03 February 2011

A Tale of Two Missionaries, 801-865 and 1927-2003

Yesterday I posted about Fr Bob Burke, a Columban who died on 24 January. A Columban priest in the USA emailed the letter below to me today, the feast of St Ansgar. It was written by another great American Columban missionary, Fr Jim McCaslin (photo below), who died just over six months after he wrote it, on 16 September 2003. He had been a priest for nearly 49 years. I've highlighted parts of the letter and added some [comments].

February 4, 2003


I began this on February 3, the Feast of Saint Ansgar. Who? Saint Ansgar, a bishop born in France at the beginning of the ninth century. In 1826 he began his missionary efforts in Denmark later going to Sweden, and it seems those peoples were not very receptive to his efforts. It is said that "he endured many difficulties in his work of evangelization but his spirit never failed". He died in 865.

Statue of St Ansgar (801-865) in Hamburg, where he was archbishop

You never heard of him? Well, I wouldn't have either except that he has appeared in my prayer book (the Divine Office or the Breviary) every February for many years. His feast may be celebrated in Denmark, Sweden and possibly in Hamburg, Germany, where he at some stage became bishop — I don't know. [St Ansgar is patron of Scandinavia where Catholics are a very small minority and many of them immigrants, including quite a nubmer of Filipinos.] However, his feast in the universal church is not very important and is called `optional'.

So why am I writing about him?

He was a missionary, that's why, and so am I. This year I opted to read the lesson given for his feast and found it was from The Decree of the Second Vatican Council on the Missionary Activity of the Church (nos 23‑24). I was struck in a special way by what was said about missionaries, some of which I want to share with you:

"Every disciple of Christ has the obligation to do his part in spreading the faith. Yet Christ the Lord always calls whomever he chooses from the number of his disciples 'to be with him and to be sent by him' to preach to the nations.”

"Therefore ... Christ inspires the missionary vocation in the hearts of individuals. At the same time he raises up in the church certain groups which take as their special task that duty of preaching the gospel which weighs upon the whole church.

"For there are certain priests, religious and lay people who are prepared to undertake mission work in their own countries or abroad and who are endowed with appropriate natural dispositions, character and talents. ['Grace builds on nature', as the theologians say.] These souls are marked with a special vocation. Sent by legitimate authority, they go faithfully and obediently to those who are far from Christ. [The 'legitimate authority' is very important, since no missionary goes simply of his own accord but as one assigned by the Church.] They are set apart for the work to which they have been called as ministers of the gospel so that 'the offering of the gentiles may become acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit' (Rom 15:16).

"Yet a man must so respond to God's call so that, without consulting flesh and blood, he can devote himself totally to the work of the gospel. This response, however, can be made only when the Holy Spirit gives him inspiration and strength. For he who is sent enters upon the life of Him who 'emptied himself taking the nature of a slave' (Phil 2:7). Therefore, he must stand by his vocation for a lifetime, and renounce himself and all those whom he consider as his own instead becoming 'all things to all men.” (I Cor 9:22). [God doesn't play with our lives but remains utterly faithful to us when he calls us to any vocation.]

Forty‑eight years ago in 1955 I was sent by the Church through the Columban Fathers as a missionary to the people of the Philippines. [Note how Father Jim sees himself as having been sent by the Church.] Although the vast majority of Filipinos (about 80%) were baptized Catholics, only a small percentage were evangelized in any real sense. I don't know precisely how I was chosen by the Church to be a missionary and as such sent to evangelize Filipinos, but I have always had the firmest conviction that I was, and doing so has been the warp and woof of my life both as a priest and as a man. [Being a missionary priest is not a 'job'.]

Seven years ago I came down with colon cancer in Hong Kong where I had in the previous year gone to continue to help in the evangelization of Filipinos forced by economic necessity to go abroad in search of a livelihood. Cancer is scary enough that I wondered if my life as missionary among them had been aborted, but after an operation and chemotherapy in Omaha [Father Jim's native city and the locaiton of the HQ of the Columbans in the USA] was happy to learn that there was no sign of cancer, and I was free to return to my work of both evangelizing and being evangelized by Filipinos. For that indeed had been happening for a long, long time. [We missionaries are blessed by God through the people to whom we are sent.]

Within a year, however, new cancer appeared in the lungs and I began five years of chemotherapy in Hong‑Kong, during which time I was able to stay on as a very happy and productive missionary. That was true until July 2002 when I was vacationing in the USA and my lung cancer suddenly began to grow while new cells at the bones at the base of my spine. In that condition I could not return to Hong Kong but had to return to Omaha for radiation and a new chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, I reached my 75th birthday while the chemo sapped my strength and Filipinos wondered by phone and letters when I was `coming home'. My body and my doctor told me that at the very least it would not be very soon, yet I remained optimistic that I would indeed return. After all, I was a missionary who had to stand by my vocation for a lifetime. As a priest and as a man I knew no other life, nor did I want any other.

Then about two months ago (in January) my latest chemo was shown to be no longer effective and the cancer was growing again. Since then I have been treated orally with a new one which the literature suggests is resorted to when `everything else fails'! I am not particularly frightened by that news but it does sadden me. Am I still a missionary when I can no longer be with those with whom my whole life has been spent? Can I be a missionary when I am scarcely able to leave my brother's house, where I have been recuperating and awaiting a return of health that would permit me to be back among them?

I can now put more time into prayer and reflection on God's word, but I don't know that I pray any better than before, I have more time to remember with great joy the many hundreds who have called me Father, whose love has sustained me for such a long time. I have always believed that a priest must be a man of prayer if he is to be worth anything at all, a missionary perhaps more than others. The time I had expected to put in face to face I can no longer give. Yet, as their father whose heart they know they own, I must continue give that time even during the long lonely hours of each day, and not forgetting the many others, non‑Filipinos, who have also been so much a part of my life, who have loved me more than I deserve and who also call me Father. As poor as my prayer may be, 'I have come to realize that for now it's the only way I have of being missionary. And I promise to follow that way as long as I still have breath within me. Perhaps I can apply to myself what I have preached to elderly others, that this time may be the most productive of any other time in a long missionary career. [Father Jim was a dedicated missionary till the moment of his death.] May it be so. Pray for me. Thank you, Saint Ansgar.

Yesterday the doctor told me I should have another C-scan to see whether the present chemo is producing the desired effect, to bring the cancer under control. My blood tests have been good but I am losing weight, and I am also frequently sick to my stomach with lots of vomiting. Not so promising, but God continues to look after me.

I am sending this especially to the many who have written me but have heard nothing from me for a long 'time. Forgive me. I really have been unable to do what I am doing now because physically it has been too painful. You are worth it but I can't promise to be able to do it again. Depend on my prayers — and my love.

Jim McCaslin

(Latest cat scan shows spread in lungs and liver and pancreas. My future seems to be in the past.) 

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