Fr. Kevin Bartlett:
A Vessel of God’s Love in Life and in Death
March 19, 2013
I first met Fr. Kevin Bartlett about 13 years ago—perhaps around 1999. I cannot recall the exact year. He, being an Roman Catholic missionary priest from Perth, Australia and I, an American Orthodox Christian layman, some might think the venue of our first meeting to have been an odd one. It was the Taiwan Mission Conference, held every summer by members of an Evangelical Protestant organization, the Taiwan Mission Fellowship. Nevertheless, that was the beginning of what evolved into a very close friendship of two kindred spirits.
Fr. Kevin, to my eyes anyway, always looked older than his chronological age. The last time I saw Fr. Kevin, was last July (2012)— again during the Taiwan Mission Fellowship conference. He looked even more frail and hunched over than ever. In spite of his poor physical condition, he still had places to go and people to see. He only attended parts of the 2012 Conference. One day he asked me to I give him ride down to the train station at the end of the morning session, because he wanted to go to visit an old man in Miao-li whom he was concerned about. Another day it was off to somewhere else. At the end of one of the evening sessions, I was going to give him a ride directly to the Taiping Catholic mission where he was planning to stay for the night, but we ended up having to take a detour first to China Medical Center because my son, Nicholas, had ripped his eyelid in a swimming pool accident. Fr. Kevin patiently endured the several-hour wait in the emergency room, taking due note of a side of life that childless men miss out on. I was quite late in delivering Fr. Kevin to his accommodations for the night – certainly not an easy experience for a frail, old man. But he did well. And that was the last time I saw him.
Fr. Kevin served in the Taiwan aboriginal village of Li-shan located high in the mountains of Taichung County. I had always been concerned that he might die suddenly there without me ever knowing about it, because there was no one in the Taiwanese Catholic community with whom I was in consistently regular contact. Although I do not recall even once consciously praying about this particular concern of mine, apparently God had already taken note of it.
Last Wednesday (March 13th), I went to the Taichung office of the Taiwan Immigration Bureau to tend to a visa issue. The man at the front desk instructed me to follow his colleague to another office. The second gentleman asked me to sit in a chair next to his at his desk. He began going through some papers and, at one point, opened his desk drawer just wide enough for me to see two stacks of Alien Resident Certificates – the ID cards issued to foreigner residents in Taiwan – which are about the size of a typical driver’s license. I did a double-take when I saw the photo on the top card of the second stack, then rose up slightly so that I could get a clearer view. Yes, it showed Fr. Kevin’s photo and name. The corner of the card had been clipped. I told the immigration officer that I knew the man in the photo. At first I thought for a moment that perhaps his card had expired and the he had exchanged it for a new one. The agent could not speak much English. But he obviously could tell that I was curious to know something about my friend, and I could tell that he was hesitant to tell me perhaps because he didn’t know how to say it tactfully in English. He stuttered, “He, he….” Then I finally finished his sentence for him: “… died?” And he said yes. I asked when. Appearing somewhat embarrassed, he very politely explained that that he couldn’t say because I wasn’t supposed to have seen such documents, and that it was only by coincidence that I had just happened to see Fr. Kevin’s A.R.C. I told him that I thought that it was not a coincident, but that God had planned for this to happen.
I was not very sad about Fr. Kevin’s passing. I knew that life had been getting hard for him. As I left the immigration office and drove to my next stop, I had a strong sense that God’s method of informing me was a direct answer to my concern that I would not have found out, at least not in a timely manner, even though — at that point—I still did not yet know when he had died. Of course one very well could just write off the whole incident as a coincidence, as did the immigration officer, but there were other factors that should be taken into consideration. For example, I had originally considered going to the immigration office on Monday, but decided that Wednesday would be more convenient. So, I would like to ask, what are the chances that I should end up at the right desk on the right day? And what are the chances of that particular drawer–which probably was not usually opened in the presence of the non-immigration staff– being opened right at that particular moment? And what are the chances that Fr. Kevin’s ID card would be right on top in plain sight? These canceled ID cards were obviously in a particular stage of being processed. Would they have been there had I arrived a day earlier or a day later? Would I have sat at the same desk with the same agent?
After I returned home that evening, I used Anna’s (my wife’s) desk draw to re-enact for her and Nicholas what had transpired at the immigration office. Then I called Fr. Lucius, an Argentine priest who is the pastor of the Catholic mission in Taiping District where we live, and to whom Fr. Kevin had introduced to my family and me many years prior. He told me that Fr. Kevin passed away two weeks ago Tuesday (Feb. 26th), while he himself was on a trip to the Philippines. By the time he had returned, Fr. Kevin’s funeral and burial had already taken place. He told me the Fr. Kevin spent the last two months of his life in a Catholic home for the elderly in Jiayi. He said that Fr. Kevin had had a sense that he would die soon. At one point, his sisters came from Australia. After the doctor told Fr. Kevin that he was fine, his sisters returned to Australia. Sometime thereafter – I don’t know yet how long – Fr. Kevin passed from this life. He was buried in a Catholic cemetery outside Taichung.
Incidentally, the next morning, following my phone conversation with Fr. Lucius, I turned on my computer and, after checking email, I clicked on CNN.com for the latest news. The banner headline informed me that an Argentine cardinal had become Pope Francis. Later I called Fr. Lucius to “congratulate” (for lack of a better word) him and his fellow Argentine missionaries serving in Taiwan.
I hope to add more about Fr. Kevin’s life after additional information becomes available. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for passing along to the reader some of his life’s highlights that I’ve gleaned from my conversations with him over the years. He began his university studies in Australia as a medical student, but then later changed to law. Eventually he found his way to California where he worked in a cousin’s law firm and simultaneously studied for and passed the California bar exam. Later he went England to practice law. Kevin was very active in the Catholic charismatic movement there which had a big influence on his life. He told me that it was through his participation in the movement that he felt his calling to the priesthood. By this point he was already in his 50’s – and still a bachelor. He returned to Perth at some point. He told me that the bishop there was quite open to the idea of ordaining older men to the priesthood. At one point he introduced me to a priest from Ohio whom, several years prior, he had introduced to his bishop in Perth, ultimately leading to his friend’s ordination and service in a parish there.
Fr. Kevin traveled widely, and had many friends in various churches. He even had traveled to Hong Kong and had met Metropolitan Nikitas who was our Orthodox bishop at the time. Through my many conversations with him one thing became quite clear. He saw a potential alliance between Catholics, Evangelicals, and Orthodox in defense of basic Christian teachings in the face of those who would readily compromise or discard them. He also felt strongly that it was important to proclaim the Gospel, which gave him a strong admiration for Evangelicals. Fr. Kevin spent the last twenty years of his life humbly serving the aboriginal people of Li Shan in their mountain village.
I give thanks to God for Fr. Kevin’s life and witness, and also for the very personal way in which He let me know that his servant had passed into the eternal rest of the Lord whom he loved so much and served so well.