Homily preached by Fr Tom Curran, SMA General Councillor, at the official opening of the Great Lakes District-in-formation Chapel, House and Administration block on 20 October 2012
“The Kingdom of God is at hand for you.”
I warmly welcome you all here today – our principal celebrant, Bishop Patrick Harrington, my fellow priests, religious and my dear brothers and sisters.
I first of all want to greet you all on behalf of our Superior General, Fr Jean-Marie Guillaume, and the SMA General Council in Rome. Through me they want to be especially among you today… as we come here for the blessing and official opening of this house and chapel of what is the District HQ of the Society of African Missions in the territory which we designate the Great Lakes District-in-Formation.
It is called this because of its location. It is one of the three new sections or divisions of our Society in Africa which, hopefully soon, will assume the status of a District when it has a sufficient membership and some degree of autonomy so that it can manage its own mission apostolate. Until then it is called a District-in-Formation.
The District is made up of countries in which SMA members work in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa – Angola, Congo, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Kenya. And it is good that the Regional Superiors of all these countries are here with us for the occasion as we happily mark another milestone in the development and growth of the Society of African Missions in this Great Lakes District in Formation.
I congratulate the Superior of the District Fr Thaddeus Mokaya, and his Council, the architect and the contractors, and all who have been involved in the work of setting up and building this Headquarters which I hope will serve the mission of the SMA for many years to come. That work would have been impossible without the generous help and support from older Provinces and Districts of the SMA so ably represented here today by the Provincial Superior of the Irish Province, Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll, and the Provincial Councillor of the American Province, Fr Frank Wright.
As we assemble here today we do so at an opportune and important moment in the history of mission – in the mission of the Church and of our Society.
I have just come from Rome where two major Church events were launched last week:
Firstly, the bishops representing the Church worldwide, including the Archbishop of Nairobi, gathered in Rome for the Synod of Bishops to discuss, to ponder and to propose how best to do mission today and what that mission is about. The theme of the Synod – “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith” – could not be more relevant to us missionaries and to all Christians who share the responsibility of passing on the Christian faith to others. We are all aware of the emphasis that the Second Vatican Council and the recent Popes placed on recognising that the whole church by its very nature is missionary. Once again Pope Benedict, in opening the Synod, reminded us that “the Church exists to evangelize”. The Pope distinguishes two “branches” of evangelization: “the Missio ad Gentes or announcement of the Gospel to those who do not yet know Jesus Christ and his message of salvation” and “the New Evangelization, directed principally at those who, though baptized, have drifted away from the Church and live without reference to the Christian life.” However, all evangelisation begins from God. It is God who sends to us, who gives us his Word, his Son, in order to reveal God’s love for all of us. From the Son the Spirit of God is sent among us so that the Church, which is the Body of Christ, as we heard in today’s 2nd Reading, can continue to reveal God’s love in this our time. The Church therefore exists to evangelise! So we as church, we as witnesses to Jesus, are called upon to be involved in that mission of evangelisation.
Secondly, a few days later on Thursday of last week, the Pope formally opened the Year of Faith. It was exactly 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council which has had such a profound influence on the Church and on Mission. It seems appropriate that the Year of Faith was launched while the bishops were assembled in Rome because the purpose of the Year of Faith is intrinsically linked to the work of the Synod. Pope Benedict proclaimed that the goal of the observance of the Year of Faith is “to revive in the whole Church… the yearning to announce Christ again to mankind today.” He reminded us that the purpose of the Year of Faith is the same as the purpose of Vatican II. “The Council did not formulate anything new in matters of faith, nor did it wish to replace what was ancient,” he explained. “Rather, it concerned itself with seeing that the same faith might continue to be lived in the present day, that it might remain a living faith in a world of change.”
The Year of Faith is more necessary today than it was 50 years ago because, as the Holy Father said, “Recent decades have seen the advance of a spiritual “desertification”. At the time of the Council it was already possible from a few tragic pages of history to know what a life or a world without God looked like, but now we see that kind of world without God every day around us… But it is in starting from the experience of this desert … that we can again discover that the joy of believing is of vital importance for us.
So we can see how the two events – The Year of Faith and the Synod on The New Evangelisation – have a direct relevance for missionaries today and for us in the SMA in particular.
For us in the SMA in particular because these days we are making our preparations for our General Assembly and local Assemblies of next year where we will determine how best we can implement the mission and message of Christ in our world and in Africa in this our time. The theme for our Assembly: “SMA Mission Today – its challenges and vision for the future” is particularly relevant for us. We draw our inspiration for our mission today and for its future challenge from the command of Christ himself: “Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News” and again “Go make disciples of all the nations”.
Faithful to the command of Jesus Christ, his disciples went out to the whole world to announce the Good News, spreading Christian communities everywhere. In recent times that same challenge has been taken up by missionary societies and congregations like the SMA. They owe their origins to that very command of Jesus. And today they find their relevance in how they respond to that command in our own time. That is why we in the SMA are blessed to have this time of preparation for our Assemblies to think anew how best we can serve that Mission and the Kingdom in the light of this Year of Faith and the challenge of the New Evangelisation.
At the core of all evangelisation is the Good News that we must know if we are to proclaim it. So prayer and study of the Sacred Scriptures are essential armour for the missionary. I am happy to see so many of our SMA students present today. You are so very important for the future of the mission of the church and the apostolate of the SMA. Your time here in Nairobi is a valuable opportunity to study and learn the Scriptures so that you know the message you will proclaim to the people in the future. But prayer and study must continue to be part of the life of the missionary as our ongoing formation is just as important for the work we do as the initial formation in the seminary. This Chapel blessed today is a reminder of how central our prayer-life must be in our lives if we are to be authentic witnesses to Jesus Christ.
For the people of Israel too God’s presence was very important. So they went to great lengths to ensure that the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s presence among them was fittingly located – right in the heart of the Temple in Jerusalem, at the centre of their city. This is so well described in our 1st Reading.
The Gospel we read today has its own particular relevance and I am sure it was chosen because it refers to the house in the village where Jesus advised his disciples to stay. But the purpose of staying in the house was basically to have a place from which to proclaim the message so that the final words of the reading are fulfilled – announce that “the Kingdom of God is at hand”. The key to the Gospel Reading is the going from village to village proclaiming the word: going out, reaching out to the people first of the village, then to the neighbouring towns and villages, to the neighbouring countries and to the broader world. Ad Gentes continues to be key to who and what and all we are as SMA. The one big danger that can destroy the truly missionary effort is that we might limit our vision of mission to be mainly having a relevance to our home countries and thereby lose sight of the world in need of evangelisation.
The purpose of this house then is not being a place to come into, but rather a place from which to go out. Hopefully this house will serve as a base, as a home, as a place for rest and refreshment and recreation for many SMA missionaries in the future, while always being the launching pad for the work in hand – the proclamation of the Good News.
Now a few words about the SMA and its history.
The Society was founded in 1856 by the Servant of God, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac, who had already lived and worked as a missionary in India. He felt inspired, and got encouragement from Rome, to dedicate his life and the missionary work of SMA to Africa. 2½ years later disaster struck when just six weeks after arriving on African soil to take possession of his diocese – the Vicariate of Sierra Leone – he and his five companions succumbed to a fatal epidemic of yellow fever and died. However, despite this tragedy right at its beginning, the Society continued its apostolate to Africa motivated by the spirit of the Founder. For over 150 years the SMA has been sending missionaries from Europe, America, Asia and from within Africa to the various countries around this vast continent.
For the first 100 years or so, the concentration of our missionary work was in those countries all along the West Coast of Africa. That it was a difficult mission territory can be vouched for by the 178 missionaries who died in that period and who were under 30 years of age.
At the end of our first century we began to venture outside West Africa – and we came to work in the area now called the Great Lakes District-in-Formation. In the 1870s there had been a brief presence in South Africa but it was short-lived. In 1952 SMA moved into the Congo. In 1973 we opened missions in Zambia and in 1989 in Tanzania and in South Africa on a more-established footing. In 1992 we first arrived in Kenya. Finally in 2000 we opened missions in Angola. Our arrival in Kenya was soon followed by a recruitment drive here and the establishment of our House of Formation which was opened in 1994. That venture owes its existence in no small way to Bishop Harrington, happily presiding today, who, as our Superior General at that time, had the faith and the vision to see the potential that East Africa and the Great Lakes area holds for our Society.
Altogether in Africa, SMA members work in 16 countries and in 63 dioceses. The Society has facilitated and encouraged the indigenisation of the hierarchies in all the countries in which we have worked. And very much at the heart of the Founder’s ideals, and in the official policy of the Society, is the establishment of native clergy.
In the context of evangelization, SMA has always been particularly dedicated to the proclamation of the Good News to persons and peoples who have not known the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This work of Primary Evangelisation has been to the forefront of our missionary policy. The readiness to be pioneers, to move to the frontiers, to the unknown, to the new, has always characterized the ongoing activity of the Society. In this the SMA is fulfilling the Ad Gentes policy of the Church. That is why mission ad gentes must continue as central to our apostolate so that we can be true to what we have inherited.
In opening this house today we are facilitating, hopefully, great endeavours for the future when our SMA members, drawing inspiration from the past, will have the courage to forge new paths in responding to the changing circumstances and conditions facing the Church in her call to proclaim and live the Gospel today.
Whatever approach we take to the new evangelisation, whether as SMA or other missionaries or as church leaders or members, the fact is that there is a challenge to us to make relevant in our day the message of God’s love that Jesus came among us to proclaim. That is our task. That is our Christian calling.
Tomorrow, as we celebrate Mission Sunday, let it not only be a celebration of past missionary endeavour and achievement, but also an occasion for a renewed commitment to the task of evangelisation for the future, always remembering that: “The Kingdom of God is at hand for you!”