Fr Piet Kramer, MAfr
1938 - 2011
Fr Piet Kramer
The funeral was held 30th March 2011 in the parish church :
A Tribute from Aloysius Bebbwas
In the following few lines, I have tried
to tell some of the things that I remember of him---things that
( Palm Sunday, 17th April 2011: The 20th anniversary of the burial of the late Alexander You, a French Missionary of Africa, who like many on this partitioned continent shed his blood when a coward pulled the trigger, ( on 15th April 1991) right in front of him and killed him instantly at Ibanda Parish. Alexander You had been a headmaster at St Joseph's Vocational Senior Secondary School, at Nyamitanga Hill in Mbarara, Uganda from 1984 to 1989. I was a student of his.
On 17th April 1991, was the day when the article I never wrote was entitled, " The day Nyamitanga was drenched and soaked in tears and rain. May Alec You also rest in peace.)
"...Catching a glimpse of the Kingdom....", Piet Kramer
A friend who met Piet Kramer for the first time, about two years ago in Ethiopia, told me she remembers him for his 'smile, compassion and sensitive outlook.' I agreed.
For a year, 1995-6, I was privileged to live in community with him at Lua-Luo near Kasama ( Zambia's Northern Provincial town) where he became a living legend to most students who passed there as novices.
Piet was a straightforward man. When he smiled that meant a genuine smile. Period. He said what he thought and felt, and that was that. He chose this way because for him, it was the best way to express one's thought and to lessen chances of unnecessary misunderstandings. And then gladly he did not like gossip and cheap talk. And did not entertain them either.
Someone who was in some high office in the Society of the Missionaries of Africa remarked that Piet challenged and disturbed. Piet would not sit on the fence. He would indeed challenge, and probably disturb. And pay for it too. But then of course, you knew that he meant what told you, and would have thought about it deeply, brought in different perspectives to provide an atmosphere of fairness and intelligent decision-making. Reading Dame Ann Leslie's comment In Killing My Own Snakes, on why she would never become a politician, I remembered Piet Kramer. Dame Leslie ( who is one of the best international journalists, I know of) says that she would never accept to say or write what others wanted her to say or write. She would be her own mind. And Piet was in some ways like that.
He was a generous man. Though he spent most of his time within the walls of the holy noviciate, he kept his eyes open to the surroundings places. He, for example took keen interest in the school for the disabled children, Chileshe Chepela, often encouraging novices to do visits and spend time there at weekends. He would organise outings ( with the novices) for the children so that they would share in the beauties of life outside their rather restrictive school premises and so that those often hidden images of God would come out into the light.
He had an incredible sense of justice issues. Almost innate. He needed no courses to see and understand unfairness and do something about it. And sometimes he would push for justice ---and sadly but not surprisingly get no support. In some case, no responses to his letters. If he tried and received no help, he would explain it to the victim. He would fail because of what Raymond G Helmick in Living Catholic Faith in a Contentious Age, sees as characteristic of Roman law, " ?the law of the empire, and its governing premise is that the will of the sovereign, is law ?the very system of domination that Christ so explicitly rejects for his followers ?has as its fundamental flaw that there is no room in it for the accountability of those who govern to those whom they govern."
His many contacts helped him in his struggle against poverty and oppression. Carrying an old leather bag on his shoulders, he shared all that he had with those whose lives were less privileged.
Piet could come up with a surprise for you. For anyone. No particular favourites. Apart from, perhaps, the weakest ones of society. You did not need to be a holder of a particular passport to be seen and invited by Piet's compassionate heart. A great quality for an educator and pastor worth the name. It is for this reason that he tended to be a very trusted bridge between thought patterns and ideas and across generations. In the Spiritual Year, ( though he was not spiritual director, he was known to be a great spiritual director; very down to earth, a reason why he tended to be asked by several students for direction.)
One morning, I heard him calling out my name loud. Before long, I saw him running towards me. 'Come and save a situation.' He screamed. 'Gosh, what on earth could be happening? Me saving a situation?', I thought.
'There is a lady at the door. She is talking to me in Cibemba and I cannot get what she is saying." He pleaded.
"Piet, I cannot know any much better Bemba than you." I retorted.
"I know, you will 'bl....y do better than I could possibly do." He insisted.
I was still young then and so I dashed off to the entrance. I greeted the lady and asked how we could assist. And then I tried to listen carefully. I understood the message, by pure chance. So, I went back to Piet to report. She was sorted out in minutes.
Piet loved nature. He loved working in the garden. He tended the flowers and watered them. He also kept the chapel beautiful. I worked in the sacristy with him. I was pretty hopeless. I told him so and he understood. So, he backed me up so that our liturgies would not end in disasters. That means that he also listened with interest.
He loved life. He was very hospitable as guest master at the noviciate. At some point I was working with him in this area too. We used to receive people, especially nuns for retreats. We both used to be fascinated at how some of them would be extremely exact and precise. And then we had some, who, used to excel at maintaining their white socks spotless despite the rain and mud they would walk through. And a good number of them knew that he loved a good piece of cake, among other goodies.
Good for the partying. But then he would scoop us all when it came to getting on our knees to pray. His Psalms open, he would be in the chapel early morning for about an hour before either morning Mass or the prayers of the Church. I am sure the Psalms in his English Jerusalem Bible are pretty marked.
Piet could become impatient and rather angry when things went wrong. Gladly, he would show it and you knew what was going on in his mind. One of the most predictable thing about him was that he allowed no time for people guessing what he would be thinking.
He was a great teacher. He taught us Poverty, or do we not, in the WFs, call it Simple Life Style? ( One religious, teaching us Philosophy in Jinja, used to say that they, in their Congregation made the vow of poverty, and the White Fathers lived it for them. )
Oh, Goodness me. In this class, Piet charged and turned red.
'Poverty?' He asked? "What are you talking about?" He roared.
When he was Provincial leader for the first time, he observed something else that troubled him. While watching news, he often heard comments of some of his brother missionaries " about all these lazy unemployed youth, in Holland." He slowly got worked up.
One evening, he sprang to his feet looked the group and then said, " And you just wait till either your nephews or nieces get unemployed. And then you will understand." Then he stormed out of the TV room.
One day at the noviciate, we had a community meeting, to decide what to do for Lent. Try to do that with 21 people from about 4 different continents. ( The representatives of the 5th continent had sadly just left). You know those kinds of meetings. What to leave out from the Menu, for example, so that money saved could be directly and pragmatically put to use.
So, we started the endless debate.
Eggs or milk. Kapenta or meat. Pretty soon, an hour went by. I got very nervous (as usual). Not a very nice thing to do as a novice. I still had some bit of politeness then, and so, I tried to keep my mouth shut. It went on and on. I then noticed that Piet ( and others) were beginning to get nervous. I knew something was about to happen. He suddenly intervened. 'For God's sake, can we not have some bit of common sense'? He yelled. That was the end of this lovely Lenten question. We there and then coughed up an answer. End of the boring discourse. That was undiplomatic Piet.
He loved to walk in the countryside with novices. In one of those walks, a novice from Sub-Saharan Africa was grumbling about 'these old men who like walking aimlessly into the country.' Piet heard. He instantly stopped and looked behind (this particular novice was not very tall). So he asked the novice in question, 'And who are those old men you are referring to? Who do you mean?'
The novice looked at tall Piet and said, "I exactly mean people like you."
Piet burst into laughter and this triggered a whole range of questions in him. Together, with this, it is important to recall his great sense of humour.
He used to tell of how he was asked to study Dutch after ordination so that he would teach it in the junior WF seminary. So he got to a university for 5 solid years, I think, and read Dutch. He thoroughly enjoyed this time at university and broadened his world vision too.
Lo, and behold. As soon as he was completing the degree, junior seminaries were abolished in the WFs. But of course, he used the skills for many things.
First of all, it is generally agreed that he wrote excellent Dutch. You might say it was his mother tongue, but it seems he had mastered it. Several Dutch WFs told me of how they admired his Dutch.
Secondly, it must have increased his ability for other languages. His command of English remains extremely high class and admirable. In Uganda, where he spent the 'best years of his missionary life', according to him, he learnt Runyoro and spoke it for ten years as he walked up and down the villages meeting and conversing people, old and young. " I found the most uncomplicated faith there." He would smilingly recall.
Thirdly, this university time opened doors for his academic way of studying other things. In the noviciate he taught Bible. He had taught a huge chunk of Scripture himself. He used to specialise on the Psalms and did it very excellently. If had had the chance to spend time at some Biblical schools, he probably would have emerged a world scholar on the Word of God. But did he need to be one any way, given all he had accomplished? Besides, Gerard W Hughes, SJ, the Ecumenical-minded university chaplain warns us about certain experts on the Word of God. ( If you can, find his beautiful book, God in all things.)
Fourthly, this golden time, helped him to shed off what a retired Irish missionary and friend calls "seminary propaganda". While at uni, he was able to get into the life of ordinary students and could feel the real pulse, an experience that would be very useful when it came to putting some sense into clerical ways.
Piet understood the value of good education. Perhaps it was because he was well educated and just not learned. He understood that education is not a gift. It is a right to everyone. That is why he supported students who were finding it hard to get this right. And some of these, he would not have known before---and even after. One day, I was in his company when one such a beneficiary walked to us and said: "Hello Piet. My name is Y. You once helped me when I was desperate with tuition." Piet looked so surprised and said, "Oh, when was that? I do not remember?" And It seems this Y is doing well in secular society and also very aware of the need to lessen injustices.
Behind it all was this idea that injustices must be challenged whenever possible and not with some nice cozy words but in actions. Oh, is it St James who tells us, "Show us your actions...." These days, it would be translated as "Show us how just you are, and then we shall know your faith."
Piet's homilies were full of his sense of God wanting justice for his people. It is no wonder that Mary the mother of Jesus, who praised God for lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry with good things was Piet's guru---though of course for Piet, it was Jesus who was the Saviour. And then he would remind us that when and if we opt for the poor, and work towards improving desperate situations, we some how catch a glimpse of the Kingdom.
As student at the old St Edward's College, in North London, they used to be all uniformed in while ( which is why we have the name White Fathers). He narrated how people on the 251 bus that ran past used to feel pity for all these young men, uniformed and lining up for the unmarried Catholic priesthood. And so, one day, one female passenger, upon passing the College, cried out, " What a waste of human resources!!!!!!"
One day, he received a friend from Holland. I think her name was Betsy. Her family name must have started with a T. She had been put on the bus in Lusaka by Brother Paul Donders, WF---a man of remarkable hospitality. Piet went to the bus station in Kasama to wait for Lady Betsy. Her journey was about 14 hours. The bus pulled in and then there was Piet waiting. At night. Some imaginative passengers called out to Piet, "Your wife has arrived." He found this very hilarious and laughed a lot about it for a couple of days.
Lady Betsy spent about two weeks with us and told us how she was becoming an expert on hiding people without papers and making sure they got a lawyer. Piet Kramer would have taken keen interest in a human rights issue like pragmatic and questioning Besty.
He one day, he received an invitation to give a retreat in Nigeria. He thought, " Oh, my God. All the way to that far for a few days? It is a bit much. " So, he wrote back and suggested that he did not fancy flying from Europe to the South of the Sahara for just a few days. He got a shock of his life. They wrote back, and said that if he did not want, they would simply ask someone else to do the journey. "Oh, then I thought, if that is the case, I can just as well go." He told us. And he indeed went.
Fr Kramer was a free and independent thinker. So it was great having conversations with him, because you went away renewed. He was not ultra-montane. A bit like the late Cardinal George Basil Hume, he liked to see things in contexts. Sometimes Rome can too far away to offer reasonable solutions to local questions.
Increasing clericalism worried Piet and even caused him personal troubles. Many will remember where this led him to at some point in his relatively young missionary life. Nevertheless, his Dutch brother Missionaries of Africa chose him in two different epochs to be their Provincial Leader.
From what I remember, one issue that troubled him the first time he was chosen Leader, was the well-being of the missionaries on home leave. That was partly what Simple Life Style would perhaps entail. It appears that he was challenged by several families who decried the fact some missionaries would arrive home without a penny. Families resented it and some protested. So Piet pushed hard that each and every missionary on leave get an allowance. And then he informed those that did not need it to feel free in donating to the Society. And, with a sigh of relief, that was the end of complaints from out and within.
He was great with people and had authority. Not power. That was his strength. And I think that is why he never had to be clever and never hard to be publicity-hungry. Using his intelligence was enough. I think there are huge differences. Power is fought for, while authority is given by others.
One thing that Piet resented was being a house bursar. At the noviciate, he one day had to do shopping while Jean-Michel Laurent, the bursar was away for a retreat. He went to the market but somehow forgot to record whatever he had purchased. But then he had to make accounts for the bursar. He visibly got into a panic. "I cannot bl...y remember what I paid for the potatoes. All I know is that I did not throw the money away." He yelled.
And like me, you would not ask him about mechanics, cars and their fuel. He was also quite aware of the dangers of possible paternalism and so delegated what could or had to be delegated. So, he was always happy to have novices who could drive.
In our time, our novice master, Michele Vezzoli, ( thank goodness) had asked all novices who could drive to carry their licences along. All of us were after all over 21 and so it was understood that we could manage quite a few things on our own. In our year, we were three drivers. On one particular long trip ( which I missed because I voluntered to keep the noviciate) Piet travelled with a group of novices. He surrendered the driving to Filippino, Joselito Dodong, a great driver by all standards. "He is a terrific driver. " Piet remarked later. And yes, Do is a terrific driver.
Piet got on well with the domestic staff. And spoke out for their welfare. And respected them; be it our glamorous and charming laundry lady, Ba Grace, or her sister, Ba Agnes, the kindest and most discreet person I have ever met, or, our watchman Ba Chanda, who loved visiting the fountains and his wife would get him back home. And Piet would say, "Oh, she is a holy woman." Or, Ba Justin who was so quick in the kitchen while preparing supper, and rushing, to make sure that his wife, who was quite young would not be afraid of being in the house with her many small kids. Or, Ba Lawrence, who was the gardener and spent most of his time supervising either the novices or anyone else harvesting his cabbages. Or Ba Michael, the driver and husband to Ba Agnes who later lost his job, perhaps because of his shrewdness. He used also to be so desperate for a son.
In his 76 years, he must have written hundreds of personal letters to people. He was a great writer and original. It was a joy to read his messages. In Kasama, in those pre-computer days, he would be typing away on his machine in his office. He then he would come out of his room, car keys in his hands, with dozens of letters and he would hurriedly say, " I am going to the post office to post my mail."
In 2000, it must have been early July, he visited St Edward's College. In fact he had come for a meeting of all those educators of Theology in the WFs. One evening, during that meeting, I had to open the bar for the guests and friends from outside. Standing behind the counter, a humorous and brave English friend of the College, (let me call her Ms Z ) came to me and whispered. " I think Piet is a great lad. Don't you think so?" She discreetly asked. " I know he is a very good person.", I answered.
"A pity he is a priest. I would have said something to him." She said regretfully. Voila!! So, I told her, " You know it is never too late." She laughed and sipped her while wine. And I think Z did then have a good conversation with Piet. Piet was after all open to all people.
When I saw Piet Kramer in September 2010 at a function in Europe, I was horrified. He looked so pale and ill. But he said he was fine. I kept thinking, " Piet is not well." Little did I know it was our last meeting. Life is truly a mystery. We are only visitors on this earth---a point that I keep forgetting.
Piet enjoyed a healthy life for most of the time. And yet, when this cancer came up, it put him down pretty fast and he left this world.
As the hymn goes, "Persons come into, the fibre of our lives, but their shadow fades and disappears. But . . . " I am pretty sure that Piet marked generations of Missionaries of Africa, especially those who he lived in houses of education with him in Zambia, Kenya and India.
May Piet Kramer rest in peace and enjoy life to the full in the Kingdom which he served faithfully and lovingly. May his family be consoled and be re-assured of God's eternal mercy.
Piet might be beginning to say, " Oh, Aloysius, Heaven's sake, stop."
May he indeed enjoy being next to the Just One---from whom he learnt justice---being just till it hurts.
I will miss him greatly ---for among many reasons, we shared the
same date of birth: the now infamous, 11th of September.
Rest In Peace
P.O. Box 1056,
Fr Jaak Seynaeve
When windows and doors swing open The Bemba in
Zambia have a fantastic proverb which says that, "a
child who never visits around, thanks the mother for being the best
porridge cook: "Umwana ashenda, atasha nina ukunaya ubwali."
P.O. Box 1056,
Brother James Kennedy
1915 - 2011
died in London on 7th April 2011
aged 95 years, of which 74 were spent as a missionary
in Israel, Zambia and Great Britain.
May he rest in
Smith died at his residence in Nuneaton , on Friday
27th May 2011,
May he rest in peace.