The Weekend Australian - Review
THE FIRST WORD
Recently I caught the end of the 7.30 report on ABC TV. It showed a young singer performing a haunting piece of church music in Melbourne’s Anglican cathedral. The vision cut to the deserted, melancholy streets of Melbourne’s CBD. While the scenes were ineffably sad, the music, though heart-rending, was strangely consoling.
Here in plague city, the churches have been too quiet in lockdown. They should be considered an essential industry. For they provide unique comfort.
I was consoled and inspired by a strange piece of church news lately, the death of a much admired American Jesuit priest, Paul Mankowski. Of course I was saddened by his death, but much inspired by the life I discovered in his many obituaries.
The best was by Tony Abbott, in the incomparable US journal, First Things. Tony knew Mankowski at Oxford, more than 40 years ago.
Tony has told me more than once that Mankowski is the finest man he ever knew. In First Things, Tony said he always felt the lesser man compared with Mankowski.
I met Mankowski only once, but he certainly left an impression. Way back in 1984 on my first trip to the US, Tony put me in touch with Mankowski, who was then completing his doctorate in Biblical languages at Harvard. I was a callow youth in my 20s, Mankowski just a couple of years older. He had a few friends round to the small Jesuit house he was sharing and we enjoyed a meal.
My sense was of a thoughtful, formidable, committed man, great company certainly but with a deliberate and reflective cast of mind.
I wrote about him in my book, God is Good for You.
Mankowski had convinced Tony to take up boxing at Oxford, which was a great success for
Tony, who became heavyweight champion and knocked out all comers. Mankowski’s boxing technique, Tony recalls, was less to throw punches than to remain upright.
He struck me as a man who remained upright in all circumstances. When I met him in Boston, he had just returned from a couple of months working with Mother Teresa’s nuns in India, serving people among the poorest and most neglected in the world.
Was he tempted to make this work his life’s work, I asked. He thought about his answer and replied with all modesty that such a life was too demanding, he was not strong enough, not tough enough, to undertake it permanently. I wrote about this in my book not so much to reflect on Mankowski’s singular modesty as on Mother Teresa’s courage and greatness.
But I discovered, in one of Mankowski’s many obituaries, that until his own health made it impossible, he would spend almost every Easter and Christmas working with Mother Teresa’s missionaries. As a professor of Biblical languages at Rome’s Pontifical Institute, he had substantial Christmas and Easter breaks.
I guess he had already decided on that long commitment to Mother Teresa’s work when we met in Boston. But he was a completely othercentred person. Another obituarist noted the seriousness of his vow of poverty. He never owned more than could fit in a suitcase.
Although I met him only the once, I felt I knew Mankowski because he figured so often in Tony’s conversation. They stayed in frequent contact all those years, including when Tony was PM. Recently I’ve been reading some of Mankowski’s extensive writings — an unusual mix of trenchant, brilliant, subtle, direct. I’m sorry he is dead. But I’m glad he lived, glad to have had even so tangential a connection with a great spirit.