A GENTLE JESUIT: Philip Caraman SJ
by June Rockett
(Gracewing, 2004, $55.00. Available from AD Books)
I met this "gentle Jesuit" myself in Norway in 1967 when I volunteered to go there and help in the Catholic parish of Oslo.
From the outset Fr Caraman intrigued me; not only through his knowledge of history, which was his passion, but more through his wit and humour. Here was a cultured priest, a scholar. One wondered what he, an Englishman and a Jesuit, was doing in this strange land that had banned Jesuits for centuries.
Yet, this Jesuit, with a reputation for many scholarly exploits in his own country, who was in every way different from other English Jesuits, was accepted and totally committed to the mission in Norway.
And now this wonderful biography has told the complete story of the remarkable life of this extraordinary man.
Born in London in 1911, Philip George Caraman was the middle son of nine children - two boys and seven girls - of devoutly Catholic Armenian parents who immigrated to Britain after brutal civil war in their own country, and settled in Hampstead. Both boys became Jesuit priests and two of the girls became nuns.
Both boys attended the famous Jesuit college of Stoneyhurst. There Caraman first met Fr Martin D'Arcy, the renowned Jesuit academic, leading intellectual and later the founder and Master of Campion Hall in Oxford, where he was to renew the friendship.
This college of the intellectual elite had a priceless library and manuscript archives of former Jesuits who were martyred during the Reformation, opening up a rich pile of history for future historians of whom Caraman was the most prominent.
Young Phillip's forte being historical biography, this led him to make inroads into these archives for his famous books on the heroic lives of the Jesuit martyrs at the time of the Reformation.
His book on the Jesuit missions in Paraguay told the truth about the cruelty Jesuit missioners had suffered; their exiles, hardships, and martyrdoms. So successful was the book on the Reductions, titled The Lost Empire, that the famous writer, Robert Bolt, used the book which was transferred to the screen as The Mission.
Caraman's career began early when his old Master from Campion Hall, Fr D'Arcy, took him under his wing and prepared him for the task of reviving the Jesuit periodical, The Month. It was on its last legs at the time, and dying fast. Fr D'Arcy appointed him editor, with unbounded confidence. He was not to be disappointed. His protegé was a brilliant success and an editor to match the best of British magazine editors.
He changed the print, the layout, the cover design, and anything else that enhanced the quality of the magazine. He employed distinguished writers, such as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Edith Sitwell, Muriel Stark, and the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.
Not only were many of his writers non-Catholics, he converted many of them to Catholicism, baptising their children and marrying them. He was also a regular guest in their homes.
The actor Alec Guinness, one of his converts, became one of his closest friends, as well as an admirer. Humour characterised many of the letters Guinness wrote to Philip in Norway. "Do you think that the ridiculous Star Wars is giving rise to a new heresy and shall I be called before the Inquisition?" he asked jokingly.
In 1959 Fr Caraman began work on the cause of the English martyrs of the Reformation period at his office in Farm Street, London. He was totally involved and had many assistants. However, there was some unwelcome friction in the office, which led to Caraman being summoned by the English Provincial. It seems that some Jesuits felt that Caraman was becoming too "worldly minded", and resented his popularity. It resulted in Caraman being dismissed from the editorship of The Month and exiled to Norway.
June Rockett deals brilliantly with his life in Norway and his great contribution to the needy Norwegian Church. He both practised as a parish priest in outback places in freezing temperatures and continued his writing. One of his books was Norway, an account of his journey to the north of the country. Having mastered the language, he preached and ministered to its people in places of freezing temperatures for most of the year.
In later life he travelled endlessly, even coming to Australia. But his greatest success at this time of his life was as parish priest at a little English town in Somerset, called Dulverton, where he spent the remainder of his days on earth.
Every aspect of his life is covered in this excellent biography: his faithfulness to his craft as writer, his loyalty to his friends and, above all, the centrality of his vocation as a Jesuit priest.
George Russo is a Perth-based Catholic writer.