Obituary: Fr Raymond Bruckberger

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Raymond Leopold Bruckberger, monk, writer and cineast: born Murat, Switzerland 10 April 1907; ordained priest 1934; died Fribourg, Switzerland 4 January 1998.

Raymond Bruckberger entered the Dominican order in 1929, when he was aged 22. Many have been surprised to learn that he was still a Dominican. It is rare to find someone who combined such individualism with such a sense of Christianity as a collective form of worship. He was both a revolutionary and a traditionalist, an iconoclast and a devoted believer. It must be added that he was at one and the same time a legendary, heroic figure and a ridiculous exhibitionist.

His finest hour was the Second World War and its aftermath. In 1939, when he was already considered to be somewhat unusual, being a writer, a friend of some well-known intellectuals and interested in the cinema, he asked permission of his superiors to serve in a fighting unit of the French army. This was given, and he was placed under the command of Joseph Darnand, a highly decorated hero of the First World War who had been prominent in certain Fascist movements. The two became friends. Bruckberger was wounded at Chantilly and was taken prisoner.

He escaped in July 1940 and made his way to Nice, where he found Darnand, who had also escaped from his prisoner-of-war camp. They worked together to create a League of Ex-Servicemen, believing that it was through their patriotism that France would recover and would free itself from the control of unworthy politicians. Together they made speeches at the inaugural ceremony of the Legion.

But Bruckberger became increasingly attracted to de Gaulle and repelled by Petain and Vichy. He refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the regime. But if he was going to reject Vichy he believed that he should do so publicly. In May 1941, in the presence of the Bishop of Nice and the prefect, he interrupted a speech that was being made by a spokesman of Vichy on Franco- German friendship, accusing him of misquoting the writer Charles Peguy. As a consequence he was expelled from Nice and made contact with Claude Bourdet and the Resistance.

Bruckberger was arrested in 1942. There was a rumour that he was to be shot or transferred to an extermination camp. When Darnand learned of this he immediately went to Paris and asked the German representative to France, Otto Abetz, to spare his friend. It was probably as a result of this intervention that Bruckberger was sent to prison for only five months.

On his release, Bruckberger took refuge in the Vivarais hills in the Massif Central, where he became close friends with Albert Camus, who was living there. Typically Bruckberger made contact with the cineast Robert Bresson, who had just returned from his prisoner-of-war camp, and he helped him to make the film Les Anges du Peche, with which the writer Jean Giraudoux also collaborated. The subject was a convent, lost in a forest; Bruckberger was able to justify his activities in the production of this film and thereby camouflage his role in the Resistance.

This became all the more important when, at the time when de Gaulle was trying unsuccessfully to persuade a bishop to join the ranks of Free France (by then, officially Fighting France), it was decided that the Resistance movement should have its chaplain. Alexandre Parodi, who was in charge of Gaullist resistance whilst working on a policy of social benefits for Vichy, appointed Bruckberger as chaplain of the Forces Francaises de l'Interieur.

Thus it was, when the population of Paris first rose against the Germans on 19 August 1944, that Bruckberger became a familiar sight, cycling in his white Dominican robes which soon became black with smoke and dirt, going from one site of fighting to another, carrying out his missions as chaplain.

At the same time he was preparing for the triumphant entry of de Gaulle which should include a mass of liberation. He wanted this ceremony to take place in the Church of Notre Dame des Victoires since in this way de Gaulle would avoid all contact with Cardinal Suhard in Notre Dame de Paris. There the Cardinal had received not only Petain but also the German commander in Paris. But de Gaulle let it be known that he intended to go to Notre Dame de Paris. Therefore Bruckberger let it be known that the presence of the Cardinal in his church was undesirable.

Thus the strangest scene of the Liberation occurred on 26 August 1944 when General de Gaulle entered the cathedral and made his way towards the altar. Firing broke out both inside and outside Notre Dame, the General stood upright, many of the crowd behind him lay on the floor for protection, the organ was unable to play because there was no electricity, and in the sacristy the senior clergy of Paris were arguing with Bruckberger as to the propriety of excluding the Cardinal-Archbishop.

After this date Bruckberger enjoyed being a Parisian. He was seen, still wearing his battle-grimy robes, in the Rhumerie Martiniquaise on the Boulevard Saint- Germain, in the company of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He denounced the growing Communist influence. He attacked the Social Catholic Party that had emerged from the Resistance. But he tried to appease some of the more ferocious aspects of the settlement of accounts that was an inevitable part of the Liberation. Notably, when his old friend Darnand was condemned to death by the High Court of Paris in 1945, he attended him in his cell at Fresnes every morning until the day of his execution.

After these years it is difficult to assess his influence. For a time he was Chaplain to the Foreign Legion and served in North Africa. When Georges Pompidou became President of the Republic in 1979 he undoubtedly played a role as spiritual adviser. He intervened in favour of the former Vichy official Paul Touvier, and might well have been instrumental in procuring a pardon for the man who was to be arrested in 1989 and later found guilty of crimes against humanity. He also wrote about the role of the Church in society.

There were many quarrels: with the Pope over the Second Vatican Council, for example. There were many scandals, notably the presence of an American mistress named Barbara, or his holiday on the Greek islands with Albert Camus in 1958, when he dressed as a check-shirted cowboy. For some he became known as "the good-time monk".

He retired to Switzerland in 1962. He continued to produce many books, including Au Diable Pere Bruck ("To the Devil Father Bruck") in 1986.