Jan. 3, 2019 - Clarence J. Burby was born in Iraq in 1935. His father was British, of Anglo-Indian descent, who served in the British army and settled in Baghdad, where he taught English and eventually became an editor of the English-language newspaper there. His mother was an Iraqi of mixed Turkish-Armenian and Chaldean parentage.
Clarence felt strongly that he was a product of two cultures. The family spoke English at home, but the children learned Arabic at school and from their playmates. Like his three brothers, he attended Baghdad College, founded in 1932 by Jesuits from the New England Province. His two sisters were educated by Dominican Sisters of the Presentation.
The seeds of his vocation were planted during his years at Baghdad College. Conversations with some of his Jesuit teachers, notably Fr. Joe Merrick, SJ, during a retreat for seniors who were Christians, led to a firm decision. He entered the Society in 1954 at Shadowbrook in Massachusetts. The fire that destroyed Shadowbrook two years later proved an unexpected blessing for Clarence, he thought, as the following three years among New York Jesuits at Poughkeepsie broadened his experience of American culture.
He did philosophy studies at Weston, Mass., where he found a mentor in Fr. Gus Devenny, SJ, who had worked in Baghdad and had a graduate degree in Arabic language and literature. For regency he returned to Iraq and taught math and religion in Baghdad College.
As theology studies approached, Clarence proposed that he do them in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, where the Near East Province operated a diocesan seminary, but New England superiors decided he should go to Poona, in India. This proved to be another lucky break as it put him under the tutelage of the dean, Fr. Joseph Neuner, SJ, who would later become one of the influential theologians at Vatican II on Christian-Muslim relationships. Studying at Poona also enabled Clarence to establish contact with his father’s Indian relatives.
He was ordained a priest at Baghdad College in 1967. There followed tertianship at Drongen, Belgium (1968-1969). Toward the end of the tertianship long retreat he got a surprising phone call. His superior in Baghdad, Fr. John Donohue, SJ, fearing the new Ba’athist government would expropriate the Jesuits’ property and expel the Americans from Iraq, wanted the two Iraq-born Jesuits— Clarence and a member of the Near East Province, Fr. Yusuf Saferta, SJ—to come immediately to Baghdad in case they were needed to take legal charge of the college. Clarence returned to Baghdad and, three months later, what they had feared happened: the government took over the school in 1969 and expelled the American Jesuits from the country.
The new school administration allowed Clarence and Yusuf Saferta to stay on, teaching religion, but by the end of the academic year Jesuit superiors in Boston and Beirut decided that the situation was untenable and so the four-decade mission of Jesuits in Iraq came to an end.
For Clarence the expulsion from Iraq was the beginning of a new ministry among Arab-speaking Christians. For the next 23 years he worked as a de facto member of the Near East Province, mainly in Damascus and other cities of Syria: teaching Latin in the university at Damacus, and working as a chaplain for Christian university students, lay Christian movements, and various congregations of sisters, while also working as part of a team of Jesuits giving the Spiritual Exercises.
In 1993, Clarence’s work took a different direction. In the 1980s the New England Province had established a center in Amman, Jordan, to provide pastoral support for English-speaking Catholics and catechetical training for teachers in church schools for Arabic-speaking Christians. Now the Center wanted to add an Arabic-speaking Jesuit to the staff. The New England provincial assigned Clarence to Amman. The Near East provincial wanted Clarence to continue his work in Syria. A tug of war developed, which ended on the desk of Fr. General Kolvenbach (who had spent much of his life as a Jesuit working in the Near East Province). He deferred to the New England provincial. So, Clarence went to Amman. There he organized retreats for youth groups, developed 19th Annotation versions of the Spiritual Exercises for adults, and began offering spiritual direction. Increasingly he got involved in ministering to the flood of Iraqi refugees fleeing the chaotic violence there.
In 2012, health issues led superiors to decide that Clarence should move to Boston where he could get good medical care. Reluctantly, he agreed and moved to Campion Center.
At Campion, he continued to be active in pastoral ministry as his health allowed, among other activities leading a bible-study group. At the annual community talent show he was talked into singing Iraqi songs with another Jesuit who spoke Arabic.
In the last years of his life his Jesuit brothers saw at first hand the gentleness of spirit, prayerful trust in God’s will, and ability to smile at his own foibles that made his ministry among Arab Christians and Muslims so effective. Though his physical decline was apparent his death was something of a surprise, in the early morning hours of December 29, 2018.