I have just read a gripping story. I use the word “gripping” because the story is told in the form of a comic strip and the nature of the comic strip genre means that action, tension and a fast pace have to be paramount. It is called The Shadow of His Wings; a graphic biography of Fr Gereon Goldmann, adapted by illustrator Max Temescu and published by Ignatius Press.
Most of the story is set during World War Two, during which Goldmann, a young German seminarian studying to be a priest in the Franciscan Order, was conscripted into the SS aged 22 and who served as a medical orderly. As well as nursing the sick and wounded, he also gave Communion to dying German Catholic soldiers. After the war he was saved from a firing squad in North Africa and then spent many years as a Franciscan missionary in Japan.
He had an extraordinary life, with several providential escapes from death. What particularly interests me in his story is the way the power of prayer is demonstrated in the life of one individual.
In 1943 Goldmann went home on brief leave to Fulda from the battleground. There he met Sister Solana May, an elderly nun who had taught him to be an altar server as a child. She calmly told him that he would be ordained a priest the following year. Goldmann replied that it was “impossible”, pointing out that when he was drafted he had four more years’ study in the seminary.
Unperturbed, the nun stated, “On the day of your mother’s death [when Goldmann was eight], I began to pray for you, that you should become a priest at the end of 20 years. The entire convent joined me in this devotion and for two decades we have appealed to the Lord on your behalf…Since Holy Scripture assures us that our prayers are heard, there is no doubt that you will be a priest next year.”
Goldmann was still entirely sceptical, saying there was a war on and that Church law would not permit it. Sister Solana made short shrift of this: “War? The Bible does not say ‘Prayers are answered except during a foolish war, in which event God is powerless’… The matter is very simple. You will see the pope. He made the laws, he can also dispense from them.” She then directed Goldmann to “pray to the Mother of God in Lourdes. Then you will see the Pope in Rome and you must ask him boldly for your ordination.”
By an amazing “coincidence” some months later, the seminarian was given special duties in France, at Pau, near Lourdes. And later that year, en route to the Front, he found himself in Rome. The highly improbable circumstances predicted by his elderly spiritual benefactress came true and he was ordained in 1944.
Fr Goldmann’s story simply illustrates what all Christians know: that prayer is powerful and God always answers it (though sometimes in unpredictable ways).It also shows us that God is present even during the most evil or tragic events, such as war; indeed, the Christian faith provides the only meaningful answer to the problem of evil. Reading the comic strip of Goldmann’s life – which I would recommend as a Confirmation present, especially to a teenage boy – is inspiring.
I make this obvious statement because our Book Club (sigh) has directed us to read Voltaire’s Candide for our next meeting. Never having read this famous text of the Enlightenment before, I am repulsed by its tedious ridicule and relentless mockery of the Church.
Ignoring the Christian meaning of hope, yet rejecting the facile optimism that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”, as Dr Pangloss had taught his pupil, Candide, Voltaire paints a picture of wholesale moral anarchy, interspersed by the seemingly random cruelty of men and of nature. Escape from these horrors, “we must cultivate our garden”, is his only solution.
It is a persuasive fable, especially for modern atheists who have no answer for the problem of evil. For Christians the answer will always lie with the Man of Sorrows, the figure on the Cross, God himself, to whom Fr Goldmann, who witnessed during the war so many traumatic and terrible events, chose to consecrate his life.