AS Mill Hill Missionary Father, John Doran, spoke to me from his current home in Glasgow, I don’t think he’d have been aware of some of the intriguing parallels between his early life as a young boy growing up in Bootle, Merseyside, and his time as a missionary priest in the Philippines (above), the Falkland Islands and South Africa.
Both of Fr John’s parents were practising Catholics and hard-working people, meaning that he had a good life and faith example from within the family home. His father was a docker and his mother held several jobs—including being Secretary to the Town Clerk. That profession, and that of his father, would have some resonance during his time on mission in later life. Long before taking up his vocation though, an early missionary fire was kindled within him due in no small part to his parents immersing him in his faith.
“I think the notion of becoming a missionary probably came from collecting the mission boxes with my mum,” Fr John said. “My Dad would usually go with her, but if he was working, I’d go with her, walking the streets with her like her own little bodyguard.
“I also used to go to the Mill Hill House nearby and read all the missionaries’ magazines. I’ve always sold the Comboni Missionaries Calendar too after making a promise to them after telling them I’d committed myself to the Mill Hill Fathers in the wake of a talk at my school. Both my Mum and I sold it on their behalf and because of that promise that I still do that to this day nearly 60 years later!”
So, the seed was planted on the streets while collecting for the missions and via school visits. There was never really much thought given to anything else, despite the fact that Fr John was a very good amateur boxer and had also toyed with the idea of becoming a soldier or marine. He probably didn’t realise it then, but those combative skills would be later called upon during his time on the missions.
Before getting to that point though, Fr John had to discern his vocation and he had his own particular take on how people arrive at the decision to answer that call from God.
“The simple definition of vocation is the call from God, that’s it,” he said. “That call can come as a voice from Heaven, but also through TV, social media or even via a film—I know people who have become priests because of a film. So, it can come in any way but ultimately it is a call from God.
“There are two things about it too. There is usually a time or a moment where you make up your mind. That’s true of everyone I’ve met. There is a process, but there is also a decisive moment. I made mine early, as was the way it was done in those days. The other thing I’d say is that, in my experience, a lot of people have one major obstacle to get over to join. It may be the fact that you are in love with someone, it may be giving up a promising career or education, it may be giving up a fine house, a loving family or the prospect of a loving family or a lifetime adventure. For most people there is usually one big thing, there may be a few, but there’s usually one big thing. It may be health too; someone may have a serious health problem that they need to overcome.”
Fr John’s insights don’t end there either. Having spent many years promoting vocations in the UK, but also being involved in promoting them in South Africa too, he has a very universal perspective, especially when it comes to discerning a vocation to the missionary priesthood and its surprises and rewards.
“The hard thing about being a missionary I think is actually deciding to do it, because you’re not just deciding to be a priest and all that that entails, you’re deciding to leave home, your family, your friends, your climate, your language and your food,” he explained. “It’s about realising that you are going to be a foreigner forever. Even when you come home after 10, 15, 20 years, you’ve become a foreigner. You’re a foreigner wherever you’re sent, and you come home and you’re almost a foreigner again.
“It does come with pleasant surprises though. One of the things we realise is that we are evangelised by the people we go to—Pope Francis has said that and it’s true. We go to evangelise, but we end up being evangelised by the people we go to. And it’s all about love. You end up living a life full of love. People love you and we love them.
“It’s actually a privilege to go to the other side of the world and be accepted the minute you step off the plane, because of the example of good missionaries that have gone before you.”
Made for mission
Fr John has left his own good example during his time on mission that has spanned decades, and indeed, the continents. After he was ordained, he was sent to the Philippines for seven years, then returned to England for five years to do vocations work for the Mill Hill Missionaries. After that, he was back on his travels, this time to the Falkland Islands for four years, before returning to England once again to promote vocations work for three years. He was then made the Superior for Mill Hill in Britain, a position he held for three years. He was allowed to live at home for seven years and nurse his mum, where he learned to cook, nurse and to run a house. When his mum died at the age of 97, he was sent to South Africa (above) and spent 13 years there and was then brought home to work in Britain and assigned to Scotland, where he currently lives and works.
“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been received really well, and I loved all the countries I’ve lived and worked in,” Fr John said. “I was very at home in the Philippines. I never spoke English for three years in the Philippines, that’s how well I fitted in. I spoke better Filipino then on the island than anyone spoke English.
“The Falklands was great and you were dealing in your own language too. I spent four years there as chaplain to the forces, which was great. God was probably giving me that as a little consolation prize for not having chosen to be a soldier or a marine!
“And then there’s South Africa. Africa gets into your blood; I was told that and it’s true. I had been there for three years and a farmer I knew just said to me, out of the blue, as we were standing cooking meat by a fire one night: ‘I’ve been watching you. You’ll never leave Africa.’ I laughed and said: ‘What do you mean? I’m really a Filipino missionary, I’m just here for now.’ He replied: ‘No I’ve been watching you; I can see it in your eyes, Africa has gotten into your blood already. You’ll never leave.’ I laughed at the time, but over the years, and by the time I’d been there for 10 years, I realised he was right. I’d never have left Africa if it was up to me!”
The fact that Fr John considered himself a Filipino missionary is not surprising given how embedded he became with the people and culture there. His experiences during his time in the country were also very varied and, at times, challenging. There were also echoes of his own childhood in Merseyside in the Philippines. His father was a docker and he found himself rowing his own boat from island to island and his mother had experience of local politics and Fr John was to experience the good, bad and ugly side of that too.
“In the Philippines I arrived on a hot day in March, stepped out the plane and I felt that there was a Catholic atmosphere, because it’s a Catholic country, so you don’t have to explain who you are or what you do,” he said. “I’ve lots and lots of memories from my time there—great things and some scary things! A lot of my memories are tied up with the sea. I had my own boat, and we were at sea a lot, six months of the year more or less. For three months of the year we tried not to travel because it was so dangerous in terms of the weather.”
However, the peril of the sea wasn’t always the most troubling issue. Warring factions and their presence at Mass was something that Fr John had to deal with, especially as they often carried their weapons with them. Having explained that a missionary has to be generous, adaptable and durable to succeed, the latter two points were definitely put to the test in this scenario.
“When celebrating Mass in the Philippines there were two big families in attendance, who were feuding like Campbells and McDonalds in the Highlands for example,” he said. “We had to ask them to hand their weapons over to us. I’d say to them: ‘Take out your magazines and give the guns to the altar server,’ and they’d reply that they ‘didn’t want to because they might have to grab it right at the end of Mass and shoot someone!’ So, if they wouldn’t take out the magazine, they’d have to give it to me because I didn’t want the altar server handling a weapon with a magazine. The deal was magazines out and safety catch on. If they did that, the altar server could take them and put them on my bed. If they weren’t prepared to do that they had to come to me with the safety catch on, magazine in and I’d put them on my bed.
“I wasn’t worried about anything happening during Mass though, if there was going to be trouble it would have taken place afterwards.”
Clashes with councilman
Fr John would encounter equally difficult situations in the Philippines with the Mayor of the islands no less. This is where his boxing training would come in handy as he had to bob and weave at times and often found himself on the ropes. One such occasion saw the missionary priest left marooned on an island, that wasn’t his own, after a disagreement with the council official. Without a boat of his own at that time, it was up to two good Samaritans—who were no fans of the Mayor—to ferry Fr John back home. “I half expected my house and church to have been burnt down, but they weren’t,” he joked. On another occasion, the Mayor ordered Fr John to leave the islands once again after he refused to celebrate a Thanksgiving Mass for him in the wake of a rigged election. While that spat died down, the council official would purposely send documents to the curate to be counter-signed instead to show his lack of respect for the parish priest.
Fr John, however, was capable of landing knockout blows of his own and when his chief Catechist told him that the council intended building a road through where the church was situated, he called the Mayor’s bluff by stating that he and a lay missionary who worked with him intended to leave the islands for good. He also challenged his parishioners to oppose any such move by letting them know that no priest would return to the islands under such conditions. The posturing worked and the Mayor backed down, not only offering him two new rice fields but also stating that there were never any plans to build the aforementioned road! “He probably did that just to rattle me,” Fr John said.
While it was a relationship that often navigated through stormy waters—literally and metaphorically—an uplifting maritime incident showed that there were times where they could work together in tandem for the common good.
“We rescued a boatload of ethnic Chinese people from Vietnam—62 in total—who had been at sea for more than a month,” Fr John recalled. “They had been trying to escape persecution at the hands of the Communist Government there. Soldiers had taken off the captain and engineer for questioning and as a storm began to rage, the three guards who were left in charge of them jumped back into their own boat and left them. Their boat then dragged its anchor, so they were driven out into the South China Sea with no captain, engineer and seamen on board—the oldest on board was a man in his 60s and the youngest a babe in arms.
“They had use of the engine for about a week, but then they lost it and couldn’t repair it, so they spent the rest of the time at the mercy of the wind and waves. For the last eight days they had no food. They kept themselves alive by laying on their backs and drinking the rainwater. They were getting weaker and weaker and every sunset, sharks would circle the boat waiting for the weakest to be pushed off. That had to be quite disturbing for all involved.”
After hitting the reef on one of Fr John’s islands, but still too weak to get out of the boat, some of the parishioners swam out to rescue them and bring them ashore. They were then fed and cared for by the islanders—who dipped into their own reserves—and initially taken to the site of a new proposed library by the Protestant Vice Mayor. However, after complaining about the harassment from some of the Protestant missionaries charged with looking after them, Fr John brought many of the refugees to his parish house, while finding some room for them at the Town Hall too. After a heated town council meeting with the Vice Mayor, the priest was worried that his decision to take the refugees into his care might upset the Mayor too, but the councilman allayed his fears and commended him for his actions.
“He was of Chinese descent himself, so the rescue touched him,” Fr John said. “He held a meeting with the refugees—who feared being repatriated to Vietnam—and said: ‘You will have heard that the Philippine Government are talking about repatriating people like you to Vietnam. Well, let me tell you, it doesn’t matter on these islands who the President of the Philippines is, or who the Pope is, what matters is who the Mayor is and that’s me and who the parish priest is and that’s Fr John. What we say in these islands is law and if we agree, as we do on this, nobody will make us do anything, so you have my word. I know many of you want to go to the US and Germany, but if all else fails I promise that the 40 of you have a place on Semirara and you will have land there and you can live and die there if you want.’ He told them he would be proud to have them as fellow citizens so that was a big weight off their shoulders. This was one of his high points in office.”
Fond and faith-filled memories
As for Fr John’s own high points, he says that they are ‘too numerous to mention,’ and looks back fondly on his time spent overseas on mission. That said, he added that ‘being a missionary is about trying to be a real Christian wherever you are,’ something that he and the Mill Hill Missionaries have endeavoured to live up to. As a result of that, their numbers continue to grow most notably in Africa and Asia. However, Fr John said that the support—both spiritual and material—from organisations such as Missio Scotland, is crucial to ensuring that the faith continues to grow throughout the world.
“To me, being a Christian is being missionary, so we have to try to be missionary in our own situations, but we also have to try to help those who do actually go abroad to live and serve the faithful, and for me, it was a great privilege to have done that,” he said. “We have to support our missionaries in our prayers, our actions and materially too and they’ll do the same. Often the people who are praying for us, also donate to us too. It doesn’t have to be a fortune either, it could be the widow’s mite, but as a result of that when we die, we’ll meet people in heaven who we won’t know who they are, but these will maybe the children of people who have been helped by our generosity decades before.
“Missio Scotland helps us to preach the Gospel in places that are often seen as difficult to reach and they help us to do it not necessarily in words, but in witness by your life, which obviously includes prayer.”