A Capuchin Franciscan priest has been awarded one of Japan’s highest honours, for his lifelong service to judo and to the people of Zambia where he spent fifty years on mission. Fr Jude McKenna, originally from Northern Ireland, helped to spread the practice of judo across Zambia and throughout Africa.
An extraordinary enough tale in itself. But another extraordinary fact is that Fr Jude has a twin brother who is also a Capuchin Franciscan. Ordained together in 1966, Fr Jude headed to the global south and Fr Brian was sent to the west coast of the United States. As Fr Jude says of his twin: “he was born ten minutes before me, but is now ten hours behind!”
The brothers, natives of Ballymoney, recently featured in an RTE television documentary. Fr Jude’s expertise in judo grew out of an earlier passion for boxing in his youth ; by 1958 he had become Irish middle weight boxing champion. At one stage, he’d been earmarked to take on the later boxing world champion, Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali) in the preliminaries to the 1960 Olympic Games finals in Rome. But he dodged that one by joining the Capuchin order.
Later, after three visits to Japan, he developed an affinity for judo – inevitably leading to him being referred to as “Fr Judo.” He’s a Blackbelt 6th Dan and has taught generations of people in Zambia, including training the police and also putting on sessions for women in self defence. His reputation amongst the Zambian people has been described as ‘legendary.’ He is a former president of the Zambian Judo Federation and vice president of the African Judo Union. He was appointed Assistant Technical Director of the Commonwealth Judo association and in 1980 was a coach at the Moscow Olympics as well as being appointed by the Vatican as Chaplain to the Games.
The Japanese government has now honoured him with the ‘Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays.’ The award is given to people who make a very significant contribution to the spread of Japanese culture. It was presented at a ceremony in June in Dublin, by Japan's Ambassador to Ireland in recognition of his “outstanding contribution towards strengthening bilateral relations and promoting friendship between Japan and Zambia through judo.”
Fr Jude recalled how he and his brother, who in their youth went nearly everywhere together, discovered their vocations simultaneously, but completely separately: “We were at a cricket match between Ireland and the West Indies. I told him there was going to be a ‘divorce!’ I was going to join the Capuchins.” ……“And so am I came the reply.” Unbeknowns to either of them, they had both been receiving spiritual direction from the same Priest who hadn’t said a word. It was a completely new path for Fr Brian, who also had sporting instincts – at that time, he was a jockey: “I’m big and he’s small” quipped Fr Jude.
Reflecting back on more than fifty years as a Capuchin, Fr Jude says it’s been a great blessing to have had a twin following the same path: “We’ve sought each other’s advice amid problems or challenges. We’ve always got on wonderfully. I do have a feeling of divine providence guiding us through life and bringing us in the same direction. That’s what you would call ‘vocation’ – a feeling of being called.”
Fr Brian also feels it’s been a blessing to have a twin brother as a Brother in the Order: “There is an innate connection that defies explanation - a common interest and attraction to the same path. If twins are separated for some reason they would likely finish up in the same type of work; there is a definite attraction to the same. We cannot disregard the possibility of some divine intervention. Our mother died at age 49 : what were her wishes for her twin boys? Hardly that they be priests, being of Scotch descent and her religion Scotch Presbyterian. However my aunt on our father’s side, while in San Giovanni in Italy, said to Padre Pio: “I have two nephews in your Order in Ireland” and he responded : “they will be ordained.”
When Fr Jude left Zambia for good recently, the Irish ambassador laid on a garden party in his honour. The cake was adorned with the Irish and Zambian flags. Now living in Dublin and being treated for failing eyesight, he reflects on his decades of ministry : “As I look back, I must confess that overall it has been a very blessed life. I’ve often said that most people live in the world of black and white. For me, it has been a technicolor existence through all the experiences I’ve had and the involvement with people and nations and sport around the world. So I look back with a sense of fulfilment ; I think I’ve left footprints in the sand.”