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Sainthood could be a step closer for a wandering poet

John Bradburne

Sooner rather than later the Cause for the canonisation of John Bradburne is likely to open, possibly on September 5, the 40th anniversary of the murder of the missionary in what is now Zimbabwe.

There is abundant evidence of a cult devoted to Bradburne as in Africa each year some 25,000 pilgrims make the journey to Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement, which he refused to abandon in spite of the dangers to his life, to pray for his intercession.

In Britain he is admired by such figures as Charles Moore, the former editor of the Spectator and the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, and when a crowdfunding appeal was launched to help meet the costs of the Cause advancing, among the donors was Frank Cottrell-Boyce, author, novelist, screenwriter and the man behind the 2012 London Olympics Ceremony, who handed over £400.

Such a show of solidarity is understandable given that canonisation is an expensive business – and Bradburne’s Cause must begin in Zimbabwe, a country which is not exactly flush with money.

Yet things have been moving at a steady pace. Last year Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare asked the UK-based John Bradburne Memorial Society to act as petitioner for the Cause and the group appointed Enrico Graziano Giovanni Solinas as postulator and Amilcare Conti as administrator.

Both are based in Perugia, Italy, and are experienced in the work of gathering material for the scrutiny of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

According to reports last week, the bishops of Zimbabwe have now unanimously agreed that Bradburne’s Cause should open (when it concludes, they will have their first saint). Yet there remain some details to be ironed out before it can proceed.

Should the Cause progress, it will attract great interest from around the world. One reason is the dramatic circumstances in which Bradburne died. Another is the hugely attractive, albeit occasionally eccentric, character of the man himself – a poet, a wanderer and a hero.

Bradburne was the son of an Anglican cleric and was born at Skirwith in the Eden Valley in 1921. During the Second World War he served with the Gurkhas in Malaya before spending a year in Burma with the Chindits, the special operations unit that was dropped behind Japanese lines to attack supply routes.

During the war years he underwent something of a religious conversion (he sung psalms in battle), provoking a spiritual search which culminated in 1947 when he was received into the Catholic faith while staying at Buckfast Abbey, Devon.

For the following decade he travelled extensively and wrote poetry. He also experimented with the eremitical life and with absolute poverty before finally deciding to become a Franciscan tertiary.

In 1962, he wrote to a Jesuit friend, Fr John Dove, who was serving in then Rhodesia, to ask: “Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?” On arrival, he confided to a Franciscan priest that his only three wishes were to serve leprosy patients, to die a martyr and to be buried in the habit of St Francis.

Two years later the Rhodesian Bush War broke out in the former colony. The civil war would rage for 15 years. Bradburne not only refused to flee but became warden of Mutemwa, where he showed exceptional loyalty to the lepers until he was abducted and shot just three months before the conflict ended.

Fr David Harold Barry, a Jesuit, was among those who saw blood dripping from Bradburne’s coffin at his funeral. When it was opened there was no trace of any blood inside – but it was only then noticed that Bradburne had not been dressed in Franciscan habit as he had requested. A habit was found and no more blood was seen.

Numerous healings have been informally attributed to his intercession, including the cure of a man in Scotland from a brain tumour and of a woman from South Africa who had lost the use of her legs.

Even a cursory reading of Bradburne’s life and works reveals a man of great joy with a deep love for nature which found expression in Franciscan spirituality, and which chimes with Laudato si’, Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical “On the Care for Our Common Home”.

Bradburne was also described by Fr Barry as “the most humble man I have ever known”, yet he was ambitious for sainthood, once asking a friend to “pray for my sanctification”. This was not for his own sake, he explained, “but because it would encourage so many souls if such wreckage might come to canonisation”.

This is important because, again, similar sentiments find expression in the teachings of Pope Francis, who reminded the faithful in Gaudete et Exsultate, his 2018 Apostolic Exhortation on the Call to Holiness, that Our Lord does not desire mediocrity but instead “He wants us to be saints”.

The life and works of John Bradburne are poised to speak to future generations of Catholics and the coming weeks are crucial in determining whether the formal announcement that his Cause will be opened this September will be made.

It is a time when Catholics in the UK and Zimbabwe should unite their prayers in the hope that, come September, they will be able to share their joy.