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John Bradburne: The vagabond of God by Didier Rance

29 March 2018

Lavinia Byrne looks at a Franciscan’s life and heroic death in Africa

IN HIS preface to this book, Didier Rance recognises what he calls “several points of personal convergence” with its themes: “lepers; Africa; wanderings; flute; poetry; Franciscan Third Order”, and, standing at the centre of this spinning compass, the extraordinary life of John Bradburne.

Two questions: who is Didier Vance, and who is John Bradburne? Rance is easy to place: a Frenchman, a writer and historian, and also a secular Franciscan and former national director of the Church in Need (Interview, 24 November 2017). He is ideally positioned to write this biography.

Bradburne is harder to place. Those describing him seem to resort to lists. Jean Vanier, for instance, who writes the foreword to this book, notes that he was a mystic, natural poet, quick to anger, a man who loved eagles, bees, and tree-climbing, a “strange, disconcerting man . . . with a thirst for the absolute”.

Better then to resort to chronology: we learn that John Randal Bradburne was born in 1921 into a parsonage in Skirwith in Cumbria. He went to school at Gresham College and fought with distinction in the Second World War, serving in Burma and Malaya. On his return, he began a long shambolic pilgrimage, becoming a Roman Catholic, traipsing round monasteries in this country, and then in France, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East (more lists . . .).

Redemption came when he wrote to a Jesuit in Rhodesia in 1962 asking “Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?” He moved to the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement near Mutoko. When he was shot dead by guerrillas in September 1979, at the age of 58, he had found a home and resting-place.

This book is 477 pages long: it tells the “long” story of Bradburne’s life in elaborate detail. What it lacks is critical analysis of his motivation or even an exploration of his spirituality, despite endless extracts from his writings and poetry. Essentially the narration is an act of pietas. No wonder the text ends with a prayer for John Bradburne’s canonisation. He was, after all, a martyr, in his complicated, tortuous life — as much as in his dramatic, heroic death.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

John Bradburne: The vagabond of God
Didier Rance
DLT £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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