Fr John McGowan OCD has been a friar since 1975.  He is currently the Prior of St Joseph’s Priory, Gerrards Cross, Bucks.

Working Abroad As a Discalced Carmelite

The first point that comes to mind as I begin this article is that I never asked nor intended to go abroad when I joined the Order back in 1975. I presumed that I would be based in England and remain there for the rest of my life. However, God in His providence had other ideas. I have ended up living in several different countries. All this began shortly after my ordination in 1982. The following year I went to study spirituality in Rome. I must admit I did ask to go to Rome to do further studies, but this was the one and only time I did. I did this because I wanted to know more about spirituality in general and our Carmelite spirituality in particular. I could not have gone to a better place than our pontifical college in Rome. It was hard work, studying always is. Being an extrovert I didn’t always find it easy to sit in my room for hours with my head in a book. At the end of the two year course I remember sharing with a friend my misgivings at how little I knew, especially when people would consider me to be an expert. Instead of returning to England I took someone’s advice and spent the next three months in Spain, to explore the places connected with St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. I even began to learn a little Spanish which was to prove useful many years later.

My next experience of living overseas occurred many years later when I was asked in 1998 to go to Jerusalem. Wow, this came like a bolt out of the blue. We Discalced Carmelites had been chaplains in the Notre Dame Centre, Jerusalem, a Vatican run institute, since the early 1990’s. Someone from our Province was leaving and so I was asked to replace him. What an opportunity. I left on 11th November 1998, I shall never forget it. I said a sad farewell to my mother and father at the airport; they were old by now, and in fact, my father died a few months later. I was terribly home sick at first, which was unlike me; I was happy to be in the Holy Land but the community I was asked to join was... how shall I say, dysfunctional and challenging. In spite of this I was to come to love the place and was so sorry when I had to leave almost five years later.

I could never adequately describe all that I experienced in those years. I was living just 5 minutes away from the very place where Christ died and rose again, I could walk up the Mount of Olives as Christ had done 2000 years earlier, I would often visit the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Nazareth and Cana and other places that would have been so familiar to Christ. Unlike the many pilgrims who came for just a few days, I had years to experience it all. It was such a privilege to be there and to get to know these places so well.

Jerusalem is the most interesting and liveliest city I have ever lived in. I got to know members from all three of the major religions: Jews, Christians and Muslims. I studied modern Hebrew during the day, making friends with my Jewish classmates. The staff in the Notre Dame Centre were Christian Arabs, Palestinians, proud people. They too became my friends. If only the two sides would trust each other it would be a great country, but there lies the problem; a lack of trust.

The highlight of my stay in Jerusalem was the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000. I went to see him in Bethlehem and I saw him again in our Notre Dame Centre a few days later. He was old and tired and held his head in his hand as if it were too heavy. It was a great blessing for the country. Later that same year the second Palestinian Intifada began. It was a difficult and dangerous time to be in Jerusalem. There were many bombs exploding near our Centre, people were being killed and maimed all around us. On one occasion while I was walking along one of the main streets in modern, West Jerusalem, a suicide bomber blew herself up. I was far enough away not to be hurt but I shall never forget the noise: she was, in fact, the first female bomber to do this. I visited people in hospital, particularly Filipinos, who had been unfortunate to be on a bus when suicide bombers got on. It was always risky to get on a bus, you just never knew. The violence came closer to home when one day two of our staff, who had been laid off, attacked the Priest in charge of the Centre, they then ransacked the dining room and several of the cars outside, beating up another manager on the way. One of my confreres came white-faced and shouting into our place, ‘they’re going to kill us.’ Fortunately, we were not touched.

I went to Bethlehem to demonstrate with other Christians when the Israeli army besieged that holy city. I remember seeing a remarkable sight: a man and his wife with a baby in her arms standing before the tanks, they were trying to escape the violence. I thought of a similar scene 2000 years earlier, when Mary carried Jesus with Joseph leading them out of Bethlehem to escape the violence of Herod. While demonstrating some Israeli soldiers called me over. I thought they would mock me but on the contrary they were almost apologetic for being there, they didn’t like the settlers, the radical Zionists, who were the cause of so much trouble. That same afternoon I ended up at another demonstration, this time not so peaceful. I experienced stun grenades and tear gas for the first time in my life: it’s quite frightening at first.

I joined a Jewish-Arab peace group, and did a little demonstrating with placards. On one occasion I met the BBC journalist John Simpson, there were always lots of media folk around. I felt it was important to do something, however little, to bring about peace, and to strive for justice for the Palestinian Arabs in particular. I could go on as there is so much more I could tell you about the experiences I had, the places I visited and the people I met, but this isn’t the place; suffice to say, it was all a privilege for which I often thanked God.

Just when I thought I was on my way back to the UK, I was asked to go to Rome, to work in our head office as a Secretary. Wow! Back to Rome, only this time not as a student but to work in our HQ. I spent the next six years sitting in my own office in front of a computer – I’d never had an office before. Much of my work was translating documents, talks and letters from Spanish, or Italian, occasionally French into English. I did smile at the thought that now I had studied six languages and yet, years ago, failed French O level twice!   I was nervous at first, everything being new, and knowing that what I translated would be read by the entire English speaking Carmelite world. However, after a while I settled down and gained more confidence. I must say that the General, Luis Arostegui, was a delight to work for; never once did he criticise my work, even though I am sure I gave him cause to. I worked hard for him and at the end, in preparation for the General Chapter, I worked too hard, getting up early, going to bed late, not sleeping well, missing prayer to get everything ready in time for the said Chapter. In the end I got ill; this was a first. However, by that stage most of the work was ready, thank God.

The community at the Generalate was a large one, twenty five when we were all there, from thirteen different nations. I did enjoy the privilege of being with fellow Carmelites from all over the world. I enjoyed meeting visitors who came to see the General. We often welcomed our Carmelite bishops and Provincials; there were constant meetings going on at our place. I can say I worked hard in Rome, in contrast to Jerusalem, there was not much time for social life. However, I did take time off when I could. I loved to go to the cinema, in part to improve my Italian, but also because I love cinema. I also liked to go out for a pizza if I could once a week

Rome has much to offer; its beauty, its history, its buildings, especially St Peter’s, the Coliseum and the Pantheon, its weather, its fine foods and wines. I enjoyed all those things. I tried to walk every day, often walking in the nearby, beautiful Borghese gardens. On Sundays I often walked to St. Peter’s, which took less than an hour. I enjoyed seeing the many tourists from all over the world. I didn’t enjoy Italian politics; it was the days of the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. More than once I went onto the streets with thousands of others to demonstrate. Romans are great demonstrators.

People often ask me if I met the Pope. I didn’t, at least not one to one. I was there when Pope John Paul II died. It was a special time, a time of collective mourning. His funeral was extraordinary; there has never been such a collection of world leaders on one occasion. I was there too for the election of Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become Benedict XVI. I was blessed to be in Rome for both these occasions. Again, there is much more I could tell you about my time in Rome, but my six years quickly came to an end. I had asked to leave. I strongly suspected that if I didn’t ask I would be left there, but I wanted to return to my Province. I always believed that a lay person should be doing the job I was doing, and maybe in the future that will happen. While I was in Rome my mother died and in my last months I heard my brother and sister both had terminal cancer.  The next year was to be one of the most difficult in my life.

My last venture overseas was in January of this year, to Malawi. Like all the others, it came out of the blue. I was sitting down in my room in London when a phone call came from Rome. It was the General Definitor responsible for Africa, whom I had got to know at our Head Office. To cut a long story short he asked me to go to Africa for six months to help out in a community in Malawi where they were short of personnel. As it happens I was not doing much and just waiting for the Provincial Chapter in five months time. I did not hesitate to say yes, and flew to Africa for the first time in my life. This was another wow experience.

My time in Africa was special. I was entering into a whole new world, one that I had seen on television but never thought I would be there. I took to Africa not quite like a duck takes to water, but along those lines. I was hesitant at first, being the only white man in my area, but soon I realized that didn’t matter, and that I was quite safe. I worked in a Retreat Centre midway between two large towns, large by Malawi standards, so, in fact, I was in the country. Where do I begin to describe so many small but meaningful experiences?  First of all there was my community of three; I made up the third. From the start I was made to feel at home, and I did. I am a people’s person and if I like people I can feel at home anywhere. We spoke English at meal times, which was very generous of my confreres. All the liturgy was in English, so that I could celebrate mass and hear confessions, give talks. I was given the task of supervising our piggery: we kept about 20 pigs in order to make a bit more money. There we were constantly having to think of money. It was expensive to travel. To fill up a car cost the equivalent of two weeks wages for most people. So we had to think: could we afford to travel.

I liked the food but could have eaten more. They eat a lot of chicken; at a restaurant I went to there were 12 items on the menu, 10 of them were chicken. Many people, even the more sophisticated eat with their fingers. Almost every day we ate ‘Tsima’, a mixture of maize and flour, I got to like it in the end. After lunch I would go out for a walk along the road that led to the nearest town, on Sundays I would go further, walking for a couple of hours. When I ventured into any little village I would be a curiosity for the people. However, they were always friendly, their instinct was to smile. Often I would be joined in my walk by others. I remember two young boys joined me on more than one occasion; they seemed to be waiting for me. They told me it took them two hours to walk to school every day!  They did not have the money to pay even for a bike. In fact, people used bikes as taxis. Many people walked barefoot.

Blantyre was the nearest town, named after Livingstone, the famous Scottish explorer’s home town. I celebrated mass on several Sundays for the university students. What a privilege that was. I loved the singing and the dancing; everyone dances, it just comes so naturally. I even overcame my lack of confidence and clapped or moved with the music. The chapel would be packed with the most enthusiastic, bright and intelligent young men and women in Malawi. I also celebrated mass for our local girls’ boarding school. When they sang they almost lifted the roof off, their singing was almost physical. After mass at the university I sometimes went to an orphanage run by an Englishman called ‘Open Arms.’ I could write reams about this place alone, but suffice to say it was one of the most special places I have ever visited. There were scores of young orphans, all being looked after by a dedicated staff. You wouldn’t be there long before you would feel two little arms gripping your leg.  I would look down and see a baby with two huge eyes pleading to be lifted up and held. Many of the children’s parents had died of Aids. This was my first experience of this dreadful disease that was devastating Malawian society. The life expectancy there is much lower than it is in England. I attended three priest’s funerals in four months. There is so much more I could say but again this is not the time. Suffice to say that something of Africa and Malawi in particular will always stay with me.

What have I learned from my time abroad, in all thirteen years? I have learned that people are essentially the same where ever you go; they all have the same needs, hopes and fears. I have learned that most people are good and honest, kind and generous. It has been a privilege to travel to all these places for which I give thanks to God and to my Order for giving me this opportunity. I shall be quite now happy to settle down here in the UK and to share what I have experienced, but who knows what God has in store for me; and this is so important, to be open to God’s will, to be available and to be willing to serve the Order wherever. Everywhere I have gone I could see the importance of preaching the Gospel message of hope and love and peace. We Carmelites are missionaries, as Teresa wanted us to be. We have been given a great gift with the charism of St. Teresa, the world is hungry for her teaching; to know how beautiful, how precious, each person is in the sight of God.