"The third shot was like a fist going right up into my body. I really felt that," says the mild-mannered Belfast priest with a shudder. He pauses for a moment, licking his lips.
"I felt so alone … abandoned," states Father Kieran Creagh, as he remembers the night in February 2007, when a criminal gang attacked his South African hospice.
"They just rang the bell outside in the courtyard and I thought, 'oh, something must have happened in one of the wards'. I didn't realise these guys were inside. I opened the door … and that's when they grabbed me."
Leratong – the name means "place of love" in one of the six local languages spoken here – had been set up by Father Creagh in 2004, a single-minded effort to help tackle the massive HIV/AIDS crisis crushing the nation. With its hospice beds, drug clinic and creche, plus new church, it was at the physical and spiritual heart of the community.
A member of the Passionist order, Creagh had spent over a decade seeing his congregation succumb to the deadly disease. In the overcrowded, poverty-stricken township of Atteridgeville, about an hour west of the capital Pretoria, he had watched as old men lay dying in filthy shacks, unable to move; attended by wives who were scarcely less sick.
He felt passionately about bringing dignity to the dying: it was his vision and determination, despite funding problems, political obstructions and the South African government's refusal to provide anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), that had led to Leratong's birth.
The irony was that he was now facing the end of his own, most extraordinary, life.
Kieran Creagh was born during a troubled time in Ireland's history. His father was a leading newspaperman who had covered the various towns of the North, then went on to become a senior manager at Ulster TV. One of his brothers, Liam, had also risen in the journalistic ranks, to become a reporter for GMTV and then Sky News. But it was to the priesthood that young Creagh felt drawn.
"I never told anyone," confides the 46-year-old priest. "But it was something I just felt in my bones since I was four years old. I was going to be a priest one day." No-one else had much of an inkling of that calling, and he says that his choice had never been easy. "I'd seen so much pain, so much violence during the Troubles, that I just wanted to do something to heal those divisions."
At 14 he'd witnessed an IRA gunman murder a taxi driver and passenger outside his house (his sister Carolann had cradled one of the dying men in her arms); despite being proud 'Irish' stock and longing for a united Ireland, the family abhorred violence. Two years later the 16-year-old Creagh narrowly avoided being killed when his local petrol station was bombed. By his late teens he was enrolled in a business studies course at his local college, had a girlfriend and was spending most of his free time helping disabled youngsters and the Scouting movement.
"I didn't just want to do social work, though," says Creagh. "I guess there was a deeper calling." Although he enjoyed his social life well enough – he was so popular that he was voted head of his student union – his studies suffered. When the offer of a job with the Bank of Ireland came through, he cut short his diploma.
"And that should have been that," he smiles. "But there was this niggling that grew. I knew in my heart I wanted to be a priest – I just didn't know how to tell anyone."
His path into the priesthood took several more tortuous years, as he spoke with his parents – who nearly fainted with shock; then spent time with the brothers at his local Passionist church and monastery in Ardogne and at the Tobar Mhuire Monastery in Crossgar, County Down. "I didn't want a wife," he admits, when describing breaking the news to his girlfriend, "but I don't have a problem with those that do." (Nor does he think celibacy should be forced onto priests, he later admits).
As one of the smaller orders, founded by St Paul of the Cross in the 18th century, the Passionists strongly believe in both retreat and missionary work, and in "the Passion of Jesus Christ". They rely completely on their own labour and are supported by their congregation.
It was the time Creagh spent volunteering at a Dublin hospice that had perhaps the greatest impact for the future Leratong. "I saw the Sisters work there with such dignity, such love, it was amazing. The Sister would be cleaning this old man and he'd be sick, or soil himself, and she'd just start right over again. Just so that he could be clean and comfortable; someone could see their grandfather at the end of his days and know he was loved."
Creagh also spent a year in Botswana: when, as vocations director of his order, the call came to replace a sick priest in the parish covering a township in South Africa, he jumped at the chance.
"I'd been thinking about what to do with myself … even considering buying one of those one-way tickets to travel the world, and this came up. So I thought, 'ok, I can do that, it's just six months'. Little did I know what I'd got myself in for!"
Eleven years later, Father Creagh can now take stock of the massive changes he has seen sweep through South Africa. From the early days as a parish priest, when he was afraid to leave his flat, to the slow infusion of his Mass with a joyous African flavour, Creagh has come to know and love the people of Atteridgeville.
But it hasn't been easy. Early on his tenure as parish priest, a member of the ANC infiltrated his parish council and caused tremendous problems for a time, accusing him of racism and fraud, perhaps upset at Creagh's determination to bring change (Creagh was cleared at the highest level of all charges). One of his own priests, a fellow Passionist, later died of AIDS. And then there was the never-ending series of funerals for the pauper AIDS victims, and stories of people trudging home to their villages to die.
So when he was stripped, beaten and shot three times by robbers in 2007, it came with the ultimate sense of betrayal. He had poured so much love, so much effort into this community, but the gang that somehow got inside cared little for that. Drugs and cash were what they were after.
An English doctor staying at the hospice at the time failed to come to his aid; his nursing staff had locked themselves inside the wards with the terrified patients, refusing to let him inside; calling for help, as his life leaked away, Creagh was prevented from leaving for treatment by the local police (who insisted "this was a crime scene"). Even the ambulance which eventually arrived had no oxygen and by the time he did get to hospital, his left lung had collapsed and he was to die – and be resuscitated – on the operating table.
Ironically, the shooting put Leratong on the map. Father Creagh appeared on TV shows across Africa and back in Europe, and at home in Ireland, where his plight generated a huge amount of sympathy. By some miracle he survived – the bullets which passed through his arm, his side and up through his gullet into his lung had turned aside from his heart at the last moment. Fundraising efforts redoubled, famous politicians came to visit and when he finally returned to South Africa in 2008, he was moved to tears by the songs of the children and staff.
Today Father Creagh sings out another body, a lung cancer victim who has just died in one of the two rooms used for a patient's final moments. His staff join hands and also sing, and prayer is repeated in the local tongue.
The priest doubles over coughing for a moment – he has been left with the lungs of a 75-year-old – before settling down to talk about some of the pressing issues facing the Church in South Africa today.
Father Creagh still gets angry with what he sees, sometimes, as a highly-sexualised society and media in South Africa; in particular, the behaviour of men with multiple partners is something he thinks is slow to change. However, he agrees with the Pope's recent comments that condoms are not, necessarily, the answer.
"Abstinence and faithfulness are the answers," he says. “But after experiencing the worst of HIV/AIDS-related deaths I think anyone who cannot abstain or be faithful has a moral duty to wear a condom to protect their own life and the life of their partner.”
He also feels passionately on the new English translation of the Mass, which is currently being piloted in the country.
"It is difficult enough to be a priest these days. But now Rome is introducing the new English translation of the Mass, which takes us back to the exact translation of the Latin Mass. It has caused much anger and division. The language is awkward, it is not inclusive and is putting a distance between the Congregation and the Priest. But worst of all it is putting God at a distance from the person.
"I hope that the bishops back home have the sense to reject these changes," he says. "People have been annoyed enough in recent times by our church, let's not lose them all together. The Church should be more inclusive."
If not, he worries, there may be resignations ahead.
But the scandals of the Church back in Ireland, and its response to the sexual abuse revelations finally covered in the recent Ryan Report, have left him most upset.
“The Irish need to thank the Ryan Committee for what they had to listen to, to bring to light this important report," says Father Creagh. "As someone who suffered physical and emotional abuse by 'religious' figures in both primary and secondary school [bullying by a teacher left him unable to face public speaking for many years], I think it is a sickening relief to have the truth reported.
"As a member of a religious order myself, I feel very ashamed by what was done by members of our church. I can relate to how a German soldier felt when the horrors of the Holocaust came to light. I hope that the church leaders and religious orders do all they can to help the victims, even if that means resignations, bankruptcy. I hope more that the victims will eventually find healing and maybe even forgiveness.
He says that the Archbishops "back home" should have attended recent vigils in Dublin, to commemorate the abuse victims. "They just don't get it," he sighs. "People are so angry right now."
He also believes that further healing is necessary. "We need to mourn as a nation, we need to repent, we need sackcloth and ashes, we need our own Wailing Wall or some monument of atonement."
Meanwhile, Father Creagh looks to his own future with both excitement and uncertainty. A further attack on one of his neighbouring priests, a 76-year-old Irishman, has left him feeling "sickened" and he admits to feeling more vulnerable since his own shooting.
But Leratong is here to stay, he maintains. "Too much love has gone into it; too much need remains," says the priest, looking out over the crowded valley as the sun dips to the horizon. With that he smiles, and the man everyone here calls simply 'The Father' stands and heads out for his evening rounds once again.
This story first appeared in The Tablet magazine ©2009
Image ©Marc Shoul