Every November, month of the Holy Souls, the Irish Province invites the families of our deceased members to remember and celebrate the lives of their loved ones who served as SMA missionaries. In Claregalway, Dublin, Dromantine and Wilton, Mass is celebrated to give thanks for the faithful witness of hundreds of Irish SMA bishops, priests, brothers and seminarians.
But it is also a time to remember and give thanks for our deceased family members, our SMA supporters throughout the country as well as the people who welcomed our missionaries in Africa and elsewhere. In particular it is an opportunity to give thanks and commend to God our co-workers in Africa, among them local catechists and clergy who received these ‘foreign missionaries’ and shared with them all that they had.
The following [edited] sermon was delivered at the Remembrance Sunday Mass in Claregalway on 9 November 2014, by Fr Eddie O’Connor SMA. Sixteen SMA priests, some home on holiday from Africa, concelebrated the Mass and, afterwards, chatted with the families of their SMA colleagues who have gone before them into their eternal rest.
Today we remember the 127 SMAs from Connacht who have gone to God. We remember them as members of our families, our communities, our friends, our SMA colleagues. We’re not here to mourn them but to give thanks for their lives and their dedication to their missionary call.
They answered the call, “Come follow me…” and they went wherever their answer took them – some to the unknown territories of Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and Liberia, others to serve in Ireland, England, America, in administration, fund-raising, vocations, promoting the SMA wherever they were – committed to the call to mission wherever God placed them.
“The harvest is great but the labourers are few. Pray the Lord of the Harvest to send labourers into his vineyard.” Luke 10
Our brothers knew very little about Africa and yet, even before the Irish Province was founded in 1912, they found their way to the seminary in France, determined that they would serve the Lord in territories that, very often and all too soon, became their graves. Those early missionaries, such as John Garvey from Tuam, who died in 1896, spent only a few months on the Gold Coast before his death. His coming made the Prefect Apostolic very happy since of his five priests, four had died but his happiness was short-lived since John became the fifth to die.
In 40 years – between 1896 and 1937 – ten SMAs from Connacht died – eight of them under 30 years of age. Looking at all SMAs in the 40 years between 1861 and 1902, in the entire Society 109 men died aged under 35 years.
Each death was a tragedy for their family, for the SMA and for the people they worked with, yet the morale of the missionaries was never undermined. They accepted that this was the price which would have to be paid for the evangelisation of Africa. Their lives and their deaths can only be understood in the light of faith, remembering the words of St. Paul in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Men continued to volunteer for missionary work in spite of the deaths, the broken health, the failures.
Kaduna Prefecture in the time of Bishop Hughes [from Hollymount, Co Mayo] was 110,000 sq. miles. Ireland is about 32,000 sq. miles. The first Nigerian priest ordained for Kaduna was in 1955.
The young shall grow.
This Sunday is about Remembering:
- The 127 SMA’s
- The families and communities from which they came
- The supporters of the SMA who made the work possible
- The peoples of Africa, Ireland, England and America who received them
“Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.” (John 12:24)
We remember the lives of all those who travelled that difficult, lonely and often heart-breaking road of faith that made progress of the Church in Africa possible, lives that more often than not knew tears rather than laughter and failure rather than success yet whose faith, determination and commitment to God’s will held firm.
It was in later years that the harvest was gathered and God, in his own time, brought life from the seed that was planted in those far off days.
These were the people who received the torch of faith and passed it on in their own time. Were they extraordinary people? Able to walk on water? To float in the air? Certainly not! But they were people who accepted their faith and lived it out in witness to the Lord wherever God placed them.
Sufferings such as the early missionaries had in poverty, in loneliness, perhaps in feeling they were abandoned by the Lord may never be ours but that does not absolve us of self-sacrifice in the service of the Gospel. The Lord of the vineyard has not told us that our work is finished and so we continue – new faces but still strong enough in faith to go about our task of truly renewing the face of the earth.
We remember the words of St. Paul – one prepares the ground, another plants the seed, yet another provides the water and someone else reaps the harvest (1 Corinthians 3). All of us have given ourselves to the service of the Lord and it is in that service, doing whatever God asks of us, that we will be truly blessed.
I believe that our SMAs whom we remember today were greeted by the Lord with the words, “You have been faithful servants of the Gospel.”