This month, February 2014, I attended two funerals, both for the same man. At the first his holy, humble spirit pervaded the church, though his body wasn’t present. At the second the body was there all right, but of the spirit there was little evidence. Even when the coffin finally made it to the graveyard it was reluctant to be lowered into its pit.
The place of burial was the cemetery in Fatima, Portugal, one of the world’s great Marian apparition shrines. It is a place where any Catholic would be proud to be buried. The place of the first funeral was Cidade Velha, Santiago Island, Cabo Verde. The deceased was the 79 year old Father Edwin Carmel Gordon. He had died on the 14th of February in Cidade Velha.
Father Gordon was an English priest. He was a diabetic and had been blind for 32 years. On his retirement from his parish in the Clifton Diocese some dozen years before, he moved to Fatima where he celebrated Mass daily in a Fatima chapel, having the prayers and reading taped for him each day and transmitted by a voice recorder.
He had come to Cabo Verde in December to escape the wet and cold in Portugal. The young man who was looking after him, Edmilson Ferreira, hails from Cabo Verde and Father had been with him to the island several times before, knew it well, and was well known there. No! ‘Well known’ is too pale, inadequate a phrase to express the devoted following he had on the island. Deeply loved is more appropriate, and respected, and cherished, even by those of little or no faith.
In his ministry (in which the concept of ‘retirement’ was non-existent) he filled the churches he visited – and the confessionals – even though communication was in Spanish instead of Portuguese or the local Creole. Wherever he went young people flocked to him. He had the young men praying the rosary on the beads they wore around their necks. Apparently at a recent Mass in Praia, the capital, a two-hour queue of people formed to receive his blessing. Indeed, everything he touched proved so fruitful, the people so understanding of his ailments and anxious to be his eyes, and the climate so kind to his aging bones, that he had decided to move to the island for the remainder of his days when, at 9am on the morning of Friday 14th February, he died, without fuss, in his bed.
In no time a stunned sadness covered the Cabo Verdian island of Santiago. I can testify to this because I flew out to Praia the capital, on the Sunday night. The details of his funeral were given on the local radio, the obituary cards printed and hundreds upon hundreds of people took the days off work to come for the afternoon Mass, followed by an all-night vigil in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the open coffin, and the funeral Mass proper and burial the next day. The bishop of Cabo Verde had postponed the opening of the annual priests retreat for a day and was to celebrate the vigil Mass himself. One girl I came across had defied dismissal from her job to attend.
Imagine their incomprehension when they arrived to find no Mass, no vigil, no burial and no body because devout, well-intentioned friends in Fatima had lobbied successfully to have the body brought back to Fatima for burial.
I stayed on for a few days. Everywhere I went I was enchanted by the goodness and ingenuity of the people. Many seemed to think that I was another Fr Gordon, though it didn’t take long for them to be disillusioned.
One afternoon Edmilson drove me into the heart of the surprisingly large, volcanic island. The landscape was the tropics of the imagination - the best of the Caribbean, Polynesia and Borneo – papayas, palms and the people family-orientated. Seat-belts were not obligatory. No one smoked. Goats and herds of placid bulls roamed free on the highway. A man on a solitary road beyond the city refused a lift with an embracing grin. He could be a pilgrim in 1st century Judea, or on the Appian Way, or the road to Samarkand, give or take the odd satellite dish.
The hills were covered with acacia, the variety with fern-shaped leaves. Their function is clearly to bind the soil against erosion. Further inland the terrain became mountainous with sharp silhouettes against the blue sky; now witches’ talons and hump-backed lions, now arthritic chain-saws and sentences in wild alphabets. High above a remote valley vultures circled ominously. Clearly some stray goat or steer was breathing its last in the waterless wastes.
An inedible lunch in a largish town called Assomada. Assomada marks the centre of the island. Goodness knows what it’s doing there.
On the day I was to return to Fatima for the second funeral I was alone for a period so I crossed the cobbles and climbed the steps to the church, the oldest in subtropical Africa, to take photos of an area to the side of the building. I had noticed how, on the Sunday, the children were given Catechism there for an hour or so before Sunday Mass, in the heat of the tropical sun, a heat which must be ferocious in summer. After hearing some of the parents lament that part of this area wasn’t covered and provided with seating for the children, I considered approaching those who frequented Father’s Masses in Fatima, particularly the Irish pilgrims, and to see if they might be willing to donate towards a Fr Edwin Gordon Memorial alpendre (shelter) for the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Cidade Velha, and indeed am doing so.
I arrived back in time for the second funeral. The church of the convent of Holy Cross was full. A number of priests concelebrated in the sanctuary while others occupied the front pews. The coffin and candle stood in the aisle. The ceremony could have been a Protestant service when compared with the requiems I am used to, but the congregation was subdued and devout and all went according to modern rubrics until, amid drizzling rain in the cemetery of the Fatima Parish Church, the coffin refused to go into the grave.
It took almost half an hour of hacking at the wood and squeezing and forcing so that it fell on its side and stood at a slant before the obsequies could be concluded. Some said the coffin was too big, others that the hole was too small. If I had had any doubts I was now assured that the deceased’s signed and witnessed request to be buried, if he died abroad, whever he happened to be was a definite expression of will that had been over-ruled.
The Popular Fatima Prayer Book is now available in Portuguese and Spanish as well as English - each with supplementary material suitable for pilgrims from countries speaking these languages.
All available at the same price. For discounted bulk orders (more than 10 copies)email firstname.lastname@example.org.