Requiem for a Jesuit

Old Father Clancy’s hair is thin, and white as snow.
He trembles when he kneels, and palm meets palm,
and eyelids close – this, unrelated to his eighty years;
no more, he knows, can he put his trust in prayer.
The wooden man, there on the cross, stares blankly from
              the whitewashed wall;
the painted plaster woman’s head is fixedly inclined
              to lilies placed about her feet.
The humid air has stuck the shirt close to his back.
He parts his hands to wipe his brow. Mosquitoes whine.
Outside, the sun, ablaze – tall palms, hibiscus flowers;
the music of the native tongue, like the cadenced lilt of psalms.
His mind flits back to far-off times… those long-gone seminary days.
Dark Dublin skies, and darker rooms, the dull, obedient hours – 
              and yet he’d had such youthful dreams.
Zeal for the priesthood; service – he had not questioned that.
Nor the reverence of humble folk, for to them the man of God was all –
till traitorous time revealed to him and he had seen,
              one bloody day upon this foreign soil,
the absurdity of duty and the long, lost years of toil – the long, the doubtful,
all too rapid changing years – and heard – dear God! – the wailing of his innocents
             amid that havoc of machetes and Kalashnikovs.     
Still the pesos trickle in from the simple, superstitious souls outside;
though Sundays witness, even when they try to wear
their best, a crowd of ill-clad, barefoot girls and boys.
Gaunt Clancy trusts no more in prayer, despite pressed palms.
And his nights are plagued by snakes among the lilies,
             and blood among the psalms.

From ‘Of Gods and Men’

Note: When, in 1949, the Communist forces of Mao Tse-tung took over mainland China and forced Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist armies – a million and a quarter soldiers and camp-followers – to withdraw en masse to the island of Taiwan, life became hard for the Christian communities in China. Some had no choice but to remain to face persecution; others fled or were expelled. The Jesuit order, which had been influential in China since the 17th century, were forced to reorganize, and made its future bases of operation in two East Asian island locations – Taiwan, and the Philippines. One of the main focuses of Jesuit activity in Taiwan was the north-west coastal town of Hsinchu, where I now live, and where they established new congregations and bought much property. My wife and I rented a campus facility from them (complete with the church of St.John the Evangelist) for almost two decades, and have had constant dealings with a succession of Jesuit Fathers Superior and priests, including a dwindling number of the original ‘49ers. With Jesuit priests high up in the mountains, too, serving the aboriginal Atayal tribal communities. So we know them well.

Father Clancy, the imaginary priest in the poem, is one of their number who found himself in the Philippines. I have located him in the large southern island of Mindanao, in its northern Christian part (the extreme south is Muslim). The inspiration for that violent catalyst for Father Clancy’s loss of belief in prayer comes from an ongoing situation across much of the Philippine archipelago – the contention between the rebel New People’s Army (NPA) who have strong, well-organised bases in the mountain jungles, and the regular Philippine Armed Forces, whose commission it is to root them out. Much of my information on the reality of this, and on the devout nature of Catholicism among the poor of remote villages, comes first-hand from the childhood and youthful memories of my thrice-weekly domestic help, a Filipina who grew up in such a remote community in Mindanao. Then, the NPA was a very serious threat to the government; its numbers and support have over the years decreased, but they are still there, and still well-organised. The scene is her, or any of a number of villages on the plain. The NPA visited these villages to exact ‘tribute’ in the form of supplies of all sorts; they were welcomed by some (the majority, I believe) but not by others. The villages were also swept through periodically by units of the Philippine Army, suspicious and fearful of where the sympathies of the inhabitants might lie and, uncertain of who and what they were dealing with, were inclined to be heavy-handed. In these circumstances, violent, sometimes very violent situations, inevitably arose.

6 thoughts on “Requiem for a Jesuit

  1. Excellent and I particularly like the line ” dark Dublin skies, and darker rooms, the dull, obedient hours ” I can smell the pitch pine!
    I’m very grateful that Gill introduced me to your prolific work.
    Diolch yn fawr
    Dafydd O

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Diolch, Dafydd. Those lines were a sort of shadow in my mind from Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’. Happy that they were effective in the poem! Gill has done a lot for me by introducing ‘The Ig-Og Mabinog’ to various of her friends. Your words above are much appreciated. Diolch eto.

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  2. Another wonderfully atmospheric poem. It conjures incredibly strong images which stay in the mind and cause one to go back and re-read the work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Viv. With this one, I felt pretty well at home because of the personal connections. I thought it was the kind you’d appreciate, too. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you, Jacydo. It was that first-hand picture of growing up in a remote village in Mindanao, and my own experience of the Jesuit priesthood, which gave rise to my writing this. I knew that you would sense every bit of it.

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