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Holy Man who lived the true life of Christ

Fr Kevin Ryan ii

Centuries before Jesus came, the land that was to be his homeland was devastated. The Babylonians came in and destroyed the lot.

Places of worship were destroyed, Jerusalem became a mass of broken stone, laws and traditions were ended, people were killed or made slaves. The educated who survived were sent into exile.

In exile they pondered their fate and the reason for it. They realised they had brought it on themselves. They had worshipped the false gods that were inspired by envy, greed, jealousy, power. Isaiah the prophet talks of their soul searching.

He speaks in God’s name telling them that all their emphasis on externals, like fasting, is not getting them anywhere. On fast days they oppressed their labourers, quarrelled and fought. There was little justice in their lives.

Fasting of a different kind was needed – being just, giving people freedom, feeding the hungry, helping the homeless, and giving a helping hand to your own family, it is only then that God would listen.

For a while, these people got the message. Things turned good and home they went. Soon, the old troubles broke out again and the old ways were resumed. Life was little better for many.

Centuries later along came Jesus. He was invited to speak to his people on the Sabbath. Searching the scroll he came back to the same story and told the listeners, contented in their lives, that he had come to do what God had wanted for years – good news to the poor and relief to the oppressed, imprisoned, blind and hungry people.

For some it gave hope of good things to happen; to others it must have been a repeat of a message to ignore.

That all happened around 2000 years ago. The kind of thing we celebrate in a jubilee year.

Pope John Paul has been asking a lot of soul searching by the Christian community for our behaviour over our history. There are a lot of things we have to admit were wrong, either in the Church or in our own lives.

There is not much point in beating our breast about past failures. If like those Jews of old, we allow the same mistakes to surface. When Jesus went into the desert we think of his struggle as against external problems; our struggle is one of the spirit.

Despite the weaknesses of our Church, or ourselves, we still have a lot of which to be proud. In our own time, in every troublespot of the world there are Christians doing heroic things to live out the Gospel. Whether it be in the solitary confinement cells of a harsh prison, in East Timor, Sierra Leone, Sudan or Mozambique, we are there. That’s been our history since the time of Jesus.

I doubt if anyone in Australia has heard of a man called John Bradburne.

We’ve all heard of Zimbabwe, but not of John. It was in Zimbabwe that he made his name and there is a good chance he will be known years after Robert Mugabe is dead.

John Bradburne was born in England in 1921 into an Anglican upper class family, a member of which was the last governor of Rhodesia. In World War II he served as an officer in the Gurkhas. It was in the Gurkhas he formed a friendship with a man called John Dove, later to become a Jesuit priest.

After the war he wandered. He worked in forestry, teaching, at times a wandering minstrel, a caretaker, a pilgrim in the Holy Land.

During this long period he converted to Catholicism, went close to marrying, then decided to spend the rest of his life as a celibate.

No one doubted his holiness, but many thought him hopeless.

When he was 40, he wrote to Fr Dove, his old friend in the Gurkhas, now a priest in Rhodesia. His request was simple. Is there a cave in Africa I can pray in?

Ten years later a lady suggested they should visit a leper settlement in a place called Mutemwa. The lepers were in a terrible condition, dirty, hungry, very poor accommodation. John announced ‘I’m staying.’

He saw the lepers as people who deserved respect. For three years he worked unhindered amongst the eighty of them. He improved hygiene and housing, got rid of the rats that chewed at the unfeeling limbs of the patients, bathed them, fed them and cared for them.

He built a small church, taught them Gregorian chant and read them the Gospel. He nursed and prayed with the dying.

It is a strange fact of life that officialdom, baffled by simple loving care, comes down hard on people whose care is a success. He fell out with the Rhodesian Leprosy Association.

They thought he was extravagant. Such things as providing a loaf of bread each week to a patient was too much. He refused to hang numbers around their necks, saying they had names and were not livestock.

It was all too much and he was expelled from the settlement. He moved to a tent, then a tin hut close enough to help the lepers, often by night.

For six years he lived the life of a hermit, writing religious verse, penniless, clad in a Franciscan style habit.

The war worsened and friends urged him to leave and he refused. His only concern was the lepers, not politics.

Youths came to his hut and took him off. They were inspired by a man who hated John. They knew him to be a holy man, but were instructed from higher up, who had been told he was a spy.

He was interrogated but seemed unconcerned. Before they made off with him he infuriated their commander as he knelt and prayed. In the early hours of the morning, he was ordered to walk a few paces ahead and then stop and face an officer.

He knelt and prayed for a few minutes. As he rose to his feet he was shot.

His killer is now a businessman in Zimbabwe. John’s scantily clad body was found by the roadside.

John had three wishes – to serve and live with lepers, to die a martyr and to be buried in his Franciscan habit. In the grief of his murder, a close friend forgot the habit and it was placed on top of his coffin.

But then an odd thing happened. During the funeral three drops of blood appeared to fall from the coffin. When the coffin was opened there were no signs of fresh blood, but it was a chance to dress him in his Franciscan robes.

Today, pilgrims visit Mutemwa. On the anniversary of his death, 6000 people paid tribute in a candle light procession, all night vigil and midnight Mass. His place is now a place of pilgrimage. A charity has been set up to help his lepers.

John Bradburne is but one of millions who have lived the life of Jesus over 2000 years bringing good news of freedom to the poor.

The above story was penned by Fr Kevin Ryan and published in the Catholic Leader on May 21, 2000. Volume 1 of his Real Life series (Columns from July 1997 – December 2001) has just been printed. Copies can be purchased for $65 (including P&H for what is a 480 page book) by emailing Debbie at preussd@bne.catholic.net.au OR phoning 3324 3223 (Business hours).

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