It is supposed to be the story of a priestly vocation, but the book The Shadow of His Wings, by Fr. Gereon Goldman reads more like an action thriller. Done right, it would make a fabulous movie – the kind of Mission Impossible movie where every five minutes it seems the hero is done for – but, instead the plot twists and the hero finds himself in yet another incredible situation – the kind of situation where, if these Mission Impossible heroes were Christians, they would be praying the Hail Mary as fast as they could.
Gereon Goldman was born into a large, German Catholic family, the 3rd of 12 children. He freely admits that if there was mischief afoot, he and his brothers were likely to be, if not in the middle of it, at least in the general area. There was so much mischief, in fact, that he and his brothers (the first 10 children were boys,) had a system whereby the first in line for the switch – when their father’s arm was not so tired – was always the last in line the next time.
When Gereon was nine years old, he heard stories from a Franciscan missionary home from Japan and was so fired up and fascinated that he begged the priest to take him along when he returned. The mission priest protested that Gereon’s mother would miss him; Gereon assured the priest that there were enough others at home – she wouldn’t even notice.
He didn’t make it to Japan then, but from that time on, Gereon decided he was going to be a Franciscan missionary. His devilment didn’t subside; it was just re-directed to help others less fortunate or to help those who were threatened by the rising Nazi power. In August 1939, at the age 22, Gereon was drafted straight from the seminary, the day after his final exams in philosophy. He writes: The next three years turned out to be among the most interesting of my life. This sentence also turns out to be a huge understatement.
Gereon ends up in one difficult position after another – most of them beyond the “normal” life-threatening situations one might expect as a solider in the Nazi army. As young recruits, he and his fellow seminarians underwent really diabolical persecution (which continued at every stop along the way); he was extremely bright and so offered an SS officer’s commission, but when asked about his life-philosophy, he wrote a truthful, but imprudent blistering anti-Nazi screed; he was sent to the Russian front; he was arrested as a traitor; he sneaked into Dachau; he got involved with the July 20 plot to kill Hitler; he pulled his gun on a bishop who would not give him the Blessed Sacrament to take back to his men; he was mere yards away from the pounding guns of the allied forces as the British landed in Italy; he was cut off from his men; he was sent to a prison camp in Africa where the prisoners were fiercely pro-Nazi; he was surrounded by a mob who wanted to hang him from a lamp post; he was rousted out of his cell to face a firing squad – it just goes on and on. And the whole time, you can’t see how he is going to get out alive – even though he must have, because he wrote the book!
Before being shipped off to the Russian front, Gereon goes to see Sister Solana May, the sacristan of the convent where, as a boy, he had served the 5 a.m. Mass (except when he was too tired to get up so that he would punch himself in the face to give himself a nose bleed so that he could truthfully say that a bloody nose kept him in bed.) Sister Solana May had been praying for his vocation for 19 years and asked if he were ready to be ordained a priest the next year. Gereon explained that he still had three more years of theology to study and that ordination would be impossible until then.
Sister told him that she and the whole convent had been praying for him for the past 19 years for the intention that at the end of 20 years he would be ordained. “And since Holy Scripture assures us that our prayers are heard, there is no doubt that you will be a priest next year.”
Gereon countered: “When you began to pray, you could not know that this unholy war would break out and all your plans would be changed!”
But Sister answered him: “War? The Bible says nothing of war. It does not say, ‘All these things are true, except in case of war, in which event the Bible has no validity.’ It says our prayers are heard and will be answered. The answer to our prayers does not hinge on a foolish thing like war.”
Poor Gereon tried to be patient and explain that the church required him to finish his theology course before he could be ordained. Sister Solana May told him the pope could dispense him from that. “Today I will begin to pray that you will see the pope in Rome. Then you must ask him boldly for this ordination.”
Sister walked Gereon to the train and as he boarded told him: “I’ve thought it over; you need the help of the Mother of God, the Mother of all priests. And so you will first have to make a pilgrimage to the Mother of God and ask her help. Then all will succeed.”
Gereon waved his orders at Sister and shouted that they were for Russia, not Rome or Lourdes. Sister smiled and told him serenely to pray hard in Lourdes.
I will not spoil the story with the outcome, except to say that throughout the book, the power of prayer – the incredible power of prayer – is always on display and that if you are looking for something both edifying and page-turning, you couldn’t do better than The Shadow of His Wings.