Very Rev. John J. Considine, M.M.
A GIRL IN A BOARDING SCHOOL
in Kansas wrote to me recently that her teacher told her to ask
me what reading I liked during high school days. I recognized
the letter immediately as' an item in that program of forced
labor which teachers are required to impose upon the reluctant
young, one of those hurdles along the highway to matriculation
that every girl must gracefully leap to grasp her sheepskin.
Could I truthfully answer Mary
Ellen, I asked myself, and yet tell her something which Sister
would regard as helpful? There was that Gmustark and Beverley
of Graustark period when I feverishly read two novels a week
from the public library. Perhaps I had better not mention that,
though I have a suspicion that it accomplished something for
me, entirely unrealized at the time. It provided an era of muchness
in the book field, like meeting many, many new people every day.
The kaleidoscope of scenes and characters which rapidly bowed
in and out of my mind probably whetted my imagination and gave
me a fullness of ideas, thin and tawdry though they were, which
led me to undertake unhesitatingly to scribble off with the greatest
of ease a fat weekly column in a local newspaper.
"Are you the author of
that column in the News?" asked Sister Rose, one of my teachers
at Holy Family High.
"Oh, I guess so,"
I replied, squirming and uncomfortably anxious to move along,
since I realized that while there was quantity in the column
there was little of quality that would draw a Placet from
I decided to tell Mary Ellen
about more careful periods, marked by two activities which probably
did me some good.
One was the period of the abstracts. The abstracts were a piece
of drudgery imposed in school, but which, secretly and without
confessing the terrible fact to a soul, I enjoyed immensely.
We were required to read such books as Ivanhoe, Kenilworth,
Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and prepare a plot summary
and character analysis as we went along, with a selection of
choice passages and a recording of whatever reflections came
into our youngish heads.
As I say, I enjoyed this immensely.
Without realizing it at the time, the deep absorption in each
volume led me to think less of plots and more and more of the
author's power of expression. One of the books which caught me
completely in its toils was Lorna Doone and as I look
back on it, it was the beauty of atmosphere that it created which
meant the most to me. Thirty years later, I find that the memory
of Lorna or of John Ridd do not mean much to me; rather it is
the charm of the Doone country, which, through Blackmore's hypnotic
use of words, drew me so absorbingly and reflectingly into its
Then there was the poetry period.
It began when one day I discovcred a huge volume in my lap, Bartlett's
Quotations. Whole poems had never caught me, but here now
was an infinite series of choice nuggets. I took a book of linen
writing paper, made a booklet of it with cardboard covers and
a candy box cord, and for quite some time took pleasure in discovering
in Bartlett single lines and couplets that I liked. I think the
very helpful in giving me an appreciation of words, though I
never became a poet. During my poetry year in English class,
I took to the woods and sat by babbling brooks a number of times
to turn out products for Sister Ricardia. I felt much more satisfaction,
however, in reading poetry than writing it. Perhaps Mary Ellen
will take up the Bartlett habit and get much farther with it.
At Maryknoll, the late Bishop
James Anthony Walsh exercised great influence on all of us in
the college English class. He was a sensitive man but an eminently
practical one and his great theme was simplicity, frugality and
selectivity in the use of words. Our assignment was usually the
writing of a two hundred word descriptive item or editorial and
under the impetus of his searching criticisms we found ourselves
chiseling these pieces with all the devotion of a sculptor working
his marble. Sometimes we kept for weeks on a single morsel, in
the hope that at the end there would be the reward of seeing
it accepted for a place in The Field Afar. It was Bishop
Walsh's high standards that won his magazine so much esteem among
many who were not particularly devoted to missions but greatly
devoted to good writing.
Writing, however, is a hollow,
puny activity without interior experiences to give it substance.
I found that I had no particular gift for words, that I had no
faculty for weaving gossamer webs of delicate beauty out of thin
air. Unless something happened in my life my writing was finished.
But I was in a field in which
things were almost bound to happen. Missionary circles carryon
in terms of continents and lo! I suddenly found myself catapulted
from the gentle, smiling hill country of the Hudson Valley to
Rome, the heart of Christendom. The urge to write came back as
throngs from every corner of the earth surged through the corridors
of the Vatican Missionary Exposition of 1925. The result was
a book published by Macmillan, The Vatican Missionary Exposition,
a Window on the World.
At the close of the Holy Year,
the authorities of the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda
in their hunt for workers for their'research department hit upon
me and for twelve months or so I partook of the concentrated
essence of missionary data. I dealt in particular with statistics,
a providential thing because it transferred me from the field
of fanciful flights to the dry-as-bones realities of exact analysis.
I came to know the name and location of practically everyone
of the five hundred and more mission territories throughout the
earth and could give a passingly good description of the outstanding
characteristics of each as known to the Holy See. At the end
of the year my collection of figures was published by the Vatican
Press as a routine volume in Latin, Missiones Catholicae.
For the next ten years I had a part time assignment to help
prepare Propaganda statistics for publication. Our most ambitious
project appeared in 1935, under the Italian title, Guida delle
Missioni Cattoliche, a volume of over a thousand pages.
In 1927 a novel project
for Rome came into being, a missionary news service. Since I
was conveniently at hand, I was given the task of organizing
it. Advice came from many sources including American friends
in the Associated Press, Mr. Thomas B. Morgan of the United Press,
and counsellors in Rome, Paris, Munich, London, and the United
States. Mr. Justin McGrath, Frank Hall's predecessor of the N.C.W.C.
News Service in Washington, was particularly kind.
Fides Service-for this was
the organization's name-soon had spread its tentacles over Asia,
Africa, and the far corners of the earth. We received our material
principally by mail, supplemented by a small wire service from
the leading cities of Asia. While we never attained perfect coverage
of the world field, we strove desperately to achieve this ideal
and certainly received billowing rivers of data over which we
had to labor tirelessly from eight each morning until sometimes
late at night extracting pay dirt.
Witing at Fides Service became
a matter of yardage. We were divided into five departments according
to language, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and we
were separately responsible to each country in the world where
our particular language was current. Thus to the English language
department fell the United States, English Canada, England, Ireland,
Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, India, South
Africa, and the British colonies. Much of the material was useful
in all countrics but every week there were stories which required
treatment according to the special interests of one or other
Under the pressure of meeting
deadlines, fine writing was usually out of the question. I expericnced
constantly a scnse of failure in this regard. There was the handicap
of working in an atmosphere of foreign languages because very
few missioners were English-speaking and it was a question of
using French, Italian, Spanish, and German manuscripts, of talking
most of the day in Italian or French and then sitting down to
a typewriter to strike off copy in English.
But there was the thrill and
inspiration of great happenings which constantly stirred us.
At Fides Service we really lived; we felt the pulse of great
events, both in Rome and throughout the outer world. The years
with Fides Service wcre a very satisfying cxperience.
There were a number of journeys,
some in Europe and some to other continents. I went with the
Papal Mission to Ethiopia and in the 1930's I was sent by Fides
Service on a voyage of about a year and a half across Asia from
Palestine to Japan, then to the East Indies and finally across
Central Africa from the East Coast to the West and thence back
across the Sahara to North Africa and Rome. The expenses of this
expedition were paid by a series of articles which I prepared
as I journeyed for agencies in seven different countries.
Upon returning to Rome I was
quite dismayed to realize ho'W poorly these stories were written.
It was only after returning to the United States that I was able
to arrange for a few tranquil hours each week to cast my huge
gatherings of material into a book. This became Across a World.
Tom Kernan was the mentor of this work and under his disciplined
guidance I was required to avoid the slovenliness of haste.
Since returning to America
I was also required to prepare a biography of Maryknoll's bandit
victim, Father Jerry Donovan. This has appeared under the title
When the Sorghum. was High. In this case I chose Katherine
Burton as mentor. I can speak from experience of the value
of such a manuscript umpire, a warden to protect the writer from
the pitfalls of subjectivism.
Writing, I can assure Mary
Ellen and all other members of high school English classes, is
for most mortals an arduous and disillusioning task. It means
patient years spent seeking to draw from the treasuries of the
literary great. Most of us, however hard we try, acquire lamentably
little from the masters. It means, further, meeting up with rich
and moving experiences of life, the great teacher. Even with
more than an ordinary share of good fortune, we end by concluding
that we have proven decidedly unprofitable servants.
NOTE: Father Considine was born in New Bedford, Mass., in 1897,
entered Maryknoll in 1915 and was ordained in 1923. He became
Vicar General of Maryknoll in 1943. His books include THe Vatican
Mission Exposition, 1925, Macmillan; When the Sorghum Was High,
1940 Longmans; Across a World, 1942, Longmans; March Into Tomorrow,
1942, Field Afar Press.
Originally published by
Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors Volume Three,