Advent is a prophetic time.

Prophets tell the, sometimes uncomfortable, truth. Prophets call people to conversion. To be converted is to recognize and return to the truth.

Hélène Berr was a young Jewish woman during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Between 1942 and 1944 she kept a journal that was published in English in 2008 as The Journal of Hélène Berr.

Hélène died in April 1945 in Bergen-Belsen five days before liberation. During her final years in Paris Hélène stood by helplessly as one after another of her Helene Berryfriends, family and neighbours were deported. She experienced firsthand the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated against her people. She witnessed the indifference to the Jewish plight exhibited by so many non-Jewish members of French society and the world community.

As young as she was Hélène Berr was a prophet. Her journal stands as a stinging rebuke to the human community’s indifference to suffering and the dreadful atrocities of which we are capable when people abandon their humanity.

On 11 October 1943 Hélène lashed out in her journal against the Roman Catholic Church for its inaction in coming to the defense of the Jewish people of France.

These are the words of a twenty-two-year-old Jewish woman whose life was systematically whittled away until she had lost everything she held dear in the external world.

Hélène’s words may lack some of the nuance that might have come with age. But 1943 in Paris was no time for nuance; it was a time for truth-telling. Her prophetic words are not narrowly sectarian.  Although they may appear to be an attack on the Roman Catholic Church, her vision was much bigger. Her words are a scathing indictment of anyone who purports to follow a religion of love and yet divides the world into people who are deemed worthy of care and those who can be ignored or destroyed with impunity.

Hélène was a prophet rooted in the Jewish tradition. Her voice calls us to conversion. She challenges us to look deeply at our lives and face honestly how we might more authentically embody the faith of love we claim to follow.


In her journal entry for Monday 11 October Hélène wrote:

Maman’s anger had turned against Mme Agache. And, through her, against the inertia of the Catholics. And she was quite right. Catholics no longer have the freedom to follow their conscience, they do what their priests tell them to do. And the latter are weak, often cowardly and unintelligent. If there had been a mass uprising of Christians against these persecutions, would it not have won the day? I am sure it would have done. But the Christians would have had to protest against the war in the first place, and they weren’t able to do that. Is the Pope worthy of God’s mandate on earth if he is an impotent bystander to the most flagrant violations of Christ’s laws?

Do Catholics deserve the name of Christians when, if they applied Christ’s teaching, religious difference, or even racial difference, would not exist?

And when they say: The difference between you and us is that we believe the Messiah has come already, and you are still waiting. But what have they done with their Messiah? They’re as evil as men were before he came. They crucify Christ every day. And if Christ were to return to earth, would he not answer them with the same words as before? Who knows if his fate would not be exactly the same?

On Saturday I reread the chapter about the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. No, Christ would no longer be wanted, because he would give men back their freedom of conscience, and that is too hard for them to bear. “Tomorrow, I will have you burned”, the Grand Inquisitor tells them.

On Saturday I also read the Gospel according to St. Matthew; I want to speak the whole truth here, why should I hide it? What I found in the words of Christ was no different from the rules of conscience which I have instinctively tried to obey myself. It seemed to me that Christ belongs much more to me than he does to some good Catholics I could mention. I sometimes used to think I was nearer to Christ than many Christians were, but now I can prove it.

And what’s surprising about that? Should anyone ever be anything except a disciple of Christ? The whole world should be Christian, yes it should, if you have to use labels. But not Catholic, not what men have done with Christianity. From the beginning there has been only one stream. But unfortunately, wherever you turn, incomprehensible pettiness stops people seeing that. On the one hand, there were those who rejected Christ, despite his having come for everyone’s sake, and those people weren’t “the Jews”, since at that time everyone was Jewish; they were just stupid, nasty people (nowadays you could just as well call them “Catholic”). And their descendants persevered on their narrow path and took pride in their perseverance: they became what are now called “the Jews”. On the other hand, there were those who adopted Christ; at the start they were men of conviction and pure heart, but later on they made him their personal property, even though they had slipped back into being as before. …

As I read the Gospel I was struck by the word convert. We have given it a precise meaning that it did not have. The Gospels say that “ye shall be converted” – that is to say, changed and made good by listening to the word of Christ. But nowadays, conversion means going to a different church, following a different sect. (Berr, Hélène, The Journal of Helene Berr (trans. David Bellos) Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008, 160-162)