The first programme of 'On Mission' covers the growth of the missionary movement of the Irish Catholic Church from the early part of the last century until the 1960s while the second part shows how it has declined and changed, being replaced to a large degree by the growth of NGOs which send many young Irish people overseas.
Fr (later Bishop) Edward Galvin in China
The Missionary Society of St Columban, of which I am a member, featured in both parts. 90-year-old Father Michael Healy ordained in 1943 eight months after I was born was interviewed. During the War years, when missionaries were unable to travel to Columban missions, he worked in Britain. Then he was sent to China and after being expelled from there with other missionaries he was assigned to Burma. When I was sent to Britain in 2000 where I spent two years visiting parishes on behalf of the Columbans he was still doing mission appeals, a joyful, happy priest with a huge network of friends.
I was very interested to see footage of Bishop Edward Galvin, co-founder, with Fr John Blowick, of the Columbans. When the Irish bishops gave their consent to the Maynooth Mission to China on 10 October 1916 Father Galvin was only 33 and Father Blowick 29. The Maynooth Mission formally became the Society of St Columban on 29 June 1918, the feast of St Peter and St Paul.
The narrator, Barry McGovern, who has a wonderful speaking voice, said that trouble seemed to follow the Columbans everywhere. That is true. We were caught in a China that was caught up in turmoil from bandits, then the Sino-Japanese War followed by World War II and the Communist takeover in 1949. Our missionaries in the Philippines, Burma and Korea were also directly affected by World War II and a number of our priests died in the Korea War that followed a few years later.
Bishop Joseph Shanahan CSSp of Southern Nigeria
This first programme showed the idealism and foresight of such great missionaries as Bishop Edward Glavin, Bishop Joseph Shanahan CSSp of Southern Nigeria, and Mother Mary Martin, who founded the Medical Missionaries of Mary and had to fight her way through opposition in the Vatican that finally recognised the need for religious Sisters who were qualified in the medical professions.
One of those who commented during the first programme was Festus Ikeotuonye, a Nigerian sociologist who has lived in Dublin for ten years. He seemed to say that the Irish and other missionaries had been colonizers and implied, as I understood, that they had probably done more harm than good. Yet the programme showed that Irish missionaries, coming from a background of being colonised themselves, understood the people of Africa, in particular, in a way that missionaries from colonising powers such as Belgium and France didn't. I wonder if he would have been working as a sociologist in Dublin if people with the vision of Bishop Shanahan had not started an educational system that was taken up in many African countries. The programme stated that Bishop Shanahan had been deeply influenced by his father's passionate belief that education was the key to freedom.
Mother Mary Martin MMM
The missionaries in the first half of the last century were driven by a passion to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to persons who didn't know him. They saw 'success', if that word may be used, as the number of those who were baptised. yet Bishop Galvin once said 'We are not here to convert China but to do God's will'. He had no interest whatever in the trappings of being a bishop but was very particular about his episcopal motto, Fiat voluntas tua, 'Thy will be done', as William Barrett points out in his biography of this great bishop, The Red-Lacquered Gate.
The second programme quoted my Columban colleague, Fr Shay Cullen, saying Saving souls doesn't come into the equation, doesn't come into our thinking - we've gone beyond all that. That's a very old theology, that's quite irrelevant nowadays. We're about transforming society and trying to create some kingdom of justice and peace here on this earth. Father Shay was one year behind me in the seminary. He has dedicated his life to saving children and women caught in sex slavery and has helped to bring about a change in the laws of a number of countries, including the Philippines, where he is located. I have no doubt that what he is doing is a proclamation of the Gospel.
Fr Shay Cullen
However, I think that one of the roots of injustice is that so many baptised persons, especially persons with power, are 'practical atheists', as distinct from persons who don't believe in God but who live by a moral code. I don't think that these 'practical atheists' really believe that they have to answer to God for the injustices they bring about, for the human degradation that they cause. I think that the Church has to speak to people about our eternal destiny. Father Shay refers to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus makes quite a few references to Hell, especially in the parable of the last judgement, Mt 25:31-46, which shows a direct link between what we do here and now and what will happen to us after death. I think we need to look again at 'saving souls'.
Fr Shay Cullent with children
When I was in the seminary in the 1960s there was a common saying, 'You can't preach the gospel to an empty stomach'. (I don't remember any of our teachers saying this). On the face of it this seems to be true. But it's not. Jesus fed the hungry, cured the sick, forgave sinners. All of this was a proclamation of the Gospel. Irish missionaries have been doing all of those things, often in desperate situations, staying with the people, as the missionaried did with the Ibos of Biafra, Nigeria. They weren't supporting a political point of view but simply staying with the people in their plight. The result was that they were expelled when the Biafran War ended.
Sr Cyril Mooney IBVM, Kolkata, India
Loreto Sister Cyril Mooney IBVM in Kolkata came across as a loving grandmother, driven by her Christian faith, enabling children living on the streets to get an education and to have a future. She recognises the goodness of people of other faiths and that virtue is not confined to Catholics or Christians. She also faces the reality that the vast majority of Indians are not Christians and doesn't believe that they thereby go to Hell. Sister Cyril came to an awareness of her vocation to be a missionary Sister at the age of 13 at a specific moment and in a specific place. She can recall the words of a visiting missionary Sister that touched her heart. My own awareness of being called to be a missionary priest began at around the same age, as you can see in my previous post, though not at a precise moment. She is still living her vocation joyfully 63 years later, as the programme clearly showed. Her love for the children she serves was palpable. I was delighted also to see her stroking her cat!
Students at Loreto Sealdah, Kolkata, established by Sr Cyril Mooney IBVM
John O'Shea of GOAL recognised the heroism of the Irish missionaries of the last century in that they gave their whole lives whereas young Irish people today will give a year or two of their lives but rarely their whole lives in service overseas. It was faith that drove the missionaries but it is not always faith that motivates those who go on overseas service now, though it may be a factor. Generosity too is clearly there.
Sister Cyril greeting students in the morning
As I write this I recall that a few months ago two Irish people were kidnapped, one in Sudan, one here in the Philippines. Sharon Commins of Dublin and Hilda Kawuki of Uganda, both GOAL volunteers, were kidnapped in Darfur, on 3 July and released on 18 October, a week after Fr Michael Sinnott, a 79-year-old Columban priest, was abducted in the southern Philippines. He was released 32 days later. Father Sinnott was a Catholic missionary in the old sense, Sharon and Hilda aid workers in a desperate situation. Yet their Catholic faith sustained them during their ordeal and was quite probably part of their motivation in going to Sudan in the first place. Though neither Fr Michael Sinnott nor Sharon Commins were mentioned in the series, they represent, I think, the best of the old and the best of the new.
Tom McGurk wrote about 'On God's Mission' in the 7 March edition of Sunday Business Post, an Irish newspaper, The forgotten Irishmen and women with a mission.
It was the Catholic faith that men and women from every part of Ireland to give their lives in the service of others in countries so different from their own. I don't think they were 'colonisers' but persons who wanted others to know Jesus Christ. They used every means possible to do this, setting up schools where people had no opportunity of formal education before, opening clinics and hospitals where no formal medical care had been available, feeding the hungry in the midst of war and famine, all in the name of Jesus Christ.
Just as I was starting to write this a technician from Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) came to check our broadband service which, at times, is 'iffy'. We had a good chat. He came here 26 years ago from Leyte, another island, on a brief visit to do a job. A German Benedictine Sister asked him if he wanted to continue his education. The result was that he stayed here, met his wife, is actively involved in his parish and one of his two children is graduating this month as salutatorian (the student with the second highest grades) from a school run by the same Benedictine Sisters, now nearly all Filipinos. There are many others like him who are grateful to God for the opportunities dedicated missionaries created for them and for enabling so many to come to know Jesus Christ.
You can read an article on the life of Bishop Edward Galvin in the current issue of Misyon, which I edit for the Columbans in the Philippines, Edward J. Galvin: Trailblazer for God.
There's information on Loreto Sealdah, Kolkata, here.