After obtaining my doctorate in theology on a scriptural theme[i], I was appointed to the major seminary in Hyderabad, India. During the 18 months it took for the Indian Government to give me an entry permit, I was employed as spiritual director to the Mill Hill Brothers in training in the Dutch town of Oosterbeek.

Johannahoeve in Oosterbeek proved to be a farm with a small college for candidate brothers. Its setting among well-kept forests and lush agricultural land overwhelmed me as soon as I saw it. I adopted the custom of spending an hour a day walking through the surrounding woodlands, both for physical exercise and personal reflection. But the efficacy of the college did not match its glorious setting. As I was to find later with regard to religious congregations in India, the brothers’ formation programme was wholly inadequate.

The 14 candidate brothers in my care were mainly employed working on the farm or in supporting workshops. No doubt they learned some useful skills there. But the intellectual input was restricted to three or four spiritual talks a week – which I was supposed to provide. After two years of such apprenticeship, the brothers were admitted to temporary membership and could be appointed elsewhere.

I decided the candidates needed a proper schedule of lectures. I drew one up of 24 hours a week including topics such as church history, Catholic doctrine, the missionary vocation, the geography of Mill Hill mission areas, world politics and an introduction to sacred scripture. Most of these lectures I had to give myself, with the help of textbooks I managed to acquire for the candidates.

I did not find it difficult to persuade the two other staff members of the need for change. Fr Anton Jacobs, our rector, had just retired from many years of service in Zaire. The other priest, also a retired missionary whose name escapes me, hardly knew what was going on anyway. At breakfast he would spend half an hour making up his mind which fruit to eat. “Shall I take a pear today? Didn’t I take one yesterday? Perhaps I should take an apple. But then, a pear might be better . . .”

The other person I consulted was Father Bernard Roes who had been spiritual director before me and who was recovering from a stroke. Roes was undersized, thin, always thoughtful, looking inquisitively at me through narrow glasses while stroking his short goatee beard. I learned a lot from him. He had been recalled from India two decades earlier to re-organise the brothers. He narrated to me all the problems he had encountered. Eventually, he told me, he had worked out a ‘spiritual blueprint’ of what a perfect missionary brother should be like. The blueprint was based on a contemplative model – which seemed less appropriate to me for missionaries in active life, but at least it gave the brothers a distinct identity. Roes agreed that the brothers also needed more education. I used to visit him often, both to listen to his stories about India and to express my support for the work he had done.

I submitted my plan to the Mill Hill authorities in London who were only too happy for me to go ahead. Son the transformation at Johannahoeve could be implemented soon. With a meditation to take care of every morning and four lectures to prepare every day, I had plenty to keep me occupied. And it gave me the opportunity to practice teaching.

Quite a few of the brother candidates had not enjoyed a high level of education. Scholarship is one thing, teaching another. I learned how to break down complex issues into simpler units, how to present topics clearly through diagrams, stories and illustrations, how to make issues interesting and relevant to my students. The courses I had privately followed in Mill Hill on public speaking came in very usefully indeed. Moreover, I came from a family of teachers and my father was loved by his students for his exciting classes.

Studying the brothers’ history also brought home to me their unequal position in Mill Hill Society. In 1963 we were still known as the Mill Hill Fathers. The brothers were hangers-on. They were lay people who had offered their services to the priests. They were often looked upon as servants with no proper status. This in spite of the fact that the brothers’ contribution to the society’s missionary work was essential, outstanding and often of high quality. I am happy that at the Mill Hill Renewal Chapter of 1976 at which I was a delegate from India, I had a chance to promote the brothers’ case. In our new constitutions they were given equal rights as full members of the society. The new name “Mill Hill Missionaries” was adopted to give expression to a more inclusive nature of membership.

Learning to write

I realized that the topic on which I had specialized in Rome: covenant theology, could be of interest to a wider public. So I produced a manuscript of 200 pages. I was wondering how to find the right Dutch publisher for this. On impulse I decided to consult Prof Lucas Grollenberg OP of the Albertinum in Nijmegen. I had come to know him because, on a previous occasion, I had helped him translate a book into English.

Tall, slim, grey-haired Grollenberg took my document but when I met him again two weeks later, pronounced a disturbing verdict. “The contents is quite interesting”, he said. “But your presentation is atrocious. Atrocious! Your sentences are too long. You use technical words. You present no human interest stories. What you say is boring. If you write like this, you might as well write in ancient Aramaic.”

I was taken aback.

“What can I do?”, I stammered.

“Learn to write as a journalist”, he told me. “Then re-write the whole book from A to Z and bring it back to me.”

I took a correspondence course in journalistic writing. I bought specialized books such as “The Art of Readable Writing” by Rudolph Flesch. And slowly I grasped what it was all about. I made up my mind to become an expert in writing in a way ordinary people can understand. And I am grateful for having gone through that learning process for it has helped me enormously throughout my life. It enabled me later to write more than twenty popular books on scripture, theology and spirituality – some of them best-sellers.

As Grollenberg had advised me, I re-wrote and transformed the whole manuscript on the covenant with God. Grollenberg was pleased and recommended it to a prominent Dutch firm which promptly published it under the title Vazal van Jahweh.[ii]

My introduction to Telugu

The Indian Government at the time was reluctant to provide entry visas to missionaries and everyone told me that a long wait was inevitable. I was determined to keep my eye firmly on Hyderabad. I knew that the main local language was Telugu, the second biggest language in India. So I looked around for a way to start learning Telugu. I discovered Sr Mary Adolpha JMJ who was studying for a medical doctorate at Nijmegen University.

Adolpha came from Tadpatri, Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh. I showed her a Telugu vocabulary and grammar I had obtained from a retired Indian missionary. Adolpha became my first Telugu teacher. Telugu has its own complicated script with plenty of surprises. For instance, the language has 4 “t” sounds of which the most important are the soft “t” and the hard “T”. The vowels are attached to the letter so that there are separate signs for “ta” – “tâ” – “ti” – “tî” – “to” – “tô” – “tu” – “tû” – “tau”, etc. If an r is added, as in “tra”, “tro”, “tru”, etc. the sign changes again. Small wonder that Telugu printing presses at the time needed 600+ separate blocks to deal with each combination of the 48 consonants and 16 vowels the language possesses.

Typical page of printed Telugu text. This sample is taken from the book 'Mukti Margamu' which I wrote with eight of my students in 1976.
Typical page of printed Telugu text. This sample is taken from the book ‘Mukti Margamu’ which I wrote with eight of my students in 1976.

For westerners, Telugu is also quite difficult to pronounce. For us, “pita”, “p(h)ita”, “pitta”, “p(h)itta”, “piTa”, “p(h)iTa”, “piTTa” and “p(h)iTTa” sound identical. Telugus hear the difference, and attach different meanings to them. In the beginning when I tried to say: “pitâ putra pavitrâtma nâmamuna” – “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, my students in Hyderabad would roll over with laughter. They told me I said: “In the name of the Bird, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. Mastering Telugu proved a big job. Later in the Seminary in Hyderabad I would employ a professional Brahmin teacher, as well as Telugu students who taught me: a different one every evening for each day of the week for many years to come. Adolpha started that process.

Luck would have it that Mrs Godfrey, a member of the parliament of Andhra Pradesh, visited Fr Roes whom she knew from India. When she asked him what she could do for him, he said to her: “Get a visa for John Wijngaards!”

“She was doubtful”, Roes told me later with a glint in his eye. “I knew I had to take the initiative. I made her sit down at my desk and dictated to her the letter she needed to write to the Home Minister: ‘John Wijngaards is essential for St John’s College (the seminary) in Hyderabad. If the Government of India does not provide a visa soon, he will be transferred to another country. This would an irreparable loss for the students of the college, the Christian community and the good of the whole State of Andhra Pradesh. No further delay should be tolerated, etc. etc.’ – Well, she wrote the letter in my presence”, Roes added. “and signed it as a member of parliament!”

“In India things work best by directly approaching the right person”, Roes asserted. And he was right. Two months later I received my visa.

After taking leave of the brothers in Oosterbeek, I boarded a cargo ship of the German Hansa Line in the harbor of Antwerp on Christmas Eve 1964. Because the ship zigzagged between ports in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, offloading cargo and taking on new consignments in each harbour, the journey took six long weeks.

Adventures on sea – and in Pakistan

From Antwerp our ship headed to Hamburg where it anchored for three days before its final departure. The 12 men German crew and 6 passengers provided plenty of scope for human contact. The fact that I could speak German helped. I shared a cabin with an older priest who was also travelling to India. I was often invited to join the officers and sailors for the beer parties in their mess. On one occasion I was almost beaten up when I said something derogatory about Hitler, unaware that a number of crew members had served in the German navy during the war.

I got to know the captain quite well. When we encountered a fierce storm on our passage through the Channel, the captain sought shelter behind the Isle of Wight but doing so he made the ship run aground on a sandbank. One of the railway coaches destined for Pakistan, which had been fastened across the top deck, got loose and dangled precariously close to the water on the starboard side. Panic ensued. The captain started negotiating with British coast guards for our ship to be pulled free by a tug – which would cost 10% of the value of our cargo. Hansa headquarters in Hamburg balked. Then, suddenly, a high tide lifted the ship free without outside help. For two days afterwards the captain was drunk, recovering, he told me, from the shock. Being a Catholic himself he also confided in me that he was facing an imminent divorce. During one of his long absences on the sea his wife had fallen in love with someone else. It was a hazard frequently faced by the crew serving on merchant ships.

To make the best use of my time, I had brought on board a tape recorder with Telugu phrases spoken by Sister Alphonsa. I also read, from cover to cover, the 870-page Oxford History of India. I often stood for hours on the front deck, praying and reflecting as I watched the ever fascinating expanse of the sea.

Finally we arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, where we were supposed to offload 8 railway carriages. Then bad news. Karachi port had only 30 berths at the time and many ships were already lying at anchor, waiting for their turn to berth. The captain told me it would take at least two weeks before we would leave Karachi again.

I saw my opportunity. I knew Bishop Nicholas Hettinga at Rawalpindi, in the north of Pakistan . . . I asked the captain if I could travel up to see him. He agreed on condition I would give him Hettinga’s address and promise to be back in two weeks’ time.

I jumped at the chance.

I was taken into Karachi harbor in a small tug. I obtained a temporary tourist visa. I bought a railway ticket and caught a train that departed at 17.00 in the evening. The journey lasted 27 hours and took me through the Sindh desert to Pakistani Hyderabad, then via Rohri to Multan, Lahore and finally Rawalpindi.

On the second day in the train I noticed that all my fellow passengers got up early and had a hearty breakfast. I managed to buy coffee and idlis. As soon as day broke, no food or drink were available, either on board the train or at intervening stations till nightfall. I had forgotten that we were in the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast. Having brought few supplies with me, I too had to fast till the sun went down.

My fellow passengers bowed down to the ground to say their prayers, then opened their bags and produced meals of chapattis, pilau rice, spicy curries and curds. Seeing me without food, they gracious invited me to share what they could offer. I really welcomed that act of genuine hospitality. Desert after the meal consisted in halwa, a Muslim delicacy made of ghee [= clarified butter], ground nuts, raisons and sugar. It tasted fine. However the whole mixture proved too heavy for me, especially on an empty stomach. I made my way to the toilet where I was violently sick.

I do not think my hosts noticed.

Bishop Nicholas Hettinga of Rawalpindi in Pakistan, listening to a visitor.
Bishop Nicholas Hettinga of Rawalpindi in Pakistan, listening to a visitor.

Bishop Hettinga was surprised when I turned up at Bishop’s House in Rawalpindi Cantoonment. But he too made me very welcome. After allowing me a good sleep, he took me on a whirlwind tour of the diocese. I visited parishes, hospitals and schools. He even took me up high in the Kashmiri mountains from which we could look into India.

One day we arrived at one presbytery at 3 pm while the parish priest was still enjoying his siesta. Woken up by his servant, the bleary-eyed Irish missionary opened the front door, then pointing at me said to the bishop: “Did you rob me of my sleep to meet this fellow? What’s so urgent?” It is a remark I have never forgotten, hardly complimentary but honest I suppose.

Six days after my arrival in Rawalpindi a bombshell: a telegram from the captain in Karachi port saying curtly: “Ship leaving harbor tomorrow evening.”

I did not know what to do. All my possessions were on board ship: fourteen iron trunks with my books and supplies for St Joseph’s College. How on earth could I ever get back in time?

“Fly back”, Hettinga decided. “We will pay for it.” The bishop’s secretary immediately arranged the early flight from Rawalpindi to Karachi next day.

It became my first travel by air in a relatively small craft, the Fokker F29. Formalities at Rawalpindi airport were quite simple. When we were about to land at Lahore about an hour later, I remembered that Lahore town has one of the most beautiful mosques in Asia, the ancient Badshahi Mosque.

“Will I ever pass through Lahore again?”, I asked myself.

I called a stewardess. “How long will we be stopping at Lahore?”

“For one hour”, she replied.

“Will that give me enough time to visit Badshahi Mosque?”, I asked again.

“Sure”, she said. “Just grab a taxi at the entrance of the airport.”

So at Lahore airport I dashed out of the plane, leaving my travel case on board. I ran to the exit of the airport, enlisted a taxi and off we went. Soon, however, we ran into heavy traffic. Then we got stuck. I looked at my watch. Half an hour had gone! So I decided to turn back, overruling the objections of the taxi driver.

I just made it in time. From the taxi I ran to the runway where ground crew was already pushing the flight of steps away from the plane’s door. Seeing me, they pushed the steps back and let me in, shaking their heads. The plane took off five minutes later. I realized it had been a close thing . . .

On arrival in Karachi I sought out the quay where our ship lay anchored   and reported myself back on board ship.

One more task needed to be done. When leaving Hettinga that morning I had been wondering how I could repay him for his hospitality. Well, I had noticed that while I could buy drinks from the ship’s steward at a reasonable price, spirits were hard to obtain in Pakistan and very, very expensive. Why not buy him a bottle of brandy and leave it at the FMM Sisters’ Convent in Karachi? They would make sure it would reach him in Rawalpindi.

So I bought a large, flat bottle of brandy which I knew I had to smuggle back on land through customs. Custom control in Karachi port varied from hour to hour, being lax one moment, then suddenly strict. I did not want to take any chances. So I hid the bottle on my back, just behind my belt, trusting I could just walk through.

No such luck. The custom officer on duty stopped everyone, looked into bags and even frisked one person after the other. My heart stopped. But I could not turn back.

So I stoically waited for the officer to check me and my belongings. Fortunately, he did not frisk me – and I managed to walk out with the bottle of brandy still firmly pressing on my back . . . I dutifully delivered the bottle and a note at the convent.

On return to the ship I told my German cabin mate what I had done.

“You’ve been absolutely stupid!”, he said. “Alcohol smugglers in Pakistan face years and years in prison. You put your whole mission in India at risk!”

He was right.

In the days that followed I thought a lot about my escapade to Rawalpindi – and the senseless risks I had taken. I should not have travelled such a far distance – 700 miles! – from Karachi to Rawalpindi in the first place. I should not have left the plane at Lahore airport during a one-hour stop over. I should not have gambled my career for a bottle of brandy.

I learned some permanent lessons. I have remained a risk taker during the rest of my life. Opportunities need to be grasped. Calculated risks need to be taken at times. But the risks I had taken on my trip to Rawalpindi were ill-advised and unnecessary. The potential cost had outweighed the benefit. The calculation had been wrong.

“A fall into a ditch makes you wiser”, as the Chinese say. I was glad to learn the lesson before a fatal fall.

[i] John Wijngaards, The Formulas of the Deuteronomic Creed, Pontifical Gregorian University, printed by Reijnen, Tilburg 1963.

[ii] John Wijngaards, Vazal van Jahweh, Boeken bij de Bijbel, Bosch & Keunig, Baarn 1965, 160 pages.




John Wijngaards, My Story – My Thoughts, Lessons on the way to India