PILGRIM THOUSANDS HONOUR ZIM HOLY MAN

The following article was written by the esteemed film critic, Owen Williams, and published in "The Southern Cross", a weekly Catholic Newspaper for Southern Africa – September 12, 1999


The pilgrimage and vigil at the rock of Chigona near Mutema in Zimbabwe last Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of John Bradburne’s death.

Annually, this place is attracting more pilgrims as part of a gathering devotion to Bradburne, to whose intercession miraculous events have been attributed.

These include a series of strange events when he was said to have appeared to comfort a small kidnapped girl after his death.

Bradburne was born in 1920 and died in 1979, a victim of the guerilla war in what was then Rhodesia. In effect he was caught in a sort of cross-fire or struggle between the guerillas and the Selous Scouts, who posed a fighters for black freedom.

In any case, John was innocent of any complicity. At Mutemwa he did heroic and selfless work tending lepers, who were despised by all. To these people he became more than a brother – a sort of spiritual guide.

Scorning personal safety, he would often take them into the tin shanty which served as his house, while they were awaiting admission to the settlement.

Bradburne was a romantic character, a poet, a pilgrim, a man of intense spirituality, aptly called by his life-long friend, Fr John Dove SJ, "strange vagabond of God" which is the title of a book the Jesuit Father wrote about him.

He and Bradburne were comrades in arms with the Gurkhas in India and Malaysia during the Second World War.

Fr Dove writes: "John spoke little of his war experience. He seemed humiliated by it all, even though for most of us he was something of a hero".

John Bradburne and John Dove were later to be comrades in arms of a spiritual nature-in the fight against ignorance, fear, poverty, illiteracy and illness, mainly leprosy, in the African bush.

The background of both men was not usually associated with this sort of life, but rather with one of the comfortable, ordered British ruling elite, what used to be called without much irony "the upper crust."

Bradburne spent his life as a pilgrim before finding what one can truly call his destiny among the lepers at Mutemwa. As Fr Dove said in effect: life is a pilgrimage, the end is not a stockbroker’s office.

Bradburne was sui generis, but he had a certain affinity to Charles de Foucauld, a French mystic who found his vocation in the Sahara desert and who left behind a deep devotion.

The spirit of Bradburne and his extraordinary and inspiring life are well captured in a video made by Norman Servais of Cape Town and reviewed in The Southern Cross last week.

Pope John Paul has said that a motion picture is more than a mix of special effects and special images: it is a mirror of the human soul.

Servais has tried, and partly succeeded, to capture the soul of John Bradburne. I say partly because to do it wholly would not be possible.

Nevertheless, this timely and extremely well made video of 59 minutes captures the essentials in an engrossing story of an extraordinary man in a way that should hold the attention of all, including those who are not Catholic.

Apart from spiritual aspects, Servais places events in their context: a bitter and grim guerilla war in a place of considerable natural beauty, shown in the preliminary scenic shot of the terrain.

The video also contains valuable sidelights and information.

Bradburne is known to have written more than 6000 poems. Indeed, it was his favourite means of communication, even though they were of a devotional nature. Such was his character.

In the video he is heard reading one of his poems in a voice which combines feeling and clear, impeccable diction. This is a valuable record.

As it should be, a large part of the video is taken up with an interview with Fr Dove, a man who combines a certain urbanity with an obviously intense spirituality.

Fr Dove speaks with feeling, but his cultured voice has always the clear, level tones of reason.

He must be the man who knows his subject best. He has, after all, been connected with the Zimbabwe Mission since 1964.

There are also shots of the disfigured lepers, in whom Bradburne saw, as did Mother Teresa, the face of Christ. Of course, we see Bradburne too in still photographs: a man of handsome and romantic yet saintly looks.


The following extract was taken from an article by Owen Williams for "The Southern Cross" on January 30th, 2000

On Eagle ‘s Wings, being the Life and Death of John R Bradburne (1921-79), forms a companion piece to another video which I recently saw and wrote about, Vagabond of God, made and produced by Norman Servais. Any comparisons would be invidious. The two videos are complementary. The English one is a more encompassing record of a life, the local has more vivid immediacy.

Both form an invaluable film record, suitable for religious communities, libraries, schools or simply private possession.

On Eagle’s Wings has interesting footage of the places where Bradburne was born and of his early background. A convert, he was one of the children of an Anglican vicar.

Both videos are human in treatment, not sanctimonious or over-reverential, of interest to lay people and non-Catholics.


"Vagabond of God" is obtainable from Metanoia Ministries, Box 1601, Cape Town, 8000 or fax and telephone (021) 461-1600. Email: metanoia@icon.co.za


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