The Weekend Australian - Review

THE FIRST WORD

- GREG SHERI­DAN Society of Jesus · Tony Abbott · Oxford · Oxford University · United States of America · Harvard University · Harvard University · Boston · India · Rome

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.

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