The death of a martyr and the birth of the atomic age.

Japanese Catholics pray for victims of Nagasaki last week at Urakami Cathedral (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

In the small hours last Friday morning, August 9, I listened to a programme on the World Service about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The one dropped on Hiroshima had occurred a few days earlier, on August 6. I feel a particular interest in Nagasaki as my son spent a gap year there some years ago, in order to learn Japanese. He had taught in a local school and some of his pupils had parents and grandparents who remembered that terrible day when their world was literally wiped out.

I am aware of the official rationale for using these appalling weapons of mass destruction: it was the only way to make the Japanese surrender; more lives would thus be saved; the end justified the means and so on. The late Leonard Cheshire VC, a saintly man for whom I have a great admiration, had been an official observer on the plane that flew its deadly mission to Nagasaki. He used to argue this way. But it is a Catholic principle that you cannot do evil – and what could be more evil than deliberately targeting a large civilian population for destruction? – that good may come. The military historian Sir Max Hastings has pointed out that seeing the effects of atomic warfare has made the world hesitate before going down that road again. I still think that President Harry S Truman, who gave the fatal order, was wrong.
Last Friday was also the feast day of a fascinating woman and a wartime saint: Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Born Edith Stein into a Jewish household in Breslau, she became an atheist in the course of her university studies but was then was converted overnight, on reading the autobiography of the great 16th century Spanish Carmelite saint, Teresa of Avila. “This is the truth”, she declared – a rare and dramatic encounter across the centuries between a soul open to grace and another soul, the Spanish mystic, who had already experienced the fire of divine love.

In his Volume 1 of A Homiliary for the Roman Liturgy, entitled The Sanctoral Cycle (published this year by Gracewing at £12.99), Fr Aidan Nichols OP writes about Teresa Benedicta, then a Carmelite nun who had left Germany for the safety, as she thought, of a Dutch convent: “Negotiations to have her transferred to a Carmel in neutral Switzerland were so protracted by administrative red tape that time ran out. The open letter of the Dutch bishops protesting against the deportation of the Jews of the Netherlands triggered in reprisal a Nazi round-up of specifically Catholic Jews… With her sister Rosa, who had followed her into the Church and was a Carmelite tertiary, she was despatched to the notorious Auschwitz extermination centre.” There she died, soon after arrival, on August 9 1942.

This of course is the main reason why Pope Pius XII, as William Oddie argues in his recent excellent blog, was forced to maintain an official “silence” over the Nazi atrocities, while working tirelessly behind the scenes to save as many Jewish lives as he could. What else could he do in the face of the German terror surrounding him and all Europe, and the certain reprisals that would have followed if he had publicly denounced the enemy’s behaviour? His powerlessness to do so must have been Pius’ martyrdom.

August 9: an auspicious date and an inauspicious one; the death of a martyr and the birth of the atomic age.