ZIMBABWE – Forty years ago, John Randal Bradburne refused to leave his ministry with the lepers of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the country’s civil war. He served the Mutemwa leper colony for ten years, and was eventually kidnapped and shot.
Today is the fortieth anniversary of his martyrdom, and the cause for John’s beatification is officially open. The Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes issued a formal “nihil obstat” on July 1, 2019.
Archbishop Ndlovu marked the opening of the cause for beatification today with a Mass in Mutemwa, where John served the leper community.
“He did a good thing, and that is what it is about,” Kate McPherson of the John Bradburne Memorial Trust told Catholic News Service. “The love the lepers continue to have for him, because of his sacrifices, is truly astonishing.”
Dubbed the “Damien of the 20th century,” John’s story is reminiscent of the sacrificial life of Saint Damien of Molokai. John was a convert and a lay member of the Franciscans. A prolific poet, he wrote over 6,000 poems, landing him in the Guinness Book of Records.
John was born in 1921 in Cumberland, and his father was an Anglican clergyman. But after after John had a religious experience while serving in the army, he converted to Catholicism.
John discerned with the Benedictines, but eventually joined the Secular Franciscan Order. He traveled through England, France, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East carrying just one suitcase.
In 1962, he asked a Jesuit friend in a letter, “Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?” This simple request led John to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). There, he found the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement, where lepers lived completely abandoned by friends and family.
After seeing their desire for community, John shared that his only three wishes in life were to help the victims of leprosy, to die a martyr, and to be buried in a Franciscan habit.
Although friends warned John to leave in the last year of the Rhodesian Bush War, he refused. Guerrillas accused him of being an informer, and they shot and killed him. He was buried in a Franciscan habit at the Chishawasha Mission Center.
In 2001, Father Paschal Slevin, OFM, requested John’s canonization, saying “I have no doubt that John died a martyr in his determination to serve his friends, the lepers. If his martyrdom is accepted, his cause for sainthood could go quite quickly.”