19 Jan 2016

Called to Mission – A Personal Reflection on the experience of mission (Repost)

This piece was originally posted in June 2011. It is a reflection on the role and place of Irish missionaries and missionary priests in particular as well as being a reflection on mission in the lives of all Christians. Given the death of Fr Jim Noonan SPS who was one of the inspirations behind the reflection, it seems to be an appropriate time to repost it.

To Fr Jim, ar dheis Dé to raibh a h-anam.

Called to Mission – A Personal Reflection on the experience of mission 
Fr David Costello OCD, Uganda
When a person says missionary priest to you what comes to mind in this modern age? Tasteless wafers, bitter sweet red wine, soutanes, clerical collars, funerals, newspaper headlines? For me such word association conjures up – billowing incense and the morning cool of a chapel in the Ugandan sun with earthen floor and tin roof and the primordial surge of African drums reverberating through my body at a community celebration. A strange kaleidoscope of images and scents you would think to associate with such a loaded and historical term as missionary! But to me what it invokes before the sacramental is the human, each image or scent represents a priest – a friend - in a human situation who has invoked the sacramental nature of our faith and the ultimate sacrament associated with priesthood – Eucharist in and within community.

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.

Fr John has been a Mill Hill Missionary for 47 years of which he has spent 46 serving the people of the Philippines in Antique province. Even now, after 46 years, or more especially because it has been 46 years, his parishioners are his people and we his family have to share him with them. Each time he gets back on the plane to go home, we wonder if it will be the last time we see him in Ireland. But it is this very human man, who to me has witnessed as to what it means to be a priest. But then again, it is not just him.

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
"one reason why the giving of one's word may not seem to be a serious matter may be a weakening of our sense of the importance of our words. Do words matter that much in our society? Can they make a difference? Can one offer one's life to another, to God or in marriage, by speaking a few words?"

He reminded the Dominican family and us that,

"We are made in the image of God who spoke a word and the heavens and the earth came to be. He spoke a Word that became flesh for our redemption. The words that human beings speak to each other offer life or death, build community or destroy it. The terrible solitude of our vast cities is surely a sign of a culture that has sometimes ceased to believe in the importance of language, to believe that it can build community through language shared. When we give our word in the vows we witness to a fundamental human vocation, to speak words which have weight and authority.

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.

Radcliffe reminds his Dominican family and challenges us in that 1994 letter. "
How do we dare to make them? Surely only because our God has done so, and we are his children. We dare to do as our Father did first. From the beginning, the history of salvation was of the God who made promises, who promised to Noah that never again would the earth be overwhelmed by flood, who promised to Abraham descendants more numerous than the sand, and who promised to Moses to lead his people out of bondage. The culmination and astonishing fulfilment of all those promises was Jesus Christ, God's eternal 'Yes'. As God's children we dare to give our word, not knowing what it will mean. And this act is a sign of hope since for many people there is only the promise. If one is locked in despair, destroyed by poverty or unemployment or imprisoned by one's own personal failure, then maybe there is nothing in which one can put one's hope and trust other than in the God who has made vows to us, who again and again has offered a covenant to humanity and through the prophets taught us to hope for salvation (Fourth Eucharist prayer)."

Such a challenge calls us to acknowledge that we are all called by our common baptism and in particular by our baptismal vows renewed at each Easter to mission, to be sent as witnesses to the gospel, the good news of the Word Incarnate who has broken into the messiness of human history and grief and sorrows to share in our human existence.

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.
"Wherever there are people in need of food and drink, clothing, housing, medicine, employment, education;wherever people lack the facilities necessary for living a truly human life, are afflicted with serious distress or illness, or suffer exile or imprisonment, there Christian love should seek them out and find them."
The majority of our world ives in hunger and want deprived of the most basic necessities to live a decent human life. Impelled and driven by the Spirit of Christ, we should not stand by unresponsive to the needs of our brother and sisters. They must have the tools to enable them to develop and be free. They need the skills and the expertise to bring out their own resources and gifts. It is not simply a matter of handing out money, food or equipment. It calls for more than that. Our response is to share who we are as well as what we have".

But we can only be credible bearers of the good news if we are fundamentally, if not always, joyful. And joy has been one thing that the people of Uganda have taught me, the simple joys of life and a rediscovery of the joys of faith and celebration. Radcliffe described the joy as being, "a deep joy that…… is deeply linked with sorrow and even with anger. Our vocation summons us to share not just the passion of Christ, but also his passions, his joy and sorrow and anger. These are the passions of those who are alive with the gospel." The people that I have lived amongst have been those with some of the greatest sorrows, suffering their own crucifixions on the cross of AIDS, but at the same time they are people of such joy and happiness.

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.

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