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Father Page versus the Bolsheviks

  • 26 July 2019


This year marks the centenary anniversary of British forces landing in Russia to fight the Bolsheviks. Now, Russia is generally agreed to be interfering in liberal democracies around the globe. A Jesuit priest serving as a chaplain to the British forces helps illuminate this oft-neglected story, and reveals a bit of how the Church was adapting to those troubled times.

A child of the empire as well as the church, Bernard Page was the son of a colonial magistrate. Born in India, he mostly grew up in Australia, earning a reputation as a scholarly sportsman before heading to Europe to join the Jesuits.

By 1919 Page was also an experienced army chaplain. During the First World War he served on the Western Front. Writing in 1915 to the Archbishop of Hobart — a family friend — Page reported celebrating Mass 'in a battered chapel just near the lines', marching 'along a road which was being shelled by high explosives', and other such snippets of war.

Page's first war is a reminder that long before the theological and ecclesial developments of his century, the lived experience of liturgy and sacrament had — for millions of Christians — come out of the churches and sanctuaries and bent to the times. Page 'heard confessions of men sitting on horses, standing sentry, walking along muddy roads in the rain at night and in the day'.

He gave Communion to big crowds of soldiers without worrying about the technical rules concerning fasting. He lived the Church of the dressing station in ways both literal and figurative, foreshadowing the unofficial motto of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope.

In all this Page typified the bravery and dedication of innumerable wartime chaplains. Even a gruff reply to his superior, written in the field in 1917, reveals pastoral realities trumping ecclesial niceties. 'Frankly,' he wrote, 'your note has greatly pained me. It appears to me hasty, unjust and unkind: hasty because you did not obtain full knowledge of the facts; unjust because you apparently condemn me unheard; unkind because you do not give me credit for doing my best.' The age of unqualified deference — if ever it really existed — was passing away.

Page's second war was different, and differently documented. Diarised correspondence records his voyage and arrival in far northern Europe. Reaching Archangel in May 1919 — a few weeks before the Treaty of Versailles was signed — his ship received a