Obituary: The Rev Philip Caraman

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The Independent Online
JUST a few months before he died Philip Caraman sent to a fellow Jesuit three photographs, suggesting that they might be useful in some eventual obituary of him. Caraman was not one to act without purpose and so it can be no accident that the photographs show him at widely different moments of his varied and significant ministry.

In one he is blessing a newly built ship in Norway; in another he is smilingly presenting a cage of white doves to Pope Paul VI at the canonisation of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales; in the third he stands under a broad-brimmed hat on a mountain top in South America, for all the world like Keats's Cortez upon his peak in Darien. Much lay before and after those moments.

Philip Caraman was born in Golders Green, north London, in 1911, his family's roots being in what he would surely have called the Levant rather than the more pedestrian Middle East. There were seven girls in the family and two boys. After his schooling at Stonyhurst he joined the Society of Jesus at Roehampton in 1930. His brother John had preceded him there six years before. John was to be a missionary in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, where with charming eccentricity he wore a solar topee to the last. Philip one feels, might well have done the same.

His Jesuit formation included reading History at Campion Hall, where Father Martin D'Arcy, an ever-formative influence, was Master. Caraman was ordained priest in 1945 at Farm Street and that was to be his home for the next 16 years or so.

At the time a "House of Writers" was part of the Jesuit apostolate at Farm Street, with its own quarters in the house immediately adjoining the church. Caraman became one of those "writers" and so he remained. In 1948 he was appointed editor of the Month, giving it a new format and a new style calculated to appeal to the Catholic readership of post-war Britain. Friends of the stature of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene were happy to be associated with his new venture, and theirs was a relationship of mutual support. Caraman greatly assisted Waugh with the historical background to his 1950 novel Helena, and that assistance was always gratefully acknowledged.

Like D'Arcy, Caraman was in no awe of the great and the good and the famous and he was no stranger to what he is unlikely to have called networking. His contacts were many, varied and fruitful, his offices were busy. That they should have been termed by some the "caramanserai" was perhaps inevitable. These were the years of his biographies of the early British Jesuits like William Weston and Henry Morse and of his tributes to later men like Fr Francis Devas and Fr Joseph Keating. In 1956 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

In 1959 he was appointed vice-postulator of the cause for canonisation of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales, a responsibility which appealed to his religious and historical sensibilities and which he promoted with enthusiastic devotion and an elegant pen. He was in St Peter's when the canonisation was proclaimed by Paul VI in 1970 - along with the doves and the photographer.

His great friend Alec Guinness recalls another occasion when they had come into St Peter's wrapped British-style against wind and weather only to be flunkeyed forward into totally unsuitable prominence, Caraman looking "rather like some crumpled curate from an impoverished English vicarage". It was otherwise when he received into the Catholic Church such famous figures as Edith Sitwell.

For all his charm and courtesy Philip Caraman was not a man to be crossed or opposed and there were those who found him intransigent and unyielding. The mischievous twinkle in his eye could harden in no uncertain fashion. He left Farm Street in 1963 and in 1965 the work on the martyrs was put into other hands.

Caraman then made his first stay in Norway, working as a missionary in a foreign land whose language he had to learn, and in a none too receptive climate. It gave him, he said, ample time for writing and so he completed his biography of Fr C.C. Martindale.

Towards the end of 1968 he was asked to lecture in church history in the Westminster diocesan seminary, then still in Hertfordshire, an appointment he enjoyed and which allowed him to conduct researches into the Jesuit reduction in Paraguay. That also took him to Rome and to South America, even to the mountain peaks, and The Lost Paradise was duly published in 1975.

That done, Caraman returned to Norway, working first in Trondheim and then in Tonsberg, where the cameras captured him blessing a new ship in the yards. After three years he returned to England and was soon at work on a history of the Gregorian University. Research into the history of the Jesuits in Australia took him there in 1980 and then, between 1981 and 1986, he split his time between London and Rome each year, working on contributions to an encyclopaedia of Jesuit history.

At the age when bishops and parish priests are required to offer their resignation Caraman took charge of the rural parish of Dulverton in Somerset - a mischievous twinkle at that point surely? - again caring for a diversified flock and finding time for writing and research. Just before going to Dulverton he had completed a book on the exploits of the Jesuit missionaires in Ethiopia in the late 16th century and he was soon at work on the biography of St Ignatius Loyola which came out in 1990. His book on the journeying of 17th-century Jesuits into Tibet (Tibet: the Jesuit century) was published only last month and at Caraman's own request was toasted by his brethren at Farm Street in traditional style.

He had been a Jesuit priest and a Jesuit writer 53 years. To Philip Caraman that was a double vocation which he embraced fully and fruitfully. Philip George Caraman, priest and writer: born London 11 August 1911; ordained priest 1945; Editor, the Month 1948-64; FRSL 1956; died Brushford, Somerset 6 May 1998.