November 21, 2007

Righteous gentile: Adrian Van Kaam / Priest, Duquesne professor helped Jews in Holland

From The Post-Gazette:

The Rev. Adrian Van Kaam, a Catholic priest whose understanding of the dynamics of spirituality was formed as he smuggled food to Jews in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Holland, died Saturday at the nursing home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, North Side.

Father Van Kaam, 87, a Spiritan, founded the Institute of Formative Spirituality at Duquesne University. He emphasized how the soul is shaped and how faith is lived out in daily life. His reputation was worldwide.

Born in The Hague, he was in seminary when the Nazis invaded in 1940. He started a clandestine discussion group to help laity see what saints and scholars of the past had said about faith in dark times, said Susan Muto, his longtime colleague in Pittsburgh.

In the summer of 1944, believing that liberation was imminent, he went to a retreat in western Holland and was trapped behind Nazi lines after the disastrous Allied Operation Market Garden. There he endured the "hunger winter" of 1944-45, when Hollanders survived on turnips, potatoes and toxic tulip bulbs. The starvation diet permanently ruined his health, Dr. Muto said.

He hid in a barn, but rounded up food from farmers to take to Jews and others in hiding. That Christmas he wrote and produced a clandestine play, "Christmas Night in Ravaged Holland" which recast the nativity story in wartime Europe.

He believed that "there are no coincidences, only providences, " Dr. Muto said. "He believed it was providential, because of his future mission, that he was catapulted out of the ivory tower of seminary into the Dutch hunger winter."

He was always seeking ways to bring the spiritual riches of ages past to people who might never earn an advanced degree. To do so, in 1988 he co-founded the Epiphany Association with Dr. Muto. When Duquesne closed the Institute of Formative Spirituality in 1993, the pair continued at what is now Epiphany Academy in Beechview.

He died as the Little Sisters of the Poor sang Salve Regina, said Dr. Muto, who was present.

"We feel he just simply yielded himself completely into the arms of the mystery, which is the mystery of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit," she said.

He is survived by two sisters, Lia Schillkens Van Kaam and Bepp Van Gemert, both of the Netherlands. Donations may be made to the Epiphany Association, Duquesne University or the Little Sisters of the Poor.