Memories that stay with you forever

My first connection with Jesuit missionaries goes back to my time in India over 40 years ago. At the beginning of a two-year period teaching in Kolkata, I was introduced to an extraordinary man, Fr. Gerard Beckers SJ, who had been a member of the Belgian resistance movement during the Second World War, eventually joining the Jesuit Order in 1944.

He was a deeply reflective, committed Christian, a social activist who led by example, touching so many lives, not least the Indian family who, thanks to him, I came to live with. He was affectionately known as ‘Babu Beckers’ (respected one), easily recognisable as he travelled around the city on his bicycle in traditional Indian dress. Babu’s simple lifestyle and his work with the poor left a deep impression on those of us who came to know him. As a result, I contemplated joining the Jesuit Order but after a period of serious reflection I felt called to married life. That decision however did not sever my connections with the Jesuits.

Years later, I went with my family to work in Africa where I again came into contact with Jesuit missionaries, especially the current IJI Director Fr. John Guiney who was then working in Kenya and subsequently the late Fr. Michael J Kelly in Zambia. John lived in Kangemi, a slum area in Nairobi where he supervised a very active parish development programme that included education projects and income generating activities for women. It was always inspiring and humbling for us as a family to visit John, living as we were in far more comfortable surroundings in Nairobi. Equally, John’s regular visits to our home were always welcomed by our family.

Kevin and his family and Fr Michael Kelly, Zambia 2001

I first met the late Fr. Michael J Kelly when I went to Zambia in 1999. Michael was then Professor of Education at the University of Zambia, and we began to meet regularly in the course of my work with the Irish Aid programme there. We became good friends. On top of its existing development challenges, Zambia was then severely affected by HIV/AIDS and Michael became a very strong advocate for the role of education, especially girls’ education, in combatting the disease. He was passionate, articulate and very much ahead of his time. He became an international authority on HIV/AIDS and an advisor to governments, international development agencies and non-governmental organisations.

So much has been written about Michael’s many achievements during his long and very active life. He has rightfully been honoured with many awards. But for me, that doesn’t tell the whole story. My abiding memories of Michael are about his spirituality, his simplicity and humility, his warmth and great affection for people. I remember well when I would visit him in Lusaka, he would often be out in the garden in animated conversation with the gardener. He was equally comfortable meeting with the President of Zambia, as he did on many occasions.

Like so many of us who knew him, I always came away feeling better every time I met him. The last time we met in person was on a visit to Zambia which coincided with his 90th birthday. I was a day late but typical of Michael he didn’t cut his birthday cake until my arrival in Lusaka.

He wrote afterwards:

“My very sincere thanks to you for joining us last Tuesday evening and for the mountain of stuff you brought for me. Poor man, you must have been terribly weighed down carrying all that. I am most grateful to you for that and also for taking the heavy package for delivery through the Mission Office. I hope it won’t burden you too much as you travel tomorrow night. It was really great seeing you and catching up on so many things. I don’t know when I enjoyed an evening so much. I am immensely grateful to God and all those through whom God worked that I am so well and that I have lived this far. In many ways my life now revolves around gratitude and thanks”.

Michael and I corresponded regularly up to the time he died. He continued to express gratitude for his life. In one of his last emails before he died, he talked about being prepared for his final journey and how he was looking forward to meeting God. Rest in Peace Michael for a life well lived.

I have been privileged throughout my working life to have witnessed the enormous contribution Irish missionaries have made and continue to make overseas. They bring an additional dimension to their work which in my view is hard to find elsewhere – leading by example, long term commitment, rooted in communities, and prepared to work in remote and often insecure environments. That is why I have been involved with the work of Irish Jesuits International.

I am reminded of the words of George Bernard Shaw who in many ways expresses the missionary ethos:

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Author: Kevin Carroll is a member of the Advisory Board of Irish Jesuits International. He spent most of his career working in overseas development, including with Concern, Trocaire and the Department of Foreign Affairs. Throughout his career, he has served in a number of countries in Africa and Asia. He is currently Chair of the Board of Misean Cara.