Thursday, January 28, 2010

On One Paulist’s Experience in South Africa

Of the approximately 25 Paulists who served in the Union of South Africa (now the Republic of South Africa) between the years of 1938 and 1968, only two are still alive, Fr. Lionel de Silva and myself. Although I am now 85 years of age with a multitude of subsequent experiences in my memory, the seven years I spent under the Southern Cross have been deeply seared in my psyche. I attempt now to chronicle my recollections for Archivists of the future. Obviously there would be many, many perceptions of what it meant to serve in that far flung outpost of the Paulist world. I give only one, my own.

Although most Paulists who served there were more than reasonably fulfilled, it was not a popular or sought after assignment. Because of the huge travel distances and scanty air service, there were no vacation trips back to the USA. The assignment meant that the Paulist missionaries stayed until their “time” was completed. The work was extremely demanding, though toweringly satisfying. The cuisine at the “House” was hardly gourmet. The amenities were extremely limited. It was no place for what we called the “Broadway Joe Paulist.”

The closest one came to the theatre was the infrequent trip into Johannesburg where we were treated to the “Bioscope”, the South African term for the movies. The short wave radio plus mail from home was our principal source of world news. However we did share the clerical sense of humor about the “Ecclesiastical Bush telegraph” whereby a priest’s belch in Capetown was widely reported in Johannesburg 24 hours later. Of course, we had periodic waves of nostalgia and homesickness, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And of course we did have occasional yearnings for the sight of snow and its feel on one’s face---particularly when we played the record of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.”

Yet, ironically, we were happy for the most part. I, personally, found it difficult to return to New York even though I “mightily” yearned to see my family again. We felt like real priests there and were what some called “Big Fish in the Small Ponds.” We were lionized by young and old and made vain by the quasi-Bobby Sox adulation we regularly received for our “Yankee” accents.[1] Additionally, the weather was almost always pleasant with the perennial blue skies and the warm inviting sun. And though tennis and golf were available to us all year long, we felt no pressure to become proficient in these sports. Our lifestyle simply allowed us to enjoy the athletic perks of our mission with little expectation of excellence.

In spite of the erosion by time which can obscure (indeed bury) the history of the Community on a continent other than “North America”, there was enormous pastoral and evangelical Paulist energy expended on the Dark Continent. It should be remembered. We were asked at that time to assume a part of the Church’s evangelical effort to Catholicize[2] the world. The Community graciously agreed but where and how! Coincidentally, a young convert to the Faith, Thomas Pierce, had studied as a priest in the Paulist Mission House in Washington D.C. and had become enamored with the convert techniques of Fathers Elliot, Doyle and the zealous Paulist instructors of that Institution. Later he became incardinated in the diocese of Johannesburg in South Africa from which he petitioned the Paulists to open a house. He insisted they could preach the Faith in a country dominantly Dutch Reformed in theology, addicted to Bible reading, strongly family oriented and fluently bi-lingual.[3] We would be a great force for the Church, he argued, and would make lasting contributions to a spiritually hungry people. His persuasion was formidable. The Paulists agreed to a Foreign Mission.

The first Paulist contingent to carry Catholicism in the American manner to South Africa was an almost immediate sensation. Fathers Henry Fisher, Claude Collins Tom Holloran and, briefly, John McGarrity,[4] brought a true Isaac Hecker spirit to that vast country. Their traditional “Non-Catholic” mission format, so favored by the Founder, drew huge (by South African standards) crowds, Catholic and otherwise. The fruits of their labors remain there today in the descendants of their Converts and of the very large numbers of reconciled lapsed Catholics they met. More didactic than hortatory, they sought to explain the Faith in Biblical terms and, for the most part, were unbelievably successful. They were in great demand throughout the country and could hardly meet the requests for their skills.

Replacements like John Bradley and Richard Daley Payne continued the American Catholic impact.[5] They, handsome and talented, toured the country, successfully appealing to the spiritual hunger of the human heart with Catholic specifics. There came still younger Paulists who followed in their Missionary footsteps. Religious Obedience was still somewhat observed, even if sometimes tearfully. Individual preferences were not usually solicited. Submission was.

In February of 1948, as I was preparing for my Ordination in May of that year, I was summoned to the office of the Seminary Superior, Fr Tom Holloran. He, himself, a battle scarred veteran missionary of South Africa told me that I was being sent to Johannesburg for my first assignment. Thunderstruck and dismayed, I after years of training in the Faith, had to accept “God’s Will”. Yet, I had joined the Paulists, as a half-Jew, to convert America to the Catholic Church! But Africa? Thousands of miles from Broadway?
How could the Lord do this to me?

So, I lived with an interior black cloud in my heart, until a 9,000 ton Victory ship, the S.S. Greece Victory sailed from the Farrell Lines pier in Brooklyn for Capetown----with me on it. Then—mirabile dictu[6] I began a seven year Euphoria. Was it God’s consolation for me? Or what?

It began with 17 fascinating days on that ship. I lazily watched flying fish. Every day I hung over the rail mesmerized by the ever present horizon, experiencing physical, emotional and spiritual kenosis. I ate really gourmet meals in the tiny mess hall. I dozed on the primitive deck chairs. Most of all, I joyfully shared the Gun Crew Quarters over the ship’s stern with three French Canadian Marist Brothers en route to their Mission in Rhodesia. We developed an instant Community feeling as each day we shared the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in that cramped little space. It was worship with as great a reverence and Faith as if it were at St. Peter’s in Rome. They were marvelous religious men.

We slept in cast iron bunk beds and shared the same bathroom. I recall writing to my mother expressing my amazement that “…these guys sleep in their underwear...” Yet, they taught me how to pray in French and how to sing the then popular song “La Mer.” They were, it seemed to me, the essence of the now almost extinct “total Catholic culture” with their unqualified eagerness to serve in a difficult African foreign mission as religious, spreading the love and hope of the Christ of Catholicism.

Their innocence was touching. For example, I was reading “Westward Ha” by S.J. Perlman which is a very funny, slightly raunchy account of a world tour. Occasionally, it raised dubious questions not found in Francis de Sales like “Does the Divine Redhead, Greer Garson, wear falsies?” The old man of the Marist trio, seeing me laugh so much while reading the book requested that I lend it to him to read. Henceforth, after reading it, he regarded me with some puzzlement and not a little fear. An additional facet to my fascination was that my trip for 17 days cost about $19.50 a day.

Almost immediately upon disembarkation at Capetown (called Kaapstad in Afrikaans)
I was assigned by the then Old Man of the Paulists, Jack O’Keefe, to preach a mission in a seaport town called Port Elizabeth. Hal Foye had sickened and his Mission partner, Walt Dalton, needed instant help. I was not asked whether or not I was prepared. I was told to preach long Mission sermons to large crowds on Papal Infallibility, the Bible, the Sacrament of Penance, the Eucharist, the Catholic idea of Marriage and to give an intellectually cogent presentation of why I personally am a Catholic. I was a Paulist and would supposedly be able to handle it all with ease.

At the Paulist House in Johannesburg. The young enthusiast.

And, of course, besides the preaching, I was expected to visit every house in the parish which turned out to be an exhausting but extremely fruitful procedure. Such house visitation was essential to any Mission given in South Africa. It meant we could be met by a snarling vicious dog or a smiling African or an empty house or an invitation to come in to a vacuous tea party. It meant keeping a wary eye out for the venomous snakes found all over South Africa….even on pathways approaching an average house. But it also meant opportunities to validate marriages, encourage fallen aways to return to Christ and to make the essential human contact for bringing non-Catholics into the Fold which we believed to be the One and True Church of Jesus.

Month after month we so worked with joy, laughter, excitement and fulfillment. Our youthful enthusiasms had no limit. We thrilled to witness to the Church even when Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated in testimony to Protestant ascendency. We exulted to respond to the hoary charges of St. Bartholomew’s Massacre and the Huegenot demonstrations. We were called Die Roomse Gevaar (The Roman Danger… in Afrikaans).

I, myself, was nearly stoned, like St. Paul, when I dared to present Roman Catholic teachings in Graaf Reinet, the hometown of Domne Danie Malan, the architect of Apartheid. As I preached, stones hailed down on the corrugated tin roof of the Church and demonstrators shouted outside.

My first three years were without vacation since my senior resident missionary, Walt Dalton, himself a complete work machine, did not believe in resting with so much to do for God. So, we gave missions to large crowds in beautiful churches and to small gatherings in wayside hamlets. We preached to sophisticated Anglicans who seemed bemused by us and who benignly overlooked certain Tudor gonad indiscretions in favor of the truly graceful and dignified English liturgy. Their “sundowner” and afternoon tea customs seemed to overshadow everything. We preached to dour Afrikaaners, who although dedicated to family, hard work and Boer history, managed somehow to look the other way at the sexual usage of the non-European (non-white) women while denouncing the evils of smoking on the Sabbath.

We preached to Indians from Kerala, probably descendants of the coolies of the late 19th Century who had great devotion to Our Lady with emphasis on the Indian shrine of Our Lady of Vallingani. We preached to the impressive Catholic Chinese community of South Africa which has kept the Faith and lives it. We preached to the Maronites who came from Lebanon and were duly impressed with their ancient and steadfast loyalty to the Lord.

We preached to the Bantu people, simple, open and desperately poor. Bantus included the impressive Zulus once led by the warrior chief Shaka and now reduced to being house boys in shorts and bare feet. It included the Xhosa people who have a famous and intriguing click sound as they speak and from whom came Nelson Mandela, the peaceful revolutionary. We preached to Pondos, Swazis, Shangaans and Basutos. All the Bantus could sing, deeply and sonorously. Even the little boys sounded like basso profoundos on the loose from the Met.

With some “Non-European” pals!

On parish visitation in Umtata, Transkei

The South African Native (black African) seems marvelously linguistic, capable of learning languages quickly and accurately. He makes a superb Catechist dedicated to teaching children (of all ages). I recall a Mission I gave to Zulus and Xhosas simultaneously in a little African church. Each tribe had its own interpreter who stood on either side of me as I preached the Catholic Faith. I would preach in English and the Zulu would translate with flourishes and wide gestures. Then the Xhosa would have his turn and usually speak twice as long with even grander gestures. It was a kind of competition between the two of them who could “show off” the most. Meanwhile, the native women with babies on their backs, papoose style, would be engrossed in what we were all saying, nodding agreement and uttering something which always sounded to me like a New York Harbor foghorn. Unlike American mothers who bring their infants to Mass (apparently always sitting in the front row), these African mothers had a sure way to quiet their howling babies in the middle of a spirited sermon. She simply pulled the child over her shoulder and stuck an enormous black breast into the kid’s mouth, thereby totally silencing him and at the same time keeping her rapt attention on the speakers! The Umfundesi (priest) was a Big Man in the African areas and deserved great respect for his power and knowledge!

There was no air conditioning. Only sweaty, smelly crowds with great Faith and loyalty to the Lord. Sometimes these Africans would walk miles to the Church for the Mission and sleep over night on the dirt floor –so interested were they to hear the Americans! They expected long, long sermons and certainly the preacher had to get emotional. Otherwise, he was suspected of insincerity.

Xhosa mommy with Baby
They liked to see the “Umfundesi”

We preached also to a whole population known as “coloreds” who were the sad result of the lustful exploitation by the white man of the African women. These coloreds were called “God’s stepchildren” since they were unwelcome in both white and black communities. They were scorned for being “half breeds” by almost everyone. Yet, they loved their Church and their priests. How many times I saw a Colored Catholic come to the Presbytery (rectory) with his special offering for the “Building Fund”—i.e. to build a new handsome Church. It might have been just tuppence but it was out of his heart a la the widow’s mite. They were warm and grateful people who enriched us far more than we did them.

Giving the Pledge to the Coloreds-----Booze was their downfall!

Our work included retreats to veteran nuns, brothers and priests who, so many times, sat with patience and tolerance through what I thought was my brilliance and creativity but which retrospectively seems today to be mere juvenile enthusiasm. Ah, how I mistook enthusiasm for talent. Yet, South African life touched and taught me lessons I have never forgotten. For example, when I was ordained two years, I was assigned to preach a Priests’ retreat in De Aar, an outpost near the desolate Kalahari desert and the Great Karoo. It was hot, difficult and truly primitive. But how those valiant priests treated me! With such gentleness and understanding as I have never known. A battered old German missionary with a long white beard, physically broken by his years of punishing sacrifice, asked to see me. He wanted me to help him to grow in humility!

I, the stripling punk from Manhattan’s West side, was asked to guide this saint on his way to God. He was guiding me! Such experiences became routine and manifold, especially with priests. The camaraderie among priests in South Africa was simply legendary. My priest friends were Irish, Polish, German (some ex-soldiers of Hitler’s army and wonderful priests they were), African, Chinese, Indian, Spanish, French, Belgian, English, American and Lebanon-ese. They instantly became my “brothers” when we learned we shared the same priesthood of Jesus. His house was mine. As was his car (if he had one). His food he shared with me, always inviting me back for another mission or visit. Was his motivation from loneliness or hurt or some negative factor? Perhaps. But nevertheless the common bond was there which I have never experienced in such intensity since.

I can recall one night in Wankie, Rhodesia, sitting on a porch overlooking the Great Zambezi river with an idealistic young Spanish priest missionary, named Fr. James. There was a huge African Full Moon sprinkling a silver path across the dark River. We were smoking powerful, black Russian cigarettes as we discussed the meaning of being a priest! At that moment the bond of Brotherhood in the Priesthood was almost palpable.

I sensed the same powerful unity in a small Afrikaans “dorp” (or town) when I sat before a wood fire blazing in the hearth with a brash young Irish priest, named Fr. John Clifford. We spoke of the power of the Mass and the marvel of absolution of sins and the trust invested in us as well as the inner pains of celibacy and its loneliness. One could sense the Presence of Jesus with us as we talked about Him. But it was Brothers speaking lovingly about their Father which, sadly, seems an infrequent experience for the human being.

With my close friend, Fr. John Clifford—Irish, brash, courageous and deceased!

Eventually, my health broke down under my own punishing schedule and I was sent to a large ranch to recuperate. While there I learned how to ride horses and how to “hang out” with the Master of the House, a British Major (Ret.), who wore a huge mustache and had exquisite manners. Through him, I learned the Great Art of pacing myself and learned that either “I get strong or I die”. Obviously, I got “strong.”

Although Paulists had no real personal money, we felt rich and secure. We had sufficient food, even if plain and unimaginative. We lived a somewhat simple lifestyle but had enormous opportunities for appropriate fun. The “creative minority” theory of Pope Benedict XVI was factually operational with us in those years. We Catholics felt that we were a small and subtly beleaguered Community. Yet, we were strongly united against some kind of “enemy.” It was not as extreme as the Catholic American experience in the 19th century with the Know Nothing type of political oppression. There was, however, a definite sense among us that we were suspected and mistrusted by many South Africans simply because we were Catholic. We clung together proudly, with Mass attendance far higher than the percent existent in contemporary American Catholicism. Our morale was high and clearly contagious. Priests were scarce but highly valued, respected and loved. Interestingly, this very strong social/ religious expectation from Catholic lay people kept priests, for the most part, “out of trouble.”

Catholic identity was clear. We were well defined and felt little need to sample the religious offerings of the Islamic Malays, Hindus, Zen or even the more palatable Dutch Reformed thought. We were Catholic, plain and simple. We were devout and loyal to our cherished Tradition. We were content with what we had.

Yet, whatever dislike Catholics endured, it wasn’t really a terrible hassle. There was factually minimal interference from the Government in our work .Nor did they inhibit Paulists from living out their convictions. We hated the iniquitous Apartheid. We ripped out the insulting signs someone had put on the last three pews in our Church, i.e. Non-Europeans (non-whites). Our religious and American spirit was revolted by such bigotry in God’s House. At the same time, the State paid salaries to Nuns, brothers and priests who openly taught in Catholic schools even while wearing religious habits and clerical attire. To the credit of the Apartheid politicos, there was no frivolous quibbling about separation of Church and State. While they had no official state religion, the Dutch Reformed government knew, shrewdly, that religion can build society while irreligion can kill it. In this case, pragmatism trumped bigotry.

We learned a great deal from our personal lives in South Africa. I learned a great deal about self reliance and “how to make things happen.” Passivity and waiting for some one else to initiate things didn’t fit. We Paulists became so assertive that the Nation couldn’t believe there were only five of us. We pushed for National recognition in the media and got it! We were the ones invited to speak on National radio. We were the ones who were invited to open the first Catholic Information Center in Johannesburg. We were the ones invited to become the Catholic reps at the Wits University in Johannesburg. We were the ones who were invited to run the National Operation Understanding with Fr. Bob Donahue. I myself was invited by the Apostolic delegate from Rome, Archbishop Damiano, to run the National Office for Jewish-Catholic relations (which I had to decline since I was being recalled to the USA).

Life was varied and satisfying. I used to swim with an Irish Bishop from Kokstad where he shepherded the African Griquas. I swam in the Indian Ocean with a Dutch Dominican Bishop from Kroonstad who looked like Pope Pius XII. I played tennis with Archbishop Hurley of Durban when he was the youngest Bishop in the world. I heard the confessions of Bishops as they trusted me with their souls. I preached the Three Hours’ Agony services, First Masses, Midnight Masses, Priests’ eulogies, endless retreats to nuns, brothers, priests, laity. We were offered endless opportunities to minister! All Paulists were asked again and again to share the Mission of converting Africa to Christ.

One reason was that we were generally straightforward in our presentations. We were not diplomats but Missionaries avoiding euphemisms for the truth. We wore the distinctive Paulist habit with the five buttons and the gleaming Mission Crucifix on our chests. Our outright intent was to bring everyone we met into the Catholic fold. It was an either “yea” or “nay” time. Indifference was scorned. We believed the Lord was commanding us to take a stance and “be not nauseating.” We were “The Paulists.”

So, we proceeded through time. I can see them--- all gone but hopefully enjoying the plaudits of their God for their generosity in going overseas. Roy, McGough, Panowicz, Lorentz, A. McDonnell, Sheehy, Cap Donahue, Bob Donahue, Conlon, Howard, Lewis and all the others. Generally, I believe we were all ultimately grateful for the enormous privilege of being a Paulist Foreign missionary. Like the Blessed Apostle Paul we preached the unfathomable riches of Christ to all we met. And yes we were saddened by the Paulist decision to leave Africa but we all knew that times have changed. Few modern Paulists would embrace such a call with the South African government less than encouraging. Secularism, crime and disease are on the rise. Our own needs at home become stringent with our personnel pool dwindling. Our resources shrink.

But we prefer to assess developments from the viewpoint of the Spiritual sphere. We believe that the Lord raises up movements or groups to meet the needs of a particular time. When His Will has been met and there is no longer need for certain structures, e.g. Paulists in South Africa, the structure is allowed to go out of existence.

Whatever the meaning of the dissolution of the South African arm of the Paulists is, it all remains in the Heart of the Lord. We humbly toss it back in His Holy Lap. We know that we enjoyed our share of spreading the faith in Far off lands. For that we are all eternally grateful.
[1] Hollywood was King in South Africa and by a strange kind of extrapolation all Paulists became Gable, Van Johnson or Gregory Peck.
[2] It was the almost fanatic belief in those days that all the world should be Roman Catholic.
[3] Afrikaans and English dominated the verbal landscape but various Bantu or African languages were spoken in specific areas, as well as some forms of Chinese and Arabic.
[4] McGarrity joined the South African Army and rose to the rank of Colonel in the Royal Irish Guards where he reportedly cut a most stylish figure. He later joined the American army in North Africa with the rank of Captain.
[5] Both were Canadian but thoroughly Americanized.
[6] For the benefit of those educated by the Jesuits, I translate—even roughly---“Marvelous to tell”

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