Sunday, April 29, 2012

Remembering a Departed Friend

If I may be allowed a personal moment today, yesterday I learned of the loss of a very dear and great man, Reverend Father John Van Lare CM who died on Tuesday April 17, 2012 at a nursing home in Panningen, The Netherlands. He was a man of God, a servant to the least of these his brethren all around the world and a loyal subject to three Queens during his lifetime. I came to know him as he served the parish in a dusty little nearby town in south Texas and surrounding areas from 1952 to 1964 and from 1979 until his recent retirement on August 26, 2004, a total of 37 years of faithful service at almost 85 years old and with failing eyesight. He was on good terms with all the local religious leaders, though he was not comfortable meeting alone with the Methodist pastors once the first woman pastor came to town. He had quite an impact on the community and was quite a unique individual. He is the only Catholic priest I have ever met who objected to the use of the term “Roman Catholic”. He felt it ignored the non-Roman rites as well as the fact that the Orthodox were “Roman” as well. He also thought the phrase “Merry Christmas” implied something sinful and insisted on saying “Happy Christmas” instead. He would often say a mass in English, give the homily in Spanish and always said blessings in Latin. He was, as I say, a unique individual.

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.

It was here that the Apostolic Delegate decided that the United States would be Father John's next destination and sent him to south Texas for the first time in 1953. He did tremendous work, building a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the first (Catholic) stone church in the area dedicated to the Sacred Heart. In those early days every house was encouraged to have a Sacred Heart “enthronement” ceremony and most did. He left south Texas in 1964 to go to Taiwan where he worked for the next fifteen years. But the man from the damp, cold Low Country had grown attached to hot and dry south Texas and was able to return in 1979 where he would continue to serve for 25 more years. He was always very friendly and ready to tell or hear a joke. He was one of the most animated and interesting preachers I have ever heard, having a wealth of personal experience to draw from, he had a keen sense of what was really important and what was not. He could see to the heart of a matter.

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.

Monarchists here may be glad to know that, no matter where he went in the world, in civil terms he always considered himself first and foremost a subject of the Queen of The Netherlands (whichever one happened to be reigning at that point in his life). He was of the mind that they work for God, politicians work for themselves. I know some here will not be so glad to know that he considered the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy and the loss of the Papal States as one of the greatest blessings in disguise the Catholic Church ever received. However, he was not the sort to ever pay much attention to politics. Administering the sacraments was his job and he did it all over the world and never cared much what sort of government existed so long as it did not prevent him from fulfilling his calling. Still, he was his Queen’s loyal subject, but God’s first of course. The world will be the worse off for his absence but though I was sad the night he left to go back home, I am keeping it together tonight. I have no doubt that I know where he is now and that, for the first time in nearly ten years, he can see again. If God sees fit to bend the rules enough for me to get into Heaven one of these days, I will head for the celestial smoking section where I will be sure to find Father Van and we can continue our talks on Christian history, Europe and the Far East, and then without interruption.

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.


  1. I do feel for your loss, MM. I've never lost a pastor, so I cannot pretend to understand how you feel to have lost your church's priest. He sounds like he was a very good man, and a good subject to the Dutch crown, and he lived a good long, Christian life. My prayers with you and yours and with his parish.

  2. I am sorry to hear of the loss, Mad Monarchist. I will pray for the repose of his soul, he sounds like he was a very interesting man.

  3. He seems like a great man. There is no doubt that he will ascend to heaven. Rest In Peace John Van Lare. My condolences to you, MM.

  4. As soon as I saw C.M. I recognized that as a Vincentian.
    They are incredible missionaries and usually spread the
    Miraculous Medal, which is great.

    It's sad when this generation of remarkable priests and brothers
    dies off completely. There will be NO priests who are willing
    to be on call after 5 pm !

    Fr Van Lare met St Maximilian Kolbe ? Astonishing !

    I wish he had written his memoirs earlier when his eyesight permitted.
    What a loss.

    Now there is THIS valuable account to give some gleams into an
    incredible priestly life! It was well worth writing up.

    Maybe someone could do a book of collected lives of Vincentian missionaries.

    P.S. - Fr. Van Lare was RIGHT to avoid the woman "minister".
    Priests MUST be uncompromisingly strong in all these departments,
    never going with contemporary ways of behaving to please the crowd.

  5. I feel for your loss. Thank you for sharing your friend with us. May he rest in peace!

  6. Just read this for the first time. Touching portrayal of a man that led a fascinating life. Thanks for sharing and may Fr. Van Lare rest in eternal peace in the celestial smoking section.

  7. I am from that small Southern town in Texas of which you speak of..he married my parents and most of my relatives..he gave the eulogy for my grandmother Lupita.. I use to help clean up his house and typed the songbook sheets for him...yes..he smoked..but it never bothered me... I was always hanging around the home life was sad and I would find any excuse to be at Sacred Heart near Father John.

    He performed my confirmation...he taught me how to pray in Latin...

    When I heard of his passing I cried like a child losing it's parent.. I realized this was my heart.

    Thank you for this great tribute and testimony of my priest of many years in Cotulla Texas...Rest in Peace Father John...when I see you again.. I will take your cigarettes lighter.

    Bye for now.


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