Category Archives: missionary

Native peoples and the church

In the US and Canada, today is the feast of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), In Perú and other parts of South America, and among the Franciscans, today is the feast of Saint Francisco Solano ((1549–1610).

Kateri, Lily of the Mohawks, was the daughter of a Mohawk pagan chief and an Algonquin Christian, who after becoming a Catholic left her village in what is now Auriesville, NY, and went to live in a Catholic village near Montreal, Canada. There she lived out her short life. She had hoped to found a convent, but was not permitted. Having made a public vow of chastity, she died young. She is a sign of the openness of the native peoples to Christ and the Church – but she also suffered from the misunderstanding of her native peoples who could not comprehend her refusal to marry and from the Church that was not open to her desire to further religious life among the native peoples.

Fray Francisco, after several years of positions of authority in his Franciscan order in his native Spain, went to South America and spent about twenty years among the peoples of Perú and Tucuman (in parts of Argentina and Paraguay). There he approached the native peoples with respect, often announcing his arrival playing his violin. He was transferred to Lima where he found disfavor among his superiors for his strong words against corruption and injustice.

These two very different saints remind me of the importance of a Church that is missionary but which respects the peoples and their cultures and recognizes the dignity of all people.

In the history of the Church there are many examples of a colonialism at the heart of some missionary activity which resulted in massacres of native peoples and destruction of native cultures. There is also the witness of people like the Dominican bishop Fray Bartolomé de las Casas who spoke out strongly against colonialism and slavery and other efforts to undermine the dignity of the native peoples.

And so today it is beneficial to meditate on the words of Pope Francis in 2015, speaking in Bolivia at the World Meeting of Popular Movements:

I say this to you with regret: many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God. My predecessors acknowledged this, CELAM has said it, and I too wish to say it. Like Saint John Paul II, I ask that the Church “kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters”. I would also say, and here I wish to be quite clear, as was Saint John Paul II: I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so- called conquest of America.
I also ask everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike, to think of those many bishops, priests and laity who preached and continue to preach the Good News of Jesus with courage and meekness, respectfully and pacifically; who left behind them impressive works of human promotion and of love, often standing alongside the native peoples or accompanying their popular movements even to the point of martyrdom. The Church, her sons and daughters, are part of the identity of the peoples of Latin America. An identity which here, as in other countries, some powers are committed to erasing, at times because our faith is revolutionary, because our faith challenges the tyranny of mammon.

Different types of missionaries

Today is the feast of St. Francis Xavier, the sixteenth century Jesuit priest who is one of the patrons of missionaries, who died on December 2, 1552 on a deserted island off the coast of China.

But these first three days of December offer us visions of three different types of missionaries.

On December 1, 1916, Blessed Brother Charles de Foucauld was killed by rebels in Tamanrasset which is in what is now southern Algeria. He had sought to live among the poor as Jesus in Nazareth, hidden and poor – and so found himself living among Muslims in Africa.

For him to be a missionary was to be a witness by being present.

“The whole of our existence, the whole of our lives should cry the Gospel from the rooftops  .  .  . not by our words but by our lives.”

Blessed Charles teaches us the importance of being present with our poor sisters and brothers:

We must infinitely respect the least of our brothers … let us mingle with them. Let us be one of them to the extent that God wishes… and treat them fraternally in order to have the honor and joy of being accepted as one of them.

On December 2, 1980, four US women missionaries were killed in El Salvador. Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clark and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan offer us the vision of missionaries who accompany the poor in situations of violence and oppression.

Not only were they present, living among the poor, they were also responding to their needs, accompanying those who were being displaced inside the country, largely because of the repression by government and death squad forces.

They also noted that the poor can evangelize us. As Sister Ita Ford wrote:

“Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent. Can I say to my neighbors — I have no solutions to the situation, I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, be with you. Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness and learn from other poor ones?”

They accompanied the poor in their powerlessness and shared the fate of so many poor in El Salvador, a violent death at the hands of government forces.

St. Francis Xavier offers another vision of mission.

In some ways he appears to be the traditional missionary, in his ten years in India and the Far East.

He baptized thousands in India – and complained that students in the universities in Europe were thinking more of themselves than of the thousands who needed to hear the Gospel message and to be baptized.

But there is more to Francis Xavier than this.

In India he served the poor, visiting prisoners, slaves, lepers and people at the margins. He lived as a poor man.

But he was aware of the exploitation and violence wrought by Portuguese colonial rule in India and wrote back to the King of Portugal calling on him to correct the rampant injustices. He was a missionary who was not afraid to advocate for the poor.

But, though he identified with the poor and spent most of his time in India with the poor, he realized that, like St. Paul, he needed to be “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9: 22). So, when he went to Japan and saw that the rulers looked down on him with his poor clothing, he put on fancier clothes and brought gifts – opening up Japan to the message of the Gospel. He was a pioneer in inculturation.

And so, Charles de Foucauld teaches the missionary the importance of being really present among the poor. The US women religious martyrs teach the call to accompany people in the midst of poverty and violence and to be open to learn from the poor. St. Francis Xavier teaches the importance of being an advocate of the poor in the face of injustice and of being willing to make changes in the face of different cultures.

These missionary witnesses can help us who are missionaries in a foreign land to examine our ministry. (They also can help all Christians who seek to be missionaries, witnesses of the Gospel, wherever they may be.)

Yesterday, December 2, 2015, Pope Francis took up the call to mission and also provided food for thought.

He first challenged young people to think of becoming missionaries and recalled an 81 year old Italian woman religious he met in Bangui in the Central American Republic. She had left Italy when she was in her early twenties and had devoted all her life to Africa.

Pope Francis’ message reflects the challenge of mission in the twenty-first century, echoing the witness of Charles de Foucauld, Francis Xavier, Maura Clark, Ira Ford, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel.

But I address young people: think what you are doing with your life. Think of this sister and so many like her, who have given their life, and so many have died there. Missionary work is not to engage in proselytism: this sister said to me that Muslim women go to them because they know that the sisters are good nurses and that they look after one well, and they do not engage in catechesis to convert them! They give witness then, they catechize anyone who so wishes. But witness: this is the great heroic missionary work of the Church. To proclaim Jesus Christ with one’s life!  I turn to young people: think of what you want to do with your life. It is the moment to think and to ask the Lord to make you hear His will. However, please don’t exclude this possibility of becoming a missionary, to bring love, humanity and faith to other countries. Do not engage in proselytism: no. Those who seek something else do so. The faith is preached first with witness and then with the word, slowly.

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For more on the missionaries mentioned here, you can find short biographies in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.

A cloistered missionary

Love is my vocation!
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Sister Thérèse of the Holy Child, the Little Flower, a cloistered Carmelite nun who died at twenty-four in an obscure convent in Normandy, France, is an unlikely patroness of missions and missionaries.

Yet, this spunky young woman who entered the cloister at fifteen had a sense of mission that many of us in the mission field lack.

She had dreams of being a martyr, a missionary, even a priest – but knew that her vocation would be lived out in her convent – praying and doing the daily chores.

She wanted to join the new Carmelite convent in Hanoi, Indochina (now Viet Nam), but her ill health and tuberculosis would not permit such an endeavor. And so she prayed for the missions and corresponded with two priests missioned in Viet Nam.

But for her, the mission was the “little way,” the way of love in the midst of everyday activities.

“I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service.”

Being a missionary doesn’t always mean being out there in the midst of desperately poor situations. It doesn’t mean always teaching or bringing the Eucharist to distant communities.

For me it means preparing materials for catechists, planning training sessions for catechists, meeting with catechists to plan the confirmation Masses, meeting with the pastor to plan events in the parish, driving seven hours each way to take some small coffee farmers to Tegucigalpa, checking out the Maestro en Casa education centers to get ready for the next round of scholarship applications.

It also entails washing clothes, getting the car checked and repaired, cooking meals, getting photocopies and buying supplies in the city for workshops, and more mundane activities.

But the question is whether I am doing this with love, whether the little things I do are suffused with love and a commitment to the poor. What am I doing and not doing to respond to the people here.

And so I am reminded of this quote of Dorothy Day, from her book on this saint, Therese:

“The significance of our smallest acts! The significance of the little things we leave undone! The protests we do not make, the stands we do not take, we who are living in the world.”

Take nothing for the journey

Today I travelled thirty minutes by car to the mountain village of Delicias Concepción to lead a Celebration of the Word with Communion.

As I prepared for my reflection on the texts I felt rather uncomfortable. In today’s Gospel (Mark 6: 7-13), Jesus tells the twelve to “take nothing for the journey” – no food, no sack, no money.

I began my reflection sharing my discomfort with the more than sixty people in the small church. I recalled how I took two bags as well as money and some snack food to a recent seminar I attended in Comayagua.

But as I continued reflecting this morning,  I realize that Jesus is calling us to bring the message, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it in Compartir la Palabra, “with simplicity and poverty,” putting nothing in the way of the proclamation of the Reign of God. For “the Reign cannot be presented from the standpoint of power and the security which money or social position provide.”

But, as I shared in the celebration, Jesus is calling us to place our trust in God and in the people we serve. Not in just God, but also in the people. “Wherever you enter, stay there…”

I shared with the people how I have experienced this so many times. When my car has broken down, I have almost always had people who came and helped, refusing my offer of compensation.

This is not easy for us from the United States – to receive help with paying someone. But it happens often here in the countryside.

This has been a great lesson I’ve learned here – not just trusting God, but trusting the people.

And so I can say, with confidence, to those who ask me about security concerns: My security is from God, but also from the people.

I may take many things for the journey, but they are never enough. What I receive in the journey is what makes my mission and ministry possible – the support of God and the people.

Tears of joy

“The dangers to which I am exposed and the tasks I undertake for God are springs of spiritual joy, so much so that these islands are the places in all the world for a man to lose his sight by excess of weeping; that they are tears of joy.”
St. Francis Xavier

 Today is the feast of St. Francis Xavier (Francisco Javier), one of the first Jesuits and a missionary to the Indies and the Far East. He died on this day in 1552, almost alone, on an island off the coast of China.

The right arm of St. Francis Xavier, the Gesù, Rome

The right arm of St. Francis Xavier, the Gesù, Rome

He was an indefatigable missionary, baptizing tens or hundreds of thousands, so many that he once wrote a letter complaining about the failure of the European universities to send missionaries:

In these lands so many people come to faith in Jesus Christ that many times my arms fail me because of the painful work of baptizing them.

The arm that he used for baptisms is preserved in the Church of the Gesú in Rome.

For his years spent in mission, he is the patron of foreign missionaries.

But what struck me about San Francisco Javier this morning was the quote that heads the entry for his feast in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints, which I quoted above.

There is a joy for me in mission, here in Honduras. Yes, there are days of loneliness, days when I’m frustrated by the lack of response by some people, days when I’m cursing out the drivers who nearly hit me on a mountain road, days when my stomach is “upset,” days when I worry about my car which is again being repaired because of the terrible roads.

There are days of sadness when I hear of deaths and killings in the parish, when I hear that a promising young man left, trying to reach the US, when I hear of the mental crisis a young leader recently experienced, when I see the poverty, especially the houses of tin or mud as I drive through the parish.

But despite – or maybe even because of – these experiences, I have found a deep peace and joy here.

It’s a joy that is a gift.

I find joy when I see 101 young people seeking to be baptized, as I saw last Sunday at the entry into the catechumenate in the Dulce Nombre parish. I was especially moved when the sponsors knelt before their godchildren to sign their feet with the cross.

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I find joy when I listen to a young widow speak of how she would like to help the unmarried couples in her village.

I find joy when I witnessed more than 500 confirmations in the parish earlier this year.

I find joy when I can joke with people and provoke a smile – as I did yesterday in a bakery and as I often do with the workers in the house under construction.

I find joy when I see that the workers on the house, without my instructions, put my name in broken ceramic in the floor of the utility room.

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I find joy when I work with the catechists who devote hours each week to share the faith with the young people of the parish.

I find joy when I can give someone a ride in the countryside. I find joy when they smile at my response to their question, “How much do I owe you?” I used to say “Nothing,” but now I say “Pray an Our Father for me!”

I find joy when I see the young man who had a mental breakdown at Mass as a sponsor for a catechumen and when I see in church the young man who tried to go to the US.

I find joy when a young catechumen asks me if I was in the Viet Nam War, surprised at his interest in history. I find even more joy when I can tell him that I was among those who protested that war.

I find joy when I can be present to the joys and sorrows of the people here.

I find joy here and at times I find myself close to tears – seeing the workings of God among the people.

For all this, I give thanks for the grace to have been called here, to Honduras, to the parish of Dulce Nombre de María.

Gracias a Dios.

Mission and the Little FLower

Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, died at the age of 24 in a cloistered Carmelite monastery in northwest France. She had entered at the age of 15. Yet this cloistered nun is one of the patronesses of the missions.

It is true that she had a great admiration of Catholic missionaries in Viet Nam and had hoped to be transferred to a new Carmelite convent there.

But I think there is something more about her life and spirituality that speaks to mission.

She is known for her advocacy of “The Little Way,” the way of living out one’s love of God and neighbor in the quiet deeds of everyday life.

“I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service.”

It may come as a surprise to many that one of her most ardent devotees in the twentieth century was Dorothy Day, the US Catholic advocate of the poor, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker, and advocate of justice and peace. Day even wrote a book on her life, Therese,  in which she noted:

The significance of our smallest acts! The significance of the little things we leave undone! The protests we do not make, the stands we do not take, we who are living in the world.

The work of being a missionary, even being a missionary in our homes and home towns, begins with faithfulness and love in the little things and in deep love and respect for others.

It is so easy, especially for me, to be caught up in the large schemes of mission or in the desire to get things done that I am not always attentive to the people around me or get annoyed when things do not go as I wanted.

In such cases I need to recall the witness of the Little Flower who, loving God and her neighbor, filled with a sense of mission, did not neglect to be lovingly attentive to those around her, even when they inadvertently splashed water on her as she washed clothes.

God wants us to love in the little things – so that from them our loving God can spread love to all God’s creatures.

A hundredfold

When I discerned that God was calling me to Honduras in 2006, I had to get rid of a lot of things, although I still have stuff stored with friends.

I sold my house and my car. I sold or gave away books, furniture, and more. I left friends and a job that I enjoyed.

It was, however, not something heroic.

Pope Francis states it very beautifully in paragraph 12 of Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel:

Though it is true that this mission demands great generosity on our part, it would be wrong to see it as a heroic individual undertaking, for it is first and foremost the Lord’s work, surpassing anything which we can see and understand. Jesus is “the first and greatest evangelizer”. In every activity of evangelization, the primacy always belongs to God, who has called us to cooperate with him and who leads us on by the power of his Spirit.… This conviction enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life. God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us.

In today’s Gospel, Mark 10: 28-31, in response to Peter’s statement that he’s given up everything, Jesus tells the disciples:

there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age… and eternal life in the age to come.

As I have mentioned before, though there are lonely moments and times I wished I were closer to friends and cousins, I realize that I have a large family here (and on the internet).

This has been made clear in the last year. A couple made a large donation to make it possible for me to get a more reliable car to get around the parish. Another couple made an even larger donation to the Dulce Nombre parish; this will not benefit me but the parish and, wonder of wonders, is without conditions; the pastor decides how to use it.

I discerned last year that I’d like to move out to a village in the parish. I approached the Plan Grande church council who have been enthusiastic about my moving there. I had thought of buying land, but they offered some of the land around the church so that I could build a small house there (which will revert to the church when I  leave or die).

I continue to work with catechists and others in the parish and I feel very much at home with them. They are family – with all the joys and pains that families experience.

I am single, without children, which amazes many people here. But I feel as if I have lots of kids whom I love to play with when I visit the communities. It is not uncommon for me to be holding an infant.

That is part of the joy of mission – finding a larger family.

¡Gracias a Dios!