‘HUGE INFLUENCE’ Activist Bruce Kent at a rally against Britain’s nuclear weapons system, Trident, in 2016. Pic: Trident is Britain’s nuclear weapons system. Pic: Garry Knight/cc-by-2.0
Amid today’s talk of heightened nuclear threat, long-time CND activist Bruce Kent passes away
Fr Kevin Hegarty
By the summer of 1945 the Second World War was coming to an end. Germany had surrendered in May. There was however, one more atrocity to happen in the chamber of horrors that was that war.
Japan continued the conflict. When its leadership defied the allied ultimatum to lay down arms the US president, Harry Truman triggered the actual nuclear option.
On August 6 the Enola Gay, a Boeing fortress bomber, dropped the first atomic bomb to be used in warfare on Hiroshima. It destroyed three quarters of the city and killed about 140,000 of its 350,000 inhabitants. Nuclear radiation caused thousands more deaths in the following years.
Three days later another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki resulting in the deaths of 75,000 people. A young woman, Reiko Hade, later told journalists what she witnessed on that fateful day:
“A blazing light shot across my eyes. The colours were yellow, khaki and orange all mixed together. I didn’t even have time to wonder what it was. In no time everything went completely white. It felt as if I had been left completely alone.
“Many fled over Mount Kompira to our community. People with their eyes popped out, their hair dishevelled, almost all naked, badly burned with their skin hanging down. My mother grabbed towels and sheets at home and with other women in the community, led the fleeing people to an auditorium of a nearby commercial college, where they could lie down.
“They asked for water. I was asked to give them water, so I found a chipped bowl and went to the nearby river and scooped water to let them drink. After drinking a sip of water, they died. People died one after the other. It was impossible to know who those people were. They didn’t die like human beings.”
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki the spectre of the human capacity to annihilate the planet loomed. Nuclear arms today are much more powerful then the ones used in 1945. The Japanese tragedy led to a campaign for nuclear disarmament. Bruce Kent, one of its leaders, died last month in his 93rd year.
Kent was an unlikely political agitator. He belonged to a comfortable and conservative family and was a Roman Catholic priest. He was born in 1929 to Canadian parents who had settled in England. His father was a Presbyterian and his mother a Roman Catholic. She brought their children to Montreal for safety during World War II.
When they returned, Bruce was sent to Stonyhurst, the prestigious Jesuit College. After studying law at Oxford, he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1958. It seemed then that he was destined for high office in the Church.
The ecclesiastical title of monsignor is usually reserved for elderly clerics as a reward for pious and obedient service. When bestowed at a relatively young age it is a sign that the Church hierarchy has earmarked the individual for rapid advancement in the cloisters of power. Kent became a monsignor at the age of 35.
A further indication of probable future prominence came when he was appointed as secretary to Cardinal Heenan. He had a fractions relationship with the hot-tempered cardinal. They clashed over the Church’s rigid stance on contraception.
In 1966, Kent became Catholic chaplain of London University and parish priest of Soho. Here, his journey from clerical caution to prophetic politics accelerated. He was influenced especially by the witness Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer who defied conscription to the Nazi army and was put to death in 1943 for his noble stance.
Kent joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and became its general secretary in 1980. It was a busy time for the movement, as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher raised the rhetoric on the Cold War with Russia. The CND led the opposition to the siting of US cruise missiles in Berkshire.
Kent retired from the priesthood in 1987 to concentrate on his political activities. He also found love and married Valerie Flessati, a fellow peace activist. On his death, Baroness Helene Kennedy, a leading UK lawyer, paid him the following tribute:
“He was a huge influence on my life and his commitment to peace and human rights was inspirational. He wanted a more compassionate and inclusive Church and a more decent and just society. He lived out his faith in everything he did – for the marginalised and the poor – he gave it his all with such a great sense of fun. He was one of the finest human beings I have ever met.”