Every now and then I read about someone who has managed to combine in their life elements that remain fragmented and conflicted in my own - and to accomplish things that make the achievements of ordinary mortals seem trifling. Yesterday's Guardian carried an obituary for Vicente Ferrer, who fought for the POUM during the Spanish Civil War and was imprisoned by Franco, then trained to be a Jesuit priest, with the idea of 'helping others':
In 1952 he volunteered to go to India. At first he devoted himself to his spiritual development in Pune, but, surrounded by desolation, he soon moved from reflection to action. He started with a school and 12 acres of land at Manmad, north-east of Mumbai. In an arid area, he persuaded farmers to dig wells, offering them oil and wheat while they dug. Then, the digger of one well would help another, in a system Ferrer termed "linked brotherhood".
He was to spend the rest of his life in India, entering into conflict with landowners and political bosses because of his co-operative methods, emphasis on education and challenges to the caste system and to the subjugation of women. He lived and worked among the poorest, especially the dalits (untouchables), who lacked all rights and were mostly illiterate.
Ferrer's approach was rather different from that other European missionary in India, Mother Theresa:
"Misery and suffering are not meant to be understood, but to be solved," and "I've declared war on pain and suffering" were two phrases that helped him raise money, not just from leftwing Catholics (he was never friends with the church hierarchy, who were unrepresented at his funeral) but from a wide base of donors.
His achievements seem to have been nothing short of heroic:
By the time of Ferrer's death, his foundation had opened and supported 1,700 village schools, serving 125,000 children and employing 2,000 teachers, and three general hospitals with 1,300 staff. It had planted 3m trees and opened libraries, an Aids clinic and family-planning clinics. It organised wells and irrigation schemes. Several projects focus on women, especially dalits, whose lives are blighted by constant childbearing, rape and murder.
If you have to have saints, then Ferrer sounds like a pretty good candidate.