatism in a generally liberal group. As a seminarian in Rome in the late 1930s, he watched Hitler and Mussolini gather power, and as a paratroops chaplain saw the devastation of World War II.

Those experiences shaped his appreciation of military strength, applied early, to oppose tyranny. For that reason, decades later, he was among a tiny handful of bishops who unsuccessfully resisted publication of a Catholic bishops' document deploring the nuclear arms race as immoral.

On Tuesday, he made much the same argument, reminding the bishops that he spoke as one who had stood in the filth of two Nazi concentration camps.

After his speech, Hannan noted that Bush has gathered United Nations support for opposing Iraq. And he said the precision weapons demonstrated in Afghanistan probably would keep Iraqi civilian casualties to a minimum.

But more to the point, Hannan lumped Saddam Hussein with communists and Nazis as notorious tyrants -- and linked him with the terrorists who attacked the United States.

"You finally come down to a situation where they can enslave whomever they wish, whomever they think is against their particular code, and that's what we cannot tolerate," he said.

"They're not realistic because (they've) never seen what is the result of absolute disregard of human rights," Hannan said of the other bishops. "They've never seen it; they don't know what the hell they're talking about."

From a profile of the archbishop done in 1999, when he was 86:

“I’ve had a very fortunate life. I wanted to be a paratrooper. I was and I survived. I’ve been blown off my feet by artillery. But the Lord has been real good to me. I owe it to the Lord.”

Because of the gathering storm of World War II, no one in Archbishop Hannan’s family was allowed to attend his ordination at the North American College chapel on Dec. 8, 1939, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. He celebrated his first Mass in the Catacombs of Priscilla in front of three people.

“There was a chapel there that has the oldest fresco of the Mass being celebrated,” Archbishop Hannan said. “It dates back to the year 100.”

His four years in Rome (1936-1939) as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Washington shaped his world view. He witnessed at a chillingly close distance the evils of Nazism and fascism. His mother, who was half-German, and his brother Bill came over to visit him during the summer of 1937, and they visited Germany, where boys from the age of 8 were seen wearing military-style uniforms and “everyone was Heil-Hitlering.”

“My brother and I were registering at this hotel and in came two German Nazi officers who simply elbowed my brother away,” Archbishop Hannan said. “My brother was feisty and pushed them back. I grabbed him and said, ‘Bill, my gosh, we can’t fight the whole German army.’ The manager saw the incident, and that night he came to our room with the keys to his car and offered the car to us for our entire trip.”

A few years later, Father Hannan was the Catholic chaplain of the 82nd Airborne paratroopers who were so instrumental in winning the Battle of the Bulge. He would celebrate Mass for the troops on the lee side of a hill to better protect his soldiers from artillery fire.

“It was very impressive,” Archbishop Hannan said. “The Catholic men always insisted on kneeling in the snow to receive Communion. Never would they stand up. Of course, they had a lot of incentive (to stay low).”

But what remains one of the most significant memories as a priest occurred in 1945, when he was with the American forces who liberated a German concentration camp of women. A Polish woman, then 28, had spent six years in the camp and had become the women’s spiritual leader.

“When they were taken into the concentration camp, they had taken away all personal items, including any religious articles,” Archbishop Hannan said. “She was determined to have a rosary. They were only given one meal a day, a piece of black bread and some soup. She decided not to eat the bread. She found a string and she attached little pellets of the bread as beads. Then she found a pin and formed a cross.

“Every night after the guards were gone, she would lead everyone in saying the rosary. After she told me her story, she held up the rosary and said in German, ‘Bless it.’ I told her, ‘God has blessed this for six years.’ She said to me, ‘You’re a priest. You’re supposed to bless rosaries.’ I blessed the rosary.”

From another 1999 profile, on the occasion of his 60th jubilee, these comments on how war shaped his view of the Blessed Sacrament:

The importance of the Eucharist to Archbishop Hannan was reemphasized during the war when he served as an Army chaplain for the 504th Parachute Regiment of the 82nd Airborne.

“In the bitterest days of the Bulge Campaign with the temperature near zero, the men insisted on kneeling in the snow to receive Holy Communion,” Archbishop Hannan recalled. “Later, during the Second Vatican Council, I often thought of them as the church decided to give the faithful the option of receiving Communion in the hand, on the tongue, standing or kneeling.

“The paratroopers always used the option to kneel. Today, some priests forget or ignore that the faithful are given the option to receive Holy Communion on their tongue, in the hand, kneeling or standing.”

The Eucharist also was the focal point of those who survived a German concentration camp that Archbishop Hannan helped to liberate in 1945. In the prison camp for men near the Elbe River, “only about a third of the prisoners survived,” the archbishop recalled.

Two Belgian priests were among the prisoners, Archbishop Hannan said, one who died just before the camp was liberated the other who was barely alive.

“He was too weak to stand or walk in his dying hours,” Archbishop Hannan said. “I asked him how he survived over five years in the concentration camp. He said, ‘The Mass. We bribed a guard to give me wine. Late at night, with a few drops of wine and some bread, I always celebrated the Eucharist.’ That was his service to all the prisoners – bringing the grace from the presence of Christ in the Eucharist to all the prisoners in his priestly service. He died the night after his liberation.”


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