John Bradburne visiting residents of the Mutemwa leper colony. (© John Bradburne Memorial Society)

St Valentine’s Day, 14th February, is traditionally associated with romantic love, despite the fact that the saint himself died an early Christian martyr, a witness to his faith. Nevertheless, although CS Lewis distinguished between ‘eros’ (romantic love) and ‘agape’ (supernatural love) in his classic book, The Four Loves, it is not hard to find affinities between the two. After all, that much-loved saint and troubadour, Francis of Assisi, pledged his wholehearted allegiance to ‘My Lady Poverty’; a joyful, courtly expression of human passion, now subsumed within a passionate desire to imitate the poverty of Christ.

A small number of Christians in every age have been drawn to this romantic and radical commitment. In the 20th century, one of their number was John Bradburne (1921-1979), whose cause for canonisation is now going forward. Improbably, this sometime forester, schoolmaster, ship’s stoker, gravedigger, traveller and garbage collector, found his faith during World War II, during which he served in the Burma campaign and made friends with a fellow soldier, John Dove, who later became a Jesuit priest in Zimbabwe.

In 1947 Bradburne joined the Catholic Church. Drawn to the example of St Francis, he became a Third Order Franciscan. Humbly aware of his failures and failings, he described himself as a “Buffoon for Christ”. Years of searching for the way to live his vocation followed. In 1961 he contacted his Jesuit friend and asked him: “Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?”

In 1962 he went out to Zimbabwe and engaged in various menial jobs at Dove’s Jesuit mission. Providence ultimately led him to the leper colony at Mutemwa in 1969; it was in this neglected and forsaken place that Bradburne finally found a sanctuary and an outlet for his love for others. A vagabond among other social outcasts, he was immediately at home. Working as caretaker, nurse, cook and confidante of the lepers, he slowly transformed the leper colony into a place of hope.

Inevitably, his unconventional approach caused jealousy among the overseers of the colony, who expelled him for a period of time. Undaunted, Bradburne elected to live outside the compound in a tin hut without water or sanitation. He still did what he could for the lepers, and rigorously kept the Rule of the Third Order and praying the Hours of the Daily Office of Our Lady. His three wishes, slowly formulated during this period, were to serve the lepers in whatever capacity he could; to die a martyr’s death; and to be buried in the coarse brown cloth of the Franciscan habit.

Having fulfilled his first wish, in 1979 during the Zimbabwean civil war his last two wishes were granted when he was abducted by guerrillas and summarily shot. Friends had begged him to take care, but characteristically he had responded “Would they waste a bullet on a clown?” Nonetheless, aware that his circumstances put him at risk, Bradburne also enjoined his friends: “Pray for my sanctification, because it would encourage so many souls if such a wreckage might come to canonisation.”

Today, thousands of pilgrims come to Mutemwa every year, to light candles in memory of this human “wreckage”, to pray for his sanctification as he had requested, and to visit his grave at Chishawasha Mission. Bradburne leaves another unusual but unsurprising legacy, given his love for the example of St Francis, who wrote his famous Canticle of the Creatures: thousands of poems written by hand or on an old typewriter in his tin hut.

During his last decade, he wrote some 6,000, sometimes more than a dozen a day. Versifying and rhyming came naturally to him; indeed, they were his chosen medium rather than prose; letters to family and friends were usually written in verse. Declamatory, humorous, speculative, sometimes mystical, often fantastical, displaying a rich vocabulary and wide reading, they can on occasion spill over into doggerel. Like the religious poet Elizabeth Jennings, Bradburne wrote too much; much of his output, like hers, has yet to be edited and published. Yet at their finest, they are reminiscent of GK Chesterton’s vigorous poetic metres; haunting evocations of the sacredness of life and a deliberate, if eccentric, tool of evangelisation — the opposite of art for art’s sake.

Just to give a brief flavour of his usual rhyme-scheme and voice, “Pale Galilean” — a reference to the famous phrase of the poet Swinburne — begins: “But what of that “pale Galilean”?/What world has grown “faint” with His breath?/The verses develop a paean/For flinging reversal at death!” And “Tantivy — Tantivy!” takes up the much-quoted sentence in one of the Sermons of the poet John Donne: “And no man is an island, nay, and none/Are fortresses constructed for themselves/Hunting with hounds, I with the foxes run/Aided by fays, abetted by the elves.”

Holiness takes myriad forms, not least in the life and example of this least conventional of men, with his exuberance, his humility and his irrepressible spirit.