Details about the Erich Priebke funeral are given during an interview with Fr. Petrucci, the SSPX's District Superior of Italy.
The Priebke Funeral: an interview with Fr. Pierpaolo Petrucci
Hosted by Marco Bongi, Italian journalist with the District Superior of Italy.
Several days now after the media “disaster” in relation to the funeral services of the former [SS] commandant Erich Priebke, one of the perpetrators of the terrible massacre of the Ardeatine Caves, we ask you for some conclusive consideration [of the event], for the purpose of definitively dispelling the polemics and the exploitation of it. Indeed, in those heated days there was no lack of superficial reporting and half-truths. Therefore we seek to bring clarity to the matter.
Q. 1. When and by whom was the request made to celebrate the funeral of the deceased?
A. On Monday morning [October 14] the lawyer commissioned by the family to make the funeral arrangements telephoned us to ask about our availability for funeral services scheduled for Tuesday, October 15, with all the necessary authorizations from the civil authorities. The ceremony was to be celebrated in private and was supposed to be a purely religious act, without any ideological exploitation or media amplification. Therefore the utmost discretion was required, which we scrupulously observed.
Q. 2. Given the prohibition imposed by the Vicariate of Rome, why did you agree to the celebration?
A. The vicariate’s refusal to grant a funeral to a baptized person who received the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist—whatever his crimes and sins may have been—is not in keeping with Church law and Catholic doctrine. After we learned that Priebke had been baptized and was receiving the sacraments, that act immediately appeared to us to be a grave injustice to the deceased and his family. Our gesture was also meant to be one of reparation for such a thoughtless decision.
Q. 3. Almost all the news agencies reported that Erich Priebke had never repented of his actions during the Second World War. The Society’s press release, in contrast, speaks about a Catholic who died after being reconciled with God. Can you explain how matters really stand?
A. It seems that there is an intention to cultivate hatred on the part of a certain element in the press that claims the right to decide who can be pardoned and who cannot, dictating laws to the Church in order to impose its own criteria for who has the right to a religious funeral, and sending a lynch mob after those who are unwilling to submit.
Erich Priebke, who was baptized a Protestant, in the post-war years converted to Catholicism with his wife and had his children baptized. Over the course of his life he then received pastoral care from several priests. During his confinement to house arrest, he asked for and obtained in 2002 permission to go to church to attend Holy Mass. Until the end of his life he regularly received the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist.
Upon his return to Italy, on the occasion of the public audience in front of the Military Tribunal of Rome held on April 3, 1996, he read a letter in the presence of the families of the victims, in which he manifested his grief, deploring the horrible act of obedience that he had had to perform in those circumstances:
From the depths of my heart I feel the need to express my condolences for the sorrow of the relatives of the victims of the Ardeatine Caves.... As a believer I have never denied this tragic fact; for me the order to participate in the action was a great personal tragedy.... I think of the dead with reverence and I feel united with the living in their sorrow."
In his final interview, granted in July of this year, in the midst of historical considerations that are certainly debatable, there are moral considerations of the utmost importance. These are the ones that interest a priest. When the journalist asked him whether he was justifying anti-Semitism, Priebke answered:
No,.... I repeat, anti-Semitism means hatred, indiscriminate hatred.... As an old man, deprived of freedom, I have always rejected hatred. I never wanted to hate even those who hated me. I am only talking about the right to criticize and I am explaining the reasons for it."
He rejects the cult of race as a “mistake that led down a path of no return”. Speaking about mass extermination, he declared:
My position is: unconditional condemnation of actions of that sort. All indiscriminate acts of violence against communities, without taking into account the actual individual responsibilities, are unacceptable, to be condemned absolutely."
I see no reason to call into question the sincerity of these statements.
Q. 4. In light of what you have just explained, do you think that Kommandant Priebke was a “public sinner” who ought to have been denied a public funeral?
A. According to the current Code of Canon Law, an ecclesiastical funeral can be denied only to someone who gave no sign of repentance before death. Therefore I do not see how Erich Priebke could be considered unworthy of funeral rites.
Never has there been so much talk in the Church about charity, about love of neighbor as today, especially during this pontificate. But when it is a matter of putting these virtues into practice according to the Gospel, even when it is not politically correct and it is necessary to defy popular opinions and the media, then things are different....
The Church, however, cannot bend her knee to the world unless she wants to earn the rebuke of hypocrisy that Jesus directed at the Pharisees in the Gospel.
The mercy of God goes beyond political affiliations, even the most reprehensible ones, and surpasses even the most serious sins, provided that there is repentance, the one fundamental condition. The Church bases [her judgment] on external acts. A Catholic who shows repentance for his sins has the right to funeral ceremonies. None of us can judge the innermost conscience of a man, but only God, and it is up to Him to make the final ruling. The Catholic religion is one of mercy and forgiveness, and not of hatred or vendetta.
Q. 5. We have seen, however, some prominent ecclesiastical personages acknowledge Priebke’s right to an ecclesiastical funeral.
A. Yes, we have heard a few voices in the wilderness, and that does them honor. I was very pleased to read the statements by Cardinal Cottier as well as the interview with Cardinal Montezemolo, the nephew of the colonel who was killed at the Ardeatine Caves. I was moved then by the testimony of several relatives of the victims who show solidarity after having granted pardon long ago, and who now join in prayer for the deceased. This alone is the Christian attitude.
Q. 6. Was Priebke a Catholic affiliated with the SSPX, or at least did he occasionally attend its chapels?
A. No, I had never met him, nor did he ever attend the services of the Society of St. Pius X. I had read that he had been baptized and that he had received permission to leave house arrest to go to Mass. I knew then that a priest was ministering to him regularly.
Q. 7. Many newspapers also reported that the funeral services had not really been celebrated or else that they had been interrupted. How did things really go in those agitated hours?
A. The remains arrived around 5:30 p.m., but the family members and friends who had been invited to the ceremony could not get in because of the demonstrators. After several attempts were made, the lawyer decided to postpone the funeral, since in those conditions, in his estimation, it was not possible to fulfill the commission that the family had entrusted to him.
At around 7:20 p.m., with around twenty people in attendance, I then celebrated the Mass for the deceased in the absence of the body.
In the meantime the coffin had been placed in a room on the ground floor, where a mortuary had been set up. In the late evening, in order to fulfill my priestly duty, I proposed to the lawyer a blessing of the remains with the funeral ceremony that the Church designates for the end of the [Requiem] Mass. In his presence therefore, and with a few other persons, that ceremony was therefore performed. I had the opportunity to speak about this also in a recent interview granted to Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa.
Q. 8. We consider the reactions from some sectors of the Catholic world to be among the most negative reactions to your decision. We were especially astonished by the rather uncharitable tone taken by the director of the Radio Maria broadcasting station, which more than any other ought to teach what mercy is. The bishop of Albano Laziale also issued very harsh statements against the Society of St. Pius X, going so far as to maintain that it is not part of the Catholic Church. What can you tell us about this?
A. Belonging to the Church is not only something purely juridical. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the first condition for being part of the Mystical Body of Christ is faith. Unfortunately, after the Second Vatican Council, new doctrines were taught by the ecclesiastical authorities that contradicted the constant teaching of the Church. Our Society, which was regularly recognized by the Church on November 1, 1970, was then unjustly persecuted because of its opposition to those changes. Changes that then give rise to behaviors that are contrary to Catholic teaching, such as denying a funeral to a baptized person who dies reconciled with God, in order to conform to political correctness.
Again with respect to authority, the Society of St. Pius X has always opposed those errors, convinced that the greatest service that it can render to the Church is not servile conformity but rather the complete proclamation of Catholic teaching and the denunciation of everything that is opposed to it, even if it is proclaimed by a part of the hierarchy.
To assert that we are not Catholic, especially when it is done by priests who ought to know the teaching of the Church, is a sheer falsehood that might require public reparation.
On the other hand, I am aware that many Catholics and even many bishops judge us without knowing us, often on the basis of prejudices and common opinions. The bishop of Albano, whom every priest of our priory mentions every day in the Canon of the Mass as the local bishop, is always welcome among us and can find out whether in fact we are not part of the Church as he declared, perhaps imprudently.
Q. 9. Other commentators, who obviously were poorly informed, likened your decision to the positions of Bishop Richard Williamson or of Fr. Floriano Abrahamowicz. What can you tell us on this subject?
A. As the District Superior of the Society of St. Pius X in Italy, I have to make it clear that both Bishop Williamson and Fr. Floriano Abrahamowicz were expelled from our Society precisely because some of their positions are incompatible with the vocation of the Society. Their statements in no way represent the official thinking of the Society of St. Pius X. Any comparison is therefore purely gratuitous. Here I must note, furthermore, that some statements touted in the newspapers as mine are likewise not representative of our thinking. God’s mercy excludes no one when there is true repentance.
Q. 10. What was your experience of that afternoon in the community?
A. On the day of the funeral we unfortunately witnessed manifestations of senseless hatred, such as the attack on a hearse with spitting and kicking, in plain sight of a mayor who was wearing the tricolor [i.e., Italian red-white-and-green] sash [i.e., in his official capacity]. I was left speechless by a banner that some of the demonstrators were carrying, with the inscription “The Eternal Father may have forgiven you, but we don’t.”
This funeral was the occasion for an open conflict of two opposed doctrines: on the one hand the teaching of Jesus Christ and of the Church, which is centered on mercy and forgiveness, and on the other hand ideologies that neither know how to pardon the other nor want to. The unchangeable law of Love and Charity and the law of hatred and vendetta, of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.
The law of Christ is the one that we, though unworthy, resolve to follow, far from any ideological polemic.
Q. 11. Finally, some newspapers did not fail to try to foster the image of a St. Pius X community in Albano that is poorly integrated with the local populace, which supposedly does not welcome or appreciate the presence of the priory in that area. Is that truly the case?
A. Our Society has been present here in Albano since 1974. It prepared several generations of children for their First Communion and for Confirmation and conducts works of mercy on behalf of the sick and the poor, to whom it regularly distributes food and clothing. Therefore we have many friends in the populace who have also expressed their solidarity with us in this incident. I refuse to believe that the ferocious crowd that indulged last Tuesday in sectarian hatred in the presence of a dead person’s coffin could possibly be representative of the inhabitants of Albano.
To conclude, I would like to quote a sentence that St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Galatians: “If I yet [still] pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10). I think that this should be the program and the ideal of a man of the Church: always to act in conformity with the teaching of Christ, without ever seeking compromises with the spirit of the world.
1 Erich Priebke, Autobiografia (Rome: Associazione uomo e liberta, 2003), 150, 160, 161, 170.
2 Exclusive interview granted to Francesco Giorgino, after Priebke was sentenced to prison. See YouTube, “Guai ai vinti, storia di Erich Priebke 10/11” [“Woe to the defeated, the story of Erich Priebke 10/11”].
3 CIC (1983) nn. 1184-1185.