In search of French Past (8): Pope John XXiii and other homos


In In Search of French (7): the hermit, the poet and the clown,  I described my visit to Lourdes and a hermitage, and some of the books that Louis-Albert Lassus, my traveling companion had written on the hermitic life. I continue our travels with our visit to Rome (1962). 

It was the early days of the Second Vatican Council, which was opened by Pope John XXIII on 11 October 1962. We took a taxi to St Peter’s square, red and scarlet hats bobbing all around us in vehicles heading in the same direction. At St Peter’s Square we were met by a sea of red and purple, as in the picture.


st peters square vatican 2

Louis-Albert and I went to one of the Pope John’s audiences of about 100 people in one of the rooms of the Vatican. I shall never forget Pope John’s eyes flashing with what seemed to be joy. No, not at seeing me. Here is an excerpt from an entry in his diary when he was 20 years old  (Pope John-xxiii. Journal of a Soul. London:Geoffrey Chapman, 1965, p. 64).

Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? I am nothing. Everything I possess, my being, life, understanding, will and memory – all were given me by God, so all belong to him. Twenty short years ago all that I see around me was already here; the same sun, moon and stars…..Everything was being done without me, nobody was thinking of me….because I did not exist. And you, O God….drew me forth from the nothingness, you gave me being, life, a soul, in fact all the faculties of my body and spirit…you created me.”

A “traditional” Catholic website relates: Just before his death, John XXIII composed the following prayer for the Jews. This prayer was confirmed by the Vatican as being the work of John XXIII.(73) “We realize today how blind we have been throughout the centuries and how we did not appreciate the beauty of the Chosen People nor the features of our favored brothers. We are aware of the divine mark of Cain placed upon our forehead. In the course of centuries our brother, Abel, has been lying bleeding and in tears on the ground through our fault, only because we had forgotten thy love. Forgive us our unjustified condemnation of the Jews. Forgive us that by crucifying them we have crucified You for the second time. Forgive us. We did not know what we were doing.” Catholic magazine The Reign of Mary, “John XXIII and the Jews,” Spring, 1986, p. 11.

Besides the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus is a unique unrepeatable event, it is wrong for the pope to identify Jesus, in any way, with those who rejected him and continue to do so to this day, even when Jesus was also a Jew. Although it is right that not every Jew should be blamed for the crucifixion, it would not be right to say that some Jews were not responsible for it. And it would also be wrong for a Christian to call the Jew – or any one who does not believe that the Son of God came in the flesh to die for sinners – his spiritual brother.

With regard to Christ’s sacrifice, this time unrelated to the Jewish Holocaust, is it ever possible that Jesus could be crucified again. Absolutely not. And, when it comes to such a crucial event, literally so, let us not reduce it to metaphor, for any reason. (See  Pope John XXIII and the “crucifixion” of the Jew). 

Besides my visits to the usual tourist sites such as Michelangelo’s Pietà, the Mona Lisa and the Sistine chapel, I accompanied Louis-Albert on his visits to various religious orders. I met the Abbot General of the Cistercian Order, who was very kind.

After Rome, I left Louis-Albert and returned to Paris, where I rented a room in a narrow side street, Rue Senlis, off Rue Soufflot. At the top of Rue Soufflot loomed the Pantheon, where famous French people are buried, among them the architect of the Pantheon, Jacques-Germain Soufflot, of course, writers such as Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo) Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) and Voltaire (Candide), and scientists such as Pierre and Marie Curie. I’ve been back to Paris a few more times since this first sojourn in 1962. On my last visit in 1993, I searched for Rue Senlis, but it seemed to have vanished.

My room contained a single bed, a chair, a little table big enough to hold my primus stove, and a tiny space on either side of the bed. The foot of the bed almost touched the door, which opened onto the pavement. It’s dinner time. Lying on the bed, primus stove on the table, fumes of paraffin mixing with the steam from the pot of boiling water heating the tin of bully beef. I got a clerical job in an ice-cream factory. I went to the Comédie-Française theatre a few times to see plays by Molière and other famous French playwrights. Although I sat in the cheapest seats (the “gods” – at the back, the top circle in the picture), the acoustics was very good. (“Acoustics” is not a countable noun so it is grammatically singular. Hence “the acoustics was very good.”).








Although Notre Dame was close by, I never attended Sunday Mass there. I preferred my usual church of St Julien the Pauvre, a stone’s throw from Notre Dame. It is a Roman Catholic
Church of the Melchite Greek rite, a branch of the Byzantine church. I met Louis-Albert for the first time at this church. (See
In Search of French Past (5): Why are you so downcast, oh my soul?).

Most of my days back in Paris were filled checking pink ice-cream slips and eating free ice-cream lollies. After about two months of bully beef and ice-cream, my bowels locked down. I went to hospital for an enema. A short time later (January 1963), I left Paris and returned to London to take a Union-Castle liner home to Cape Town. I described in an earlier chapter my train-airplane journey from Cape Town to London. At the end of my second-year B.A. I had booked to fly to London (From Maputo, Mozambique) and was to return to Cape Town on a Union-Castle liner from Southampton, the port that generally served the Cape Town route. (See In search of French Past (1). The British Union-Castle fleet operated between Europe and Africa from 1900 to 1977. My grandfather (mother’s side), Mendel Gilinsky and his children, one of which was my mother, Feiga (Fanny), arrived in Cape Town in 1912 on one of these Union-Castles, the Galway castle, a new addition to the fleet. it was sunk a few years later by a U-boat (See Russia and the Jew). I arrived home in January 1963. I had been in France for more than a year.

Union Castle

Union Castle  The mountains in the distance are the “Twelve Apostles” a few miles from the centre of Cape Town.


Before I left Cape Town for my first trip to France, I had already completed two years of my B.A. at the University of Cape Town (1960-61). On my return from France I registered for my final year of philosophy (Ethics, Logic and Metaphysics, and Political philosophy). In 1961 I had completed a course in “French Elementary,” which was a misnomer; it included enough complicated grammar to give you subjunctivitus (to wit, the imperfect subjunctive Il eût fallu que nous allassions; so simple in English “We had to go”). I wanted to do a further course in French in this my final B.A. year. I went to see the Head of French, Professor Shackleton, and asked to skip French 1 (which followed French Elementary) because in my humble opinion my French, after my studies at the University of Strasbourg had reached at least the French 1 level. (See In Search of French Past (4): Student at the University of Strasbourg). He said my French language wasn’t the issue. (We were talking in French). He asked me, “What do you know about French literature?” My French courses in Strasbourg focused only on language. My knowledge of French literature was scanty. I mentioned Moliere. The Professor wanted something less dated. I went numb. Then a flotilla of billboards floated out of the fog festooned with titles of various plays that were on during my stay in Paris. I had little idea what these plays were about. I chanced a few titles. The upshot: I sailed into French 2. I graduated at the end of 1963 with majors in Ethics, Logic and Metaphysics (one course) and Political Philosophy, and French 2.

Here would be a good place relate how I got into the B.A. French Honours programme (the next degree after the B.A.) at the University of South Africa. In South Africa, I had completed my French major, Course 3 (1971) as an external student at the University of Cape Town. In 1983. I was teaching French at Mmabatho High School, South Africa. I wanted to do a B.A. Honours in French so I went to visit Professor Haeffner, the Head of Modern Languages at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. It was our first meeting. I met him in the corridor outside his office. He said that he was not taken in by bits of paper (B.A. ShmeeA). He didn’t invite me into his office. He proceeded to interrogate me then and there – in the corridor – to establish whether I was Honours matériel. Now what could this scabrous man ask me in a corridor that would convince him I was up to scratch? As it turned out, it was what I asked him that convinced him that he had taken on more than he could spew. Here is our conversation. My comments are in italics:

Prof – What is a “military parade” in French?

He’s trying to stymie me with one of the many English-French “false friends” faux amis, in this instance the French parade, cannot be used to translate “military parade.”

Me – Un défilé militaire.

He wasn’t expecting the right answer. Before he could ask me another, I shot back with my question.

Me – “What does de fond en comble mean?”

This means “from top to bottom” or one could say “from top to toe.”

Prof – “From top to bottom.”

Me – Wrong. That’s only half-way (I twist my arm behind me and pointed down to my derrière; in Yiddish, toches, and said: It means all the way down: from top to toe.

And that’s how I switched off Professor Bok Drol (Afrikaans for “Buck Poo”) and got to do the B.A. French Honours. It was the hardest studies I had ever done. I completed the degree two years later (See my “A Jewish view of a French bottom).

After my B.A. Graduation in December 1963, I longed to return to France. I wrote to Louis-Albert and he invited me to accompany him on more of his travels. On my first trip to France, my father paid for a return fare and gave me a monthly allowance of 25 British pounds. This time I had a little more difficulty convincing him to pay for me to go back to France so soon after my first trip. I told my father that he need only pay for a one-way ticket and I would fend for myself. I planned to go on to Israel to join my brother Bennie on a kibbutz. I had very little money. I returned to Paris late in the evening. My bed for the night was a sleeping bag on the bank of the Seine.

I spent the night  in my sleeping bag a few metres from the steps on the other side

I spent the night in my sleeping bag a few metres from the steps on the other side


Before sunrise I was awakened by a tap-tap on my head; a gendarme’s boot. I had the address of a fellow philosophy student, Rick Turner, who had also graduated in 1963; Me with a B.A. In philosophy and him with a B.A. Honours in philosophy. He was doing a doctorate at the Sorbonne on the political philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. I visited Rick and his wife, Barbara and baby girl, Jann, in their little flat. Barbara was also a student at the University of Cape Town. Barbara later remarried and is known today as Barbara Follett, who became a Labour MP in the UK. I was surprised that Rick was doing a doctorate at a French university. I had no idea that he knew French well enough to write a thesis in French. Jean Paul Sartre wrote the foreword to his thesis.

I told Rick I was going to the South of France. He gave me some money to buy a book for him that was unavailable in Paris but was available at a bookshop down South. I said I would post the book to him. I never did; instead I used the money to buy a train ticket to Bordeaux where I was to rejoin Louis-Albert. A few years later, I was visiting the University of Cape Town where I bumped into Rick. He yelled “Where’s my money?” I gave it to him. In today’s money it was about £7. And that was the end of our meeting. I never saw him again. Rick is well known as an anti-Apartheid activist. In 1974, He was shot dead through the window of his house, and died in the arms of his daughter Jann, who was that sweet little baby I saw in her mother’s arms in Paris exactly 50 years ago.

From the Daily Maverick, 15 July, 2014:

“Four months after Steve Biko was beaten to death in police custody in 1977, fellow activist, academic and philosopher, Rick Turner, was assassinated in his Durban home. Both men offered South Africans – black and white – transformative new ways of thinking about and framing themselves and society. Their ideas were such a threat that authorities at the time tried to wipe both men off the face of the earth. MARIANNE THAMM revisits Turner’s legacy and what it might offer contemporary South Africa.”

A short biography of Rick can be found here.

Louis-Albert and I went by train Belgrade, Yugoslavia where we spent ten days in a religious house. I think it was the Augustinian fathers. We then took the long train trip over the mountains to Thessaloniki where we stayed with the Marist Brothers. I enjoyed walking along the pier where Paul, the Apostle, must have walked. I accumulated a large amount of luggage on this second trip. I asked the Marist Brothers to store most of it in their loft, which I would retrieve on my way back to London, where I intended to fly home. Louis-Albert accompanied me to the port of Piraeus in Athens where I took a boat to Haifa.

I visited Paris again in 1973 for a few days. At the time I was a French teacher at the Jesuit St George’s College in Harare (Salisbury in 1973) and it was the July-August holidays. I did not see Louis-Albert on this occasion. From Paris I went to Florence and then on to Istanbul. Istanbul is more hilly than Rome. I walked everywhere. My most memorable experience of my ten days in Istanbul was not the Topkapi museum or the mosaics in the Hagia Sofia but the savage images of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” I had no idea what the movie was about. Here is a description of the movie:

A Clockwork Orange is a 1971 British film written, produced, and directed by Stanley Kubrick, adapted from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange. It employs disturbing, violent images to comment on psychiatry, juvenile delinquency, youth gangs, and other social, political, and economic subjects in a dystopian future Britain.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the main character, is a charismatic, sociopathic delinquent whose interests include classical music (especially Beethoven), rape, and what is termed “ultra-violence”. He leads a small gang of thugs (Pete, Georgie, and Dim), whom he calls his droogs (from the Russian друг, “friend”, “buddy”). The film chronicles the horrific crime spree of his gang, his capture, and attempted rehabilitation via controversial psychological conditioning. Alex narrates most of the film in Nadsat, a fractured adolescent slang composed of Slavic (especially Russian), English, and Cockney rhyming slang. (Wikipedia).

I walked out of the derelict stone movie house into the fresh summer light. A great depression came over me. I began the long walk back to my hotel gulping in the fresh sweet air trying to drive out the darkness that saturated my soul; a darkness endemic to our human condition – “man’s estate,” from which there is no earthly rescue. This morning I was reading Paul’s letter to the Colossians 1:12-14:

[Give] joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”

I visited Albert for the third and last time three decades later in 1993 at the Dominican priory in Nice. I was on my way home to my university (Fort Hare) in South Africa from Moscow where I had attended the XIX World Congress of Philosophy and presented a paper entitled “Multiculturalism in Education: An African view.” (My paper appears here). Louis-Albert had just returned home from one of his monastic retreats. I stayed a few days in an hotel opposite his priory. He gave me a French Pilot’s leather fleece-lined jacket from World War II, a raincoat and a large painted hand-carved wooden crucifix. The leather jacket would have added at least five kilos excess to my baggage so I carried it onto the plane.

I flew from Nice to Heathrow for my return flight to Johannesburg. Before boarding the plane, I stuck the foot of the crucifix into a tog bag on my back. Most of it protruded out of the top. I was wearing a blue T-shirt that was given to delegates at the Moscow Congress. The front of the blue T-shirt was decorated wit the emblem for the Congress: HOMO with the globe of the world in place of the first “O”. Here is a picture of the T-Shirt selling on Ebay for $39. Change the world, bro.

Emblem of XIX Congress of  Philosophy, Moscow, 1993.

Emblem of XIX Congress of Philosophy, Moscow, 1993.


How meanings have morphed! “Homo” is also Latin for “Man.” Philosophy is about Homo’s wishto be Sapiens. Nowadays, homo just wantsto be homo. Many of the passengers were Afrikaners. I walked down the aisle to my seat to the tune oftitters and gasps. I could swear I heard: “Man, wat diefok’s met dié ou!” (Man, waht the f-k’s with this bloke).

I gave the crucifix to my daughter. A few years ago, the heavy thick leather jacket later saved me from great injury. I was riding my scooter in a busy section of my home city, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, when the scooter slipped on a section of road under repair. The scooter fell over on its right side and slid along the ground. I was not badly hurt. I noticed that the leather on the right elbow side of my jacket had been shaved away. If not for the thick leather, I would have no more elbow room.

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