On 8 December 2012, Fr Fergus Tuohy SMA preached at the Eucharistic celebration in the SMA House, Blackrock Road, Cork to mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the 156th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Society of African Missions.
His quoting of some of the writings of the Founder are a call to all SMA members to return to the founding vision of Bishop deBrésillac as we adjust to the new realities in the SMA.
I welcome you all to the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when we celebrate Mary, who from the first instant of her existence in the womb of her mother, Anne, was ‘by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ’s, saviour of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin’
As we celebrate this feast today, we, as SMA’s also celebrate a very special day. One hundred and fifty six years ago the Society of African Missions was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin at the sanctuary of Fourviere in Lyons, France. The Church in which they stood had been built upon an ancient shrine of Our Lady, on the ‘Forum Vetus’, the old Forum of Trajan, where many early Christians had been martyred. No more appropriate place could have been chosen for these men to offer their lives to God, and for the SMA to take its formal foundation. Besides its founder (Bishop de Brésillac), the other SMA members who gathered with him were: Fathers Planque, Reynaud, Riocreaux, Bresson and Brothers Rene Guillet and Eugene Reynard. They all committed themselves to a ‘resolution of perseverance’ which reads:
“I take a solemn promise to work all my life for the missions in the Society of African Missions. I undertake to observe its rule with exactitude. I further undertake that when I am on the mission I will not return to Europe unless I am ordered to do so, or have the express permission of my Superiors, apart from the cases provided for by the rules of the Society. I will be perfectly submissive to the decisions of the Holy See and to the orders of the Sacred Congregation, which I shall regard as the voice of the Holy Father in whatever relates to the missions. Here and now, I offer my life to God, accepting in advance and with joy, for his greater glory and the advancement of the Church, for the salvation of my own soul, and the souls confided to me, the pains and privations, the hardships of the climate, the suffering or persecution and even martyrdom, should God deem me worthy to bear witness to the faith by my death. May God deign to accept my promise and may He and these His holy Gospels give me the strength to fulfil it.”[For this Cause, pp 198 / 199]
Propaganda Fide (today known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) was able to entrust a mission to this young institute. They suggested the creation of a Vicariate in Sierra Leone to Bishop deBrésillac. So began the work of the SMA.
According to our most recent statistics, the Society has 898 members worldwide: 792 permanent members and 106 temporary members working in many African countries and also in their countries of origin. This is a great tribute to those early pioneers who began this work. Today we look back with pride on their great achievements. We thank God for their lives and work. We also remember the many sisters of Our Lady Of Apostles [OLA] who have been beside us on our journey and who still work with us in many places. May God reward them for their great efforts.
As I stand before you today I see men who have given their lives in the service of the Church – working with the SMA. Some of you have spent 30, 40, 50 or more years on the missions. Some of you have been called back to work at home and to take on positions of leadership and service. Nevertheless, you too play your part in bringing the Good news to those who have not heard it.
In 1907, Bishop Pellet was elected Superior General of the Society. He wrote to Fr. Waller and said: ‘The General Assembly blew away all of my dreams of going back to Africa, and only barren regrets remained in their place. I will make it my pleasure and duty to be helpful to your dear and young mission’. [SMA Bulletin no. 134]
So many of you also had to come back home to help in fund raising and administration. We are all Missionaries – no matter where we are. ‘If only I could have gone back……..’
A saying from George Hoffman comes to mind:
‘One man can’t change the world, but YOU can change the world for ONE man’
deBrésillac said it was difficult to be a missionary. The difficulty, he said, lay not with the climate nor with conditions of living, but was inherent in the work, in the very fulfilling of the Missionary Task itself.
‘This is the true task of the Apostle – to ordain priests, to consecrate Bishops, to found real churches. The Tree of Life is planted by the Messenger of the Lord. It is now the work of the Parish Priest and Bishops canonically appointed, to make the tree grow and spread… Wherever Religion became deeply rooted and really thrived, the first missionaries had merely passed through, preaching Jesus Christ, ordaining priests and erecting episcopal sees. They then went on their way’…
I am sure that many of you have changed and touched the lives of so many people in Africa and also at home.
On this SMA Feast Day, also the feast of the Immaculate Conception, I am very much reminded of an SMA you all knew – Bishop John Moore.
John had a great devotion to Our Lady and in fact he was the Bishop in charge of Marian devotion and organisations in Nigeria, up to the time of his untimely death. I went to Bauchi in 1996 to work with John. He asked me to build a new Parish house and Church in Yelwa, Bauchi and also to set up a Secondary School for the Community in Bauchi. The school began in a temporary building. I asked John what name we should give it. He suggested a Marian name but realised that this could be difficult in our area. But … eventually we were able to do so.
Today, Bishop Malachy John will celebrate Mass for the students in that School, continuing a tradition started by John Moore. Every year Bishop Moore celebrated Mass there and always insisted on the importance of the Immaculate Conception for SMA’s everywhere. We are not sure what lies ahead of us – our time may be long or short here on earth. A New Life awaits us. To be back on the missions would be something we would all love but it may only be possible for some of us.
The Prayer of Bishop deBrésillac could be our own prayer. When he got news of his appointment to India, he prayed:
‘Give me Lord, your GRACE;
Mary, your PROTECTION;
Holy Angels, your ASSISTANCE.
Give me, O God,
the RESOLUTION of the Magi,
the RECOLLECTION of St. Joseph,
The ZEAL of St. Paul,
the WISDOM of St. Peter,
the CONSTANCY of St. Martin,
the GENTLENESS of St. Vincent de Paul.
And if it is needed for your Glory,
give me ELOQUENCE of speech to cut through obstacles like a two edged sword.’
Fr Bruno Semplicio SMA, Postulator for the Cause of our Founder, had a prayer published recently (quoting ‘Prayer to the unique priest’)
‘Lord Jesus, help us to discover you in the many priests who have been faithful;
They are pastors according to your heart.
They fulfil their duties in loving you and in loving your Church;
They know how to speak words of fire only by your love;
They work with faithfulness and without noise;
And become for others a source of reference, encouragement and support
in the common search of your unique love.
Lord, help us not to appear before you at the last day as empty handed stewards.
Lord Jesus, make us priests according to your heart!’