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RENE VAN DE WALLE (1924-2009)

Posted on: 17 Jan, 2024 | Modified on: 28 Apr, 2024

By Erik Breye s.j.

On June 10th I received an email from Fr. Van de Walle's nephew that read as follows:
It is my sad duty to inform you all that this morning [June 9th] at 10 a.m. my beloved uncle Rene passed away. At 9.30 a.m. he celebrated his daily mass in his office. As he felt a little tired, he went to lie down on his bed. He asked Sister Gaby for his crucifix, he held it in his hands and told that the time had come to go to the Lord. He closed his eyes and died in peace.
I begin this obituary with this information because it gives us one aspect of the character, of the life, of the faith of this Jesuit which was the basis of his life, his vocation and the way he tried to respond to the Lord. However, in many ways he was a colourful person. Gifted with a robust health he was not afraid of any work. He was intelligent and quick to grasp situations. Very sociable he was not afraid of playing a prank. He also had a rich collection of jokes, some of which many people felt a bit risky, but his down to earth nature found no fault with them. But above all his faith made this colourful person someone who desired to serve and so he was ready to help anyone in any way he could.

I guess that for many in our Ranchi Province Fr. Rene Van de Walle was a rather unknown Jesuit of our province. He returned to Belgium in 1989 and only once - for his golden jubilee in 1995- he paid a last visit to his province. But even before that he spent most of his time in Pune where he was professor of Sacred Scripture at the Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth and resided at De Nobili College. He sometimes paid a visit to the province and several times he came as a visiting professor to St. Albert's College.

As his parents had fled the country during the First World War and settled in France, Rene was born there in 1924. He had one elder brother to whom and to whose family he remained much attached. They returned to Belgium when he was some seven-eight years old. He finished his high school in Izegem. That is why he had an affinity to me as I came out from the same high school. He joined the Society at Drongen [Belgium] in 1945. Soon he came to India and did his philosophy at Shembaganur. For his regency he was placed in the Minor Seminary at Ranchi, teaching in St. John's. There is the rumour that during his regency he was very eager to get the latest news so as to tell it to others. He would run to Manresa House, St. Xavier's, and the Seminary to tell the Fathers the news. He was sent for theology to Pune and was ordained there in 1957. I heard the story that during the 'quinzaine' [Jesuit holiday], which they spent in Mahabaleshwar, he contrived one day that during an outing he had fallen and hurt himself badly and let himself be carried back home, a couple of miles, by two of the strong men, only to jump off the stretcher when they arrived there. As a reward he was baptised during supper with some hot soup by one of the two victims. Coming back to Ranchi he was for a short spell assistant at the Cathedral parish. Then he was sent to Rome to prepare himself to become a professor of Scripture in Pune. He took his licentiate in Holy Scripture from the Biblical Institute and began his doctorate. He never completed it as he was called back to begin his teaching. The title of the thesis he had chosen was "The Murmuring of the Jews in the Desert". His friends felt that he had chosen a topic close to his heart because he himself could murmur about many people and events. I guess that the reason for his not completing this work was double: his teaching load and his apostolic heart that desired to help people. This did not give him much free time to be busy with his doctorial work.
I met Fr Van de Walle the first time, shortly after my arrival at Ranchi in February 1965. He happened to be a participant of the Province Congregation, which just ended when we arrived here. He came at once in search of me to see that Jesuit from his own high school. But I really came to know him when I was sent for theology to Pune. He was a man with a very deep knowledge of the Bible and a good communicator. He however was notorious for spicing his classes with some good jokes. He was a most friendly formator always ready to help the students in every way. He would take time to take someone on his scooter to town and even wait for him till his work was over. However he had the knack to murmur about events and people. Some people found this offensive. He was known in all the convents in Pune, because they knew he was ready to help them out for an occasional special mass, for a recollection or for a retreat, for some scripture classes or for some other help- if he could do so without hampering his work in JDV. He would even run around and search for help if he could not accept himself. He directed plenty of retreats, which were always very biblical. Once he was directing a retreat in Simla when it was rather cold. There was a sister retreatant who in every interview complained about the cold. She confided that notwithstanding the beautiful input, she could not relish fully because at night she could not sleep well on account of the cold. When she asked at the end of the retreat for a biblical quote by which she could remember the retreat he wrote on a small slip of paper: Ecclesiastes 4:11. This was indeed appropriate and showed his knowledge of even the Wisdom Literature. But when sister opened her Bible and found the text, it was not taken with joy. He was not only serving the Jesuits and seminarians and sisters, but was also available to many laypeople and kept contact with many who discontinued their religious or priestly vocation. He helped them in many ways to find their way in the world. He was an active member of the Catholic Biblical Association in India. He was also associated with Christians of other denominations and helped for instance in the Hindi and Marathi bible translations.

When he reached 65, the time for retirement at JDV he was wondering what he should do: return to Ranchi? But he felt that he was out of touch with the people here. Sure he could teach Scripture in the seminary and also in the convents. He knew however that this was only short-term. So he opted for pastoral ministry in his own country. On holidays he had seen the need for priests there and his heart that had been way-led into teaching desired its first love. So he returned to Belgium where he intended to try out whether he could re-adapt himself to the situation there. He was a huge success as a Sunday-pastor helping out in parishes where there was only one priest and meanwhile he became also hospital chaplain. After a couple of years the Bishop of Bruges appointed him parish priest in a difficult parish in Menen where he remained for the rest of his life. He was immensely loved by his parishioners on account of his piety, his serviceability, his beautiful biblical homilies and his open-mindedness. When he was 75 he offered his resignation to the Bishop but told him that he was willing to stay as long as he could. This was immediately accepted. The bishop was surprised by his popularity among the people when he saw with how much joy and piety his parish celebrated the centenary of their church.

About two years ago however he got kidney trouble and the last two years of his life were a time of suffering. He tried to continue serving his people, but when it became impossible he finally resigned a year ago. He remained in the parish house helped by the sister assistant in the parish. The end then came. He had a beautiful burial with a full church: people devotedly praying for their beloved shepherd. Ranchi can pride itself in having given to Pune and later to the diocese of Bruges in Belgium a qualified, reliable, learned and pious priest. May he rest in peace.