Race with the Devil by Joseph Pearce

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Raised in the Shire, he left its tranquility for an adventure that brought him through battles, dungeons and peril until he found an immense treasure. To possess it, he fought a monstrously evil dragon. We speak not of Bilbo Baggins, but noted Catholic biographer Joseph Pearce.

To know the identity of author Joseph Pearce, you must first meet Joe Pearce, just as you must first encounter Saul of Tarsus to fully understand the greatness of Saint Paul. Like Paul, Joseph Pearce endured more than one beating, stoning (actually they used bricks) and imprisonment. Teresa of Avila equated humility and truth. Through Race with the Devil, Pearce opens his early life to the world, revealing pain, promise and God’s hand in his miraculous transformation.

If you judge a book by its cover, particularly the dust jackets of Pearce’s 2012 Saint Benedict Press publications, Candles in the Dark and Bilbo’s Journey, beware the photos, rich in Hobbit-like dimples and engaging smile. This impression clashes with the cold, determined, mask-like face that stares from the cover of Race with the Devil. When first I viewed this image, I wondered as to the subject’s identity. Imagine my shock at the subtitle: “My Journey (What, this is an autobiography?) from Racial Hatred (This can’t be the noted Catholic author that I’ve read.) to Rational Love.” In this amazement, I share, but in reverse order, the impression of Abbot Richard Yeo, OSB, who in the year 2000, “seemed genuinely astonished that (Pearce) had not only become a Catholic but had written books such as Literary Converts and (his) biography of Chesterton of which (the Abbot) was clearly familiar.” Although mine appears the mirror image of the Abbot’s shock, we both rejoice that “God can indeed mould the most unpromising of clay.”

Pearce dedicated his conversion story to the memory of his father, Albert Arthur Pearce, who taught Joseph to love his heritage, to fistfight-observing the Marquis of Queensberry rules, to appreciate English literature and to educate himself throughout his life. Albert also reinforced powerful nationalistic sentiments and bigotry, all of which played a part in Joseph’s life and set the tone for Race with the Devil.

At the age of sixteen, Joseph founded, published, edited, distributed and wrote for the Bulldog, the newspaper of the Young National Front, an auxiliary of the National Front, a “white supremacist organization that demanded the forced removal of all non-whites from the United Kingdom.” Joseph’s precocious achievement brought notoriety and, if not awards, two all-expenses-paid prison terms. Pearce opposed the immigration of Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis and others. (Observe that in Candles in the Dark, Joseph embraced the Jamaican people and the ethnically diverse members of the Missionaries of the Poor.)

His anti-Catholic sentiments brought him “across the sea to Ireland,” not to Galway Bay, but Belfast, “On the twelfth of July when it yearly did come…”* to march with Orangemen, “to the sound of the drum.”* Unprepared for the deadly “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Joseph nearly became a “statistic.” Many of his friends in the Orange Order later died in that conflict.

Pearce made both friends and enemies. As political positions changed some friends became enemies. In Race with the Devil, Joseph reaches out to his former friends, apologizing for infractions even as small as failing to return a borrowed book or record. Thanks to Albert’s influence, Joseph learned to say something nice even about his enemies, such as the Irishman who broke his nose. The kindness of strangers deeply impressed the young Pearce: the policeman who loaned him the price of a ticket to a Chelsea football match, an adversary who after a heated radio debate, invited Joseph to lift a pint at his favorite pub, as well as the American Jewish attorney who resigned from the British equivalent of the ACLU, when that organization refused to let him defend the anti-Semite Pearce

While still sixteen, Joseph, now a full-time employee of the National Front, commuted four-hours, round-trip each work day. If Hobbits lived in burrows, Pearce spent nearly the equivalent of a day each week in the “Tube.” He read his way back and forth beneath London, completing the mandatory list of White Supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist tomes. Although still a teen, Joseph’s critical thinking skills kept him from swallowing the entire bait and hook. His reading extended to Orwell to whom Joseph gives credit for part of his conversion. In contrast to Orwell’s bleak, inescapable despair, Joseph considered Alexander Solzhenitsyn a hero who continued to hope despite his confinement in the Gulag Archipelago. In time it was Solzhenitsyn who read the works of Joseph Pearce, opening the door to Joseph’s writing Solzhenitsyn’s authorized biography.

Conversion to Catholicism snuck-up on Joseph Pearce about the time of his second imprisonment. Solitary confinement, like the hours spent riding in the “Tube,” afforded Joseph time for spiritual reading, including two of Newman’s conversion stories, the works of Tolkien, Chesterton and others. Joseph emerged from the chrysalis of prison with his wings not quite ready for full flight. Nourished by the liturgy and a devotion to Our Lady, he still waged many a battle before his acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church and subsequent participation in the Catholic Literary Revival.

Like Bilbo, the dragon slain, Joseph had returned home with treasured faith, but the journey’s not quite done. It may be Joseph’s task to train a Frodo or a host of Frodos to meet and best even greater evils and rescue and share far more glorious treasures. I eagerly anticipate the sequel to Race with the Devil which may well flow from the pen of one of those fortunate few who now studies with this Catholic Literary Giant, Joseph Pearce.

*Modified from “The Old Orange Flute.”

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)

Candles in the Dark: The Authorized Biography of Fr. Richard Ho Lung and the Missionaries of the Poor, by Joseph Pearce

Candles in the Dark: The Authorized Biography of Fr. Richard Ho Lung and the Missionaries of the Poor

Joseph Pearce writes that Father Richard Ho Lung, known as the “Reggae Priest,” the Ghetto Priest,” the “Dancing Priest” and the “Renegade Priest” would rather be known as a “practicing priest,” setting a high standard for all clergy. Pearce suggests that Fr. Ho Lung may be the happiest man in the world. What is his secret? Pearce recalls his search for an answer during his visit to Bethlehem, a residence for severely disabled children: My…

“…eyes met the twisted and tangled bodies of broken childhood. There, in rows of cribs, one after another, children of all ages, from babies to teenagers, wriggled and squirmed in various degrees of helplessness. To my uninitiated gaze, it looked almost infernal, a place where the triumph of suffering seemed to call for the abandonment of all hope…. As I looked in stunned silence at the unwanted and abandoned dregs of humanity, bent by the brokenness of body or brain… I approached a girl of around eight-years-old…. As I took her hand, she returned my forced smile with a radiance of her own that transfigured the situation and exorcised the demons from my hardened heart…. Looking up at me was the radiant face of the child Jesus…. She had returned my pathetic effort with a smile that beamed with the light and delight of heaven itself.”

Pearce explains that Fr. Ho Lung and his Brothers derive their joy from their labors because they are more than social workers caring for the human needs of the poor. They are “servants of the broken body of Christ. Their work with the poor is not merely a job but a labor of love. They are laying down their lives for their friends.”

Born to Chinese Buddhist immigrants to Jamaica, young Richard Ho Lung had the advantage of not knowing he was poor. He lived without luxuries and even necessities, but his family gave and received assistance from their neighbors. Communal interdependence became a model for Father Ho Lung’s later efforts to relieve poverty in Jamaica. Young Richard’s only disappointments came when he witnessed his neighbors attempt to break free of their economic limits through self-destructive behavior: prostitution or robbery.

Franciscan Missionary sisters from New York served Richard his elementary education, spiced with music and evangelization. Richard (and eventually his family) accepted baptism. Buddhism helped Richard appreciate nature’s beauty. In Christianity he responded strongly to God as a person that he could embrace in the Body of Christ. Richard failed the entrance exam for the prestigious Saint George’ College. Fortunately, the Jesuit headmaster noticed something special in Richard, admitted him and guided him over the next four years. Life was good, but hurdles awaited Richard.

He attended the Jesuit’s New England house of formation during the spiritually turbulent 1960s. Fr. Martin D’Arcy, the famous English Jesuit warned his American confreres, “The whole thing is going to fall apart because we are too rich.” His warning proved prophetic. In 1983, a Jamaican newspaper reporter asked Fr. Ho Lung why the Jesuits in Jamaica had not a single vocation since he entered in 1959. He responded: “They have not yet come to grips with identifying themselves with the poor- at least not the American ones…. This mood (of self-centeredness), I think, prevents young men from choosing the priesthood.” Fr. Ho Lung left the Jesuits to establish the Brothers of the Poor, now called the Missionaries of the Poor.

Upon his return to Kingston, Jamaica he introduced reggae to the liturgy, not without controversy. Joseph Pearce recognized Fr. Ho Lung’s use of “traditional Caribbean music and rhythm” as an application an age old Jesuit missionary method of communicating with people in their own medium. Reggae brought the young to church, retreats and to personal prayer. The recording of “Sinner,” by “Fr. Ho Lung and Friends” originally intended as a fund-raiser for missionary projects topped the charts in the Caribbean earning Fr. Ho Lung fame as “The Reggae Priest.” Over time Fr. Ho Lung wrote dozens of religious songs, shows and operas in collaboration with his musical directors, Jon and Wynton Williams, the later a Baptist minister.

Civic and business groups, including the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs invited “The Reggae Priest” to speak, but Fr. Ho Lung, “The Ghetto Priest,” gave the presentations. He criticized the Jamaican government’s staffing of social service facilities with political insiders rather than trained and caring workers. His descriptions of these grotesque environments embarrassed the government, but did stir the generosity of the private sector. He also challenged the Jamaican government’s willingness to accept foreign aid that promoted abortion as a solution to social problems. In response to the substantial needs in Jamaica, Fr. Ho Lung raised funds through concerts around the world, using the revenue to construct homes for the homeless, the deserted and the vulnerable. The Missionaries of the Poor thrived as it recruited from abroad to staff these homes and similar establishments in other countries.

Joseph Pearce allows Fr. Ho Lung to speak freely, challenging all Christians to embrace the cross and through it to find happiness. The reader is encouraged to appreciate her or his own existence and the beauty of creation, while recognizing the injurious spread of hedonism, materialism and convenience that lead to personal misery; physical and spiritual death. I strongly recommend this book to anyone in search of happiness, to those listening for their vocation in life and for anyone seeking to light candles in the darkness.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)