Tribute to Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ

Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ with Fr Peter Gallagher SJ, the current British Provincial

By Paul Chitnis, Director of Jesuit Missions

I first met “CJ” shortly after he was appointed Provincial, when he gave a talk at the Sacred Heart church in Wimbledon.

It was 1987 and Michael had recently returned from Central America. He was distracted at the start of the meeting because he had heard that some of his friends in El Salvador had been arrested and he was concerned about them.

It brought the reality of Michael’s work for social justice firmly into the comfortable, leafy suburbs of south London.

Some years later, I was privileged to visit his parish in El Salvador to which he returned the day after his provincialate ended.

On greeting me at the gate of the compound of El Despertar parish, Michael spoke about the five people, including his predecessor as parish priest, who had been killed there by the military some years previously.

Inside the compound was a hive of activity with children running everywhere, a basketball game taking place with, as CJ later informed me, some people who were known murderers.

Before leaving El Despertar, Michael wanted to show me his simple room, a small space so different from his provincial office in Mayfair.

I remember bookshelves filled with books. It was a room which, in its simplicity, reflected his commitment to living alongside the poor and marginalised, as well as his intellectual curiosity especially in liberation theology.

On Sunday, Michael celebrated mass in a local community. We drove together in his pickup filled with young people. Mass was filled with joyous singing and the crowing of cockerels wandering in and out of the simple church.

Once it was over, he drove down to the beach where together we crashed through the Pacific waves before tucking into a beachside buffet of magnificent seafood.

Shortly after I was appointed to lead Jesuit Missions, I invited Michael, who had by now returned to the UK, to talk to the team. By then, he was slightly diminished physically but still filled with an inner fire to preach and work for justice.

After his move to the Jesuit retirement home in Boscombe, he seemed a more solitary figure content to be with his thoughts and memories.

He was always complimentary about Jesuit Missions and encouraged us to be persistent and determined in promoting a faith that does justice. It may sound vain but Michael’s approbation was supremely important to me.

Michael had something of the Old Testament prophet to him – fearless in speaking out against injustice, passionate about enabling people to be agents of their own future, brimming with an energy and zest for life, and utterly dedicated to a God for whom the poorest and weakest matter most.

He was a magnetic presence and one of the most inspiring people I have known. Rest, at last and for all eternity, in peace CJ.

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