In the early 1970s I was doing ministry in an American suburb trying to get a few dollars for my then mission in Africa to keep body and soul together. In those days, parish visitation was the “in thing”. I spent most of those summer days walking around the parish knocking on or ringing the doors of Catholics. I came to this particular house and rang; no answer. I knocked again; still no answer. I waited a few moments and thought that I heard a noise inside. So, I rang again. Sure enough, a woman came to the door and apologised for not answering sooner.
In those days I dressed in full clericals, like all the secular clergy, when on visitation. She asked me in and told me that she had looked out the window and seen that I was a priest. She said that no priest had visited for a long time and, sad to say, no neighbours either. She said that her son was a Vietnam veteran who was comatose since his tank was blown-up in Vietnam. A nurse by profession, she had trained her husband how to do the basic care that their son needed. They had looked after him 24 hours a day for the previous few years. The Veterans’ Hospital in Washington was glad to give her the training to do all the necessary and the parents gladly took their son home. However, feelings ran high-and-vicious in the USA and they were left in no doubt by their neighbours that these army boys had let America down by being forced to admit defeat in the war. So, the family were effectively boycotted. Unclean, unclean.
Many years later I was working in an Aboriginal mission/township in Australia. They are God’s people if not quite church-going people. One day, one of the older men came to me looking for food. We talked about life and he told me his history. He was one of the few Aboriginal people who had been in the Australian army at the time of Vietnam. He was now an out-and-out alcoholic, his life ruined. Why? He had been ordered to shoot a child in a Vietnamese village that the army had overrun. He couldn’t. But he was eventually forced to kill the child. At the end of the war, he was a broken soul after seeing and performing so many unaboriginal acts of violence. Coming home to Australia and returning to civil life, he was sent to the Aboriginal settlement. His life became a mess. He cried and cried on my shoulder. And any time he visited me more often than not the tears flowed again. He too felt unclean.
I thank God for having had my life touched by such unclean saints.