Writing about such an experience is unusual as it forces one to consider seriously what it means to my understanding in a faith context of the role of a priest especially in these dark times for the Irish people. My experience has been unusual in some respect because I have an uncle who is a priest.
In our home parish many of us know the names of our missionaries – Fr John Ambrose (MHM), Fr John Cribben (Oblates), Fr John Guiney (SJ), Fr Dan O'Malley (Columban Fathers), Fr Jim Noonan (Kiltegan Fathers), all over seas and remembered with our missionary sisters, who on their infrequent visits home celebrated Mass and helped out in the parish when they, like the swallows, returned to Ireland for the summer to rest and recuperate and with the changing of the leaves in the autumn, just like the swallows, returned to their homes in Brazil, Kenya, Philippines and other diverse and far flung places – almost with relief.
Even now, when I myself am overseas as a Volunteer Missionary with the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM – www.vmm.ie ) I still am in awe of these men and women and the sacrifices they have made over many years, more so as I realise that being honest, I don't think I could do it – being there for such a long period, fulfilling a "mission" to a community far from that community which brought me forth into the world. Such stability, such faithfulness is humbling and so counter cultural to the modern world and to my own generation.
"A generational trend among some young college-educated men and women who are free to choose is the choice made for flux over such stability. Some social scientists have dubbed these post-college years the "odyssey years" -- a nomadic period when young adults move from one job to another, from one city to the next, delaying marriage, children and permanent career tracks longer than previous generations. Spiritually, they tend to be seekers, a characteristic that applies even to many with deep roots in a traditional religion such as Catholicism and no great desire to venture too far from the fold".
"Their stories reinforce the view expressed by New York Times columnist David Brooks….who wrote that today's children "graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don't apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself. Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up. Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging.""
In this modern unstable life there is almost a hesitation or even a lack of understanding of how a person could decide to voluntarily give their word for life to such a venture as "the missions" overseas. Despite an over abundance of words in the modern communication age, there seems to be an inability to communicate, to relate, to understand as the very nature of words seems to be slipping from the knowledge of society. It is almost like "the paradox affecting so many Millennials: the simultaneous pull towards isolation and interconnectedness. Young adults have grown up in the impersonal individualism of the information age, and in many ways embrace it. They feel at home with enormously popular Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, where they maintain non-commital "loose affiliations" with a variety of acquaintances and issues."
Timothy Radcliffe – the former Master of the Dominicans – suggested in his 1994 letter "Vowed to Mission" to the Order of Preachers that
But it is such a leap of faith in making vows to a certain way of life that can puzzle and seem so anachronistic to the Millennials for the very utilitarian reasons, how do you know where they will lead? When my uncle took his vows in the hands of the bishop at Mill Hill in London 47 years ago and then hurried home to celebrate his first Mass with his family, how could he have known what the result of those words would mean.
Our response should be to share who we are as well as what we have. We are called to work and live side by side with all people sharing our talents, friendship and love. This pre-supposes an openness to the needs of others and the humility to meet them wherever they are at. It calls for a spirit of confidence and poverty which is ever ready to listen and respond to others. This spirit of poverty makes itself available as fertile ground open to whatever fruit the Lord wishes to plant. But with the courage in this modern world on instant results that we may never see the results of our work.
I am currently working as a volunteer in central Uganda and the journey here has been one where I have been fortunate to come across some marvellous examples of priests serving the people of God, both ex-patriots and Ugandan. And such experience has been one of joy and simplicity. Humble men who work with the poorest of the poor, celebrating the Sacraments of Life in situations and circumstances far from the Baroque splendour of St Peter's, where debates about the rubrical niceties are of secondary concern to the pastoral needs of their communities.
For me seeing these men working and celebrating with and amongst their people, the vision of the priesthood is essentially missionary, reaching out.
It means being a listener, "being a witness where it can easily be seen that God's Spirit
is so strong within us that it is visible in our lives and actions. Christ was available to all, and reached out to the poor, the sick and the rejected. His mission is now ours. It is a call to be wherever there is injustice of any kind.
Like the parable of the man who finds the treasure of great worth and sells all he has to possess it, it is almost like that for the missionaries that I have met. They have given their all for the people that they serve and seemed to have discovered a treasure of great worth in those viewed as the outcasts of the world.
The Old Testament understanding of holiness implied the separation of the priest from all that was impure and imperfect. But in Hebrews we find this vision of holiness is turned upon its head. Christ's holiness is shown in his embrace of us in all our sinful imperfection. His holiness is displayed not by distance from us but by closeness. And the culmination of his sacred ministry was when he embraced death, that most impure thing, and became himself a corpse. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his blood. 'Let us therefore then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.' (Hebrews 12.12).
The gospels never speak directly of Christ as a priest, but we find this same theology of holiness. He embraces the untouchable, the lepers; he eats and drinks with sinners; he is sacrificial lamb who dies on the altar of the cross. So the whole people of God is a holy and priestly people, because it embodies Christ's embrace of us all in our messy lives, with all their weakness and failures. And the sacrament of that holiness is the Eucharist, in which Christ gave his body to us all, including to the disciples who would betray and deny him. The holiness of the Church is shown in its inclusion of sinners, not their exclusion.
When Cardinal Bernadin was consecrated Archbishop of Chicago, he said to the people, "For however many years I am given, I give myself to you. I offer you my service and leadership, my energies, my gifts, my mind, my heart, my strength and, yes, my limitations. I offer you myself in faith, hope, and love."
This is a Eucharistic self-gift: ' This is my body, given for you'. Yet Jesus remained the freest person there has ever been, whose life was shaped by obedience to the Father. He gave himself into our hands, and yet he was never a passive puppet. He shaped his life, as indeed did Cardinal Bernadin, indeed as so many missionaries have done.
The challenge for us becomes the recognition of the changes in the understanding and the circumstances of mission. In this new world, missionaries are sent to those who are other than us, who are distant from us because of their culture, faith or history. They are far away but not necessarily physically distant. They are strangers though they may be our neighbours. The expression "the global village" sounds cosy and intimate, as if we all belong to one big happy human family. But our global world is traversed by splits and fractures, which make us foreign to each other, incomprehensible and even sometimes enemies. The missionary is sent to be in these places.