Sunday, April 29, 2012
Remembering a Departed Friend
He was born Johan Van Lare in 1919 in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, during the reign of Queen Wilhelmina, whom he always spoke of with the utmost respect. After enough years in south Texas he did though begin to refer to Queen Juliana using the Spanish rather than Dutch pronunciation of her name. He told me once that he never felt he had any control over what he would become, God had chosen him to be a priest and that was that. During World War II, when the Germans attacked Holland he was wounded by a German bomb, causing him to lose a kidney. He was in the hospital when the Nazi planes attacked again. Most patients were moved to the basement, but Father John's case was too critical, so he was left above ground with debris flying and glass raining down around him. Miraculously, he survived. He was studying for the priesthood during the war. Jews were hidden in his seminary, disguised as priests, his brother vanished while serving in the Dutch under-ground and during time in Nazi captivity he met the future saints Fr. Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein. Later in life he would meet Mother Theresa as well, sitting on the floor at an airport. He was ordained in 1947 as a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, founded by St Vincent de Paul during the Counter-Reformation.
Although his friendly and joking manner was most obvious, Father Van Lare was foremost a Biblical scholar. He wrote over 30 books and pamphlets on the Church, the Bible and religious subjects and he could speak Dutch, English, French, German, Spanish, Latin, ancient Greek, Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese. He spent many years in China as a missionary during the Civil War and Communist takeover. After only five years in the country he was kept under armed guard constantly and was repeatedly being hauled into jail for interrogation. Unlike many, Father Van Lare survived, but he had to learn to be more clever than the police and always made it a point to act as if he was the sole ambassador of Christianity. One Communist official who had been harassing him was left speechless when Father Van said he would pray for her after learning that her family had been killed by troops of the Kuomintang. He ministered to the Chinese for many years and even baptized two Communist army captains in secret. After years of treatment as an enemy prisoner, Father Van was finally moved to the safety of Hong Kong.
I can say from my many long talks with the man, his focus was always on Jesus Christ and the apostles. He knew the Good Book from cover to cover (but never stopped studying) and although recognizing the full range of the Christian religion, he always emphasized Christ above all and how salvation was a lifelong struggle with no shortcuts, but that simply required tireless effort to do the will of God. He was also a very humble man who appreciated humility in others, and recognized many saints in the poor faithful of his own community. He was always quick to point out that saints can be anywhere, and that people can be turned toward God by someone else, without them ever being aware of it. He had plenty of health problems (none of which were related to the fact that he smoked like a chimney almost his entire life, oddly enough) but was always on call, 24/7, never locked his doors and, for such a small, frail, little old man was absolutely fearless. Probably a result of being thrown in prison by all the worst regimes of his time. He finally had to retire when he found himself growing blind and returned to The Netherlands to be near his family.
Heaven has gained a good one. I will miss him, as I have, though I must say, he doesn’t seem as far away to me now as he did when he was in Holland. Rest In Peace Father John. You’ve earned it.