Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The priest

During my time in Croatia one of the most poignant visits was to a priests' house in a village outside Dubrovnik. The memory of the visit still remains as fresh in my mind as the first taste of the yellow-gold plum grappa that the priest offered us as a welcome drink as is customary over there. (He'd offered two kinds of beverage--grappa and the herb brandy which was medicinal and I had three quick shots of the delicious medicine and two of the grappa. I'd have had a sixth and a seventh, but Larry started to object to my (what I'd considered) stealthy siddling toward the drinks board, and the priest's maid who served the drinks became somewhat Stalinist in her behaviour.)

The village was pretty, constructed of stone with red-tiled roofs, and nestled high in a mountain. As we got off the bus, we followed the tour guide along a winding path that led to the priests house. At every entrance to a house was a memorial to family members who'd been executed by Tito's partisan army during the second world war. My eyes were instantly opened to a second, less well known or discussed mass murdering--the killing of millions of Yugoslavs who'd refused to support General Tito's communist dictates--during and after World War II. The priest also had a monument outside his house that bore the names of seven members of his family--his parents and five siblings--who'd been executed that morning by the partisans. In fact, the priest, then six-years-old, had escaped shooting by hiding in the shaft of a well until they army had left. I can only imagine the images in his young mind when he climbed out and saw an entire village of corpses.

Craggy of feature with silver hair and a wide smile, the priest was about sixty-five and his stooping gait told of a hard life. Humility and happiness dualed half-heartedly for supremacy within his shiny irises. When I shook his hand, it was as if more than his blood warmth passed beneath my skin. It seemed as if his entire history, the ancient pain, his extreme calm and kindness entered my body and the sensation aroused in me a deep curiosity to know more about this man of the cloth and his life. That was not to be because he didn't speak a word of English and relied solely on the services of our guide whose English wasn't fully up to the task. In any event, it was clear he was a man of greatness and I must say--though I tend to rail against the hypocrisy of organized religion--I saw God in every aspect of him and I can say in total honesty that not many priests make me think like that.

A wealthy, kind German woman had been told of his plight and took him in as a child. She arranged for his education and, on her death, the priest inherited her entire estate and used the proceeds to bring the village back to life. He rebuilt his parents home and it was truly poignant to walk into the room where he'd been born and see his parents photographs and the crib where he'd lain as a child. He oversees teh spiritual needs of a large parish (Croatia is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and most people still practice their faith) and supports the village by cooking meals and selling grappa and the 'brandy medicine.' Lunch comprised delicious freshly baked bread and homemade virgin olive oil, sardines--a tad salty for my taste--and hearty vegetable soup, all served by the same smiling, buxom Croatian maid in a local costume who'd observed my liking for the local medicine.

An afternoon never to be forgotten.

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6 comments:

Ernesto Raul said...

It sounds like a lovely afternoon.

Damian McNicholl said...

It was, Ernesto

Trevor said...

Damian,
When I first started reading your weblog, I thought that Larry was your dog.

Patry Francis said...

Very inspiring post.

Sustenance Scout said...

I wandered your way via Patry's blog...thank you for the memorable image of a kind soul who gave so much despite having suffered so terribly, and for insights into Yugoslavian history. I can't help but wonder which of today's tragedies will be overlooked by tomorrow's history books. Will we ever learn?

Damian McNicholl said...

Thanks for your comments and, yes, he was an inspiring human being.