His name was Major Tom Pringle. But no one ever dared call him Tom. He was six feet two and stood very erect as if he were twenty seven and not seventy seven. He wore a handle bar mustache reminiscent of an earlier era when he was a decorated hero in Boer War. When I met him, he was owner and administrator of a huge ranch in the Eastern Cape province of what was then the Union of South Africa.
I had become ill after an exhausting series of Missions throughout the country and my then Superior Jack O’Keefe arranged for me to recuperate at the Pringle estate. While the Major was a non-practising Anglican, his beautiful wife, Mary was, a fervent lrish Catholic and the prospect of having daily Mass in her own home was paradisic to her.
It turned out to be paradise for me. I was given a gorgeous room. I had a private Mass each day in their Drawing room with both the Major and Mary attending. We ate all meals in a palatial dining room with the Major serving each of us as he sat at the head of the table in a truly presidential manner. The waitresses were what were called in those days "colored girls", i.e. descendants of sexual unions between black African women and erotically aroused white males. Such behaviour was apparently countenanced in the name of "relieving one’s tension."
Each evening the Major and I would go riding across his vast holdings. He would sit straight as an arrow in his saddle and lead me across the hills and over the rocks and dodging cobras aplenty. We would always ride at sundown when the Great Karoo took on amazing colors and smelled fresh and clean and celestial We would talk as we rode slowly along and he would call me "old man ". I was 29 and he was 77 and we had a warm cordial rapport. I myself am now 77 and as is the custom with old men, I am looking back on my life. And I see suddenly and clearly my two weeks at the ranch in Bedford with one of the most charming and balanced and attractive persons I have ever met.
He was very wealthy. He was educated in the "best" schools in England. He had a brilliant military career. He had an impeccable reputation. He had a beautiful wife (but no children). His manners were classic. His conversational ability was superb. He had the unswerving loyalty of the many employees on his farm. But he had no discernible Faith.
And THAT is what boggles my mind even today. If ever there was a depiction of the GOOD PAGAN, it was the Major. Yes, he came to Mass. daily with his beloved Mary. Yes, he was just to all. He would not lie or be a coward of any kind. Yes, he called me FATHER. Yes, he was sensitive to the feelings of everyone But what did he believe? It is such thinking that re-enforces my love of the work of Pope Pius XII who wrote his magnificent Mystici Corporis in which he clarifies the eternal lot of such secular saints as Major Pringle. In fact, according to this type of Catholic thinking the beautiful soul of Major Pringle was well within the loving arms of the Catholic Church because the Major always acted according to his conscience and his lights. And because the Major always did what he thought was right and because if the Major were ever allowed to truly see the claims of the Church he would embrace the Faith in a flash. Who knows the strange mechanisms of the human mind whereby we simply cannot SEE ? And it is not a lack of intelligence or good will. It is something far deeper.
Whatever the mysteries of Faith or lack of faith are, to this old man the recollection of Major Pringle is not only a source of great pleasure and gratitude. It is also some illumination as to the goodness of God and His love for ALL people. Men like Major Pringle have helped me to see that saints are everywhere. My own lovely religion with all its supports and helps for closeness to God does not have a monopoly on goodness and human spiritual beauty. My own marvelous Jewish father was as good a person as one could be--yet --for his own inner struggles (and reasons) he could never accept Jesus as his Saviour. Not in the terms of the Fundamentalist but in the terms of Major Pringle.
As I was leaving the ranch to return to Johannesburg, refreshed in many way and ready to take up the rigors of the Mission trail again, I went to say good bye to my gracious host. He was in his bedroom ( they slept apart due to age and his physical condition) As we shook hands, knowing we would never meet each other again in this life, he said "Cheerio OLD MAN" Yes, cheerio Major, my friend.
Perhaps in your life with the Lord you have found out what an impact you made on me. Perhaps you have found out how you helped me to soften what had been a hard, unrelenting-even bigoted viewpoint. So very inappropriate for a Christian which I purported to be.
Some years later I was in the area and I visited the Major’s widow Mary whom he had left very comfortably "fixed" financially. Now in a smaller house near the town, she spoke of his devotion to her and she made the remarkable observation that "men are more sincere in their love than are women ." This I could understand only by remembering the Major and what a loving and sensitive MAN he was. So, Major, my friend, be with God and enjoy your eternity. Until we meet again thank you OLD MAN.