Getting to the heart of the matter with Fr John
IT’s perhaps fitting that someone whose beloved Sunderland FC plays at the Stadium of Light has such a positive outlook on life, his vocation and mission and anyone who speaks to Comboni Missionary, Fr John Clark (above), will be aware of his energy and enthusiasm.
What is even more impressive is the fact that Fr John has experienced some dark times during his priesthood, from witnessing massacres in Belfast as a young priest, to contracting leprosy in Brazil—which still affects his mobility to this day—as well as seeing both a family member and a close friend murdered in the country too.
The thing that has kept Fr John going throughout the more testing times, however, is the power of the heart. Indeed, it is hardly surprising he chose to become a Comboni Father, given their full title as he explained: “The Verona Fathers were called Sons of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and for me the heart is very, very important, especially if you’re dealing with people who are suffering and that’s what attracted me to them. So, the heart is very important for me, you have to be attracted to it.”
Faithful examples Growing up in his native Sunderland—with his mum, dad, five brothers and two sisters—Fr John was able to witness many impressive examples of those who had very good hearts, one of whom was his ‘Gannie (Granny) Kelly,’ who he was very close to and described as having ‘a great sense of fairness’ and being as ‘straight as a dye.’
“She had character,” he said. “She taught me what it meant to have a heart for those who are suffering because in her job as a fish seller, she met a lot of people who needed help. She was a formidable woman. She had a faith that was concrete and set on helping people, getting them out of poverty and getting justice for them.”
As well as having family members with so much love in their hearts, Fr John has some early faithful examples of love to call upon as a catalyst for his vocation, most notably an Irish priest by the name of Fr Jeremiah O’Callaghan.
“Fr Jeremiah O’Callaghan was a great man with a big heart who loved the poor,” Fr John said. “He taught me what it means to help people in need. He helped a lot of people out in Sunderland who were going through hard times, paying electricity bills, rent and he always put his hand in his pocket.
“He was what attracted me to the priesthood. He was sent up from the main parish in Sunderland—St Mary’s—to this new housing scheme and when he came up, they were still building the houses and putting people in them when they were finished. He came up and simply brought with him a tent. So, he camped out in the fields and the people—including the Protestants people— thought there was something odd about this, so they asked him: ‘What are you doing here father?’ And he said: ‘I’m waiting for them to put me in a house.’ They replied: ‘Oh no father we’ll sort this out.’ So, they went down to the housing office and got him a house that same day! He never forgot the generosity of all the people who helped him out.”
Having spoken to Fr Callaghan of his desire to take up his vocation, there was no looking back for Fr John and despite a late attempt by the White Fathers to poach him and suffering homesickness is his early seminary days, he remains grateful to have been called to the priesthood.
“That’s what a vocation means, that you are called, you are chosen,” he explained. “I’m grateful He chose me. I’ve only ever wanted to have a heart that is close to people who are suffering. That’s all I ever wanted to be in life. I don’t want titles or acclamation. It’s all about poor people.”
Baptism of fire in Belfast Fr John’s experience of being close to those who were suffering was brought into sharp focus during his time spent in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast in the 1970s. In 1971, between August 9 and 11, a series of incidents involving the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment of the British Army resulted in the deaths of 11 civilians in Ballymurphy as part of Operation Demetrius—internment without trial. The shootings were later referred to as ‘Belfast's Bloody Sunday.’ The 1972 inquests had returned an open verdict on all of the killings, but in 2021, a coroner’s report found that all those killed had been innocent and that the killings were ‘without justification.’ Many of the dead were known to Fr John, including Fr Hugh Mullan, who was shot while going to the aid of a wounded man while reputedly waving a white cloth to indicate his intentions. The following year, on July 9, in the nearby Springhill area, five civilians were killed in similar circumstances by the British Army, among them was another priest known to Fr John, Fr Noel Fitzpatrick who was also reportedly seen to be waving a white cloth above his head to display himself as a non-combatant but was nonetheless fired upon and killed.
“I trained with the La Salle Brothers and I landed in St Patrick’s Training School in Belfast, the night before internment,” Fr John said. “The following year I went there for the summer too and after that I worked as a teacher and helped in ‘The Murph.’ Before I went to Brazil, I was on loan to the Diocese of Down and Connor. To be honest the best time of my life as a priest was in The Murph. I was with great people; they strengthened my faith and I strengthened theirs.
“That said, a lot of the stuff I’m watching on television at the minute about war brings back a lot of memories. The tears roll down my eyes. And of course, two priests from the parish—Hugh Mullan and Noel Fitzpatrick (above)—were killed. They inspired me. Every morning I get up I say a prayer to them to ask them to let me be a priest like them and give my own life for people. They were great examples for me. You can kill a priest in The Murph, but priests will spring up all over the world.”
While Fr John, living in what was effectively the nucleus of a war zone, had some frightening experiences in Ballymurphy—including when the British Army used him as a human shield to prevent an attack from the IRA—there were some humorous moments among the difficult times too.
“I remember one day the Blackwatch were coming down from the top of the Whiterock and there was a soldier both left and right,” Fr John recalled. “I was walking up there with a nun—a Daughter of Charity—and the soldier on the left started cursing at me. The soldier on the other side started shouting at him and telling him to leave the priest alone and to stop it. The other one threw his gun down and went across and they started fighting. All the locals went out and they said: ‘See you Clarky, you’ve even got the Brits fighting among themselves!’
“In all seriousness, it was the best apprenticeship I had to be a priest. You need people to tell you what life’s all about and you need to be willing to learn. That’s the life of a missionary. I learned from the faith of people there, people with great faith. I grew up in Belfast. I learned all my theory and spirituality, but it was being near to the people there that I really came to life.”
Brazil bound With the experience of Belfast under his belt and strengthened by the Eucharist and Our Lady, Fr John headed to Brazil, where he would spend the next 20 years of his missionary life—17 of them in the Amazon Jungle, where he worked among the native people. While he speaks with great love and affection for his time spent there, it wasn’t without its own trials and tribulations. He caught leprosy, which resulted in the bone in his right leg being shorter than that in the left. However, it was his desire—and that of others—to stand up for the rights of the poor and native people that would prove extremely challenging. Although he was moved up to the Amazon because of his support for the indigenous peoples and even had his Masses recorded, there were some who suffered worse fates than Fr John.
“My curate—Ezechiele Ramin—was assassinated,” Fr John lamented. “They put 76 bullets into him because he was on the side of the poor. I knew Ezechiele was the weakest link in the chain. I knew how these people operated. They were trying to get me left, right and centre but the native people were on my side. They would tell me where not to go. They tipped you off. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the experience that I had. So, he was ambushed one day because he stood up for the indigenous people. His cause for Beatification is progressing but to me he’s already a saint.
Fr John was also to lose his brother—Charles—in Brazil as a result of standing up for what was right. He was in Merchant Navy and was assassinated by the police in Belen, Brazil. Fr John had planned to meet up with him, but he was killed before I got there.
“He was working for Texaco and he was in charge of safety—a chief engineer,” Fr John said. “Typical of our family, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was sticking his neck out for the Brazilians and bemoaning the safety record. I went to the British Embassy in Brasilia to get his notebook, because what my dad always taught us was to take a register wherever go for each day. So, I went through his books and they explained that he was offered anything he wanted—money and women—but he wasn’t interested in that. Charles McKenna Clark, he was the best one out of the family.”
In spite of these sad losses, Fr John’s dedication to the poor, the marginalised and the indigenous people of Brazil never wavered, indeed he says his heart is still with them.
“I always remember I was leaving a place on the Venezuela-Brazil border and one of the leaders said to me in Portuguese: ‘Fr John, see when you’re leaving this place, a lot of people will be happy and glad to see you back, but never forget that the poor here love you,’” Fr John said. “But I knew that. I didn’t need to be told that. People knew what I stood for. As a missionary I have no claim. I’ve never built a chapel or a school, I’ve never even built a wall, but I can honestly say that I’ve helped in the formation of leaders in the community. I mean real leaders.”
Mission and missionaries During his time in Brazil, Fr John really developed a strong sense of what he believes the term mission means and also the characteristics a missionary should possess.