Missionary life today
Fr Fergus Tuohy SMA, FVC Director in Munster, celebrated the Mass for the 3rd night of the Novena in Dromantine. He preached the following homily on Missionary life today.
I came across a sign outside a seminary in Nigeria, which read: ‘Come work for the Lord. The work is hard, the hours are long and the pay is low – but the retirement benefits are out of this world!’ I am talking to you today in a Church where many missionaries have stood before me. Nearly 600 young Irishmen studied here and were ordained for the missionary priesthood. Their pictures line the corridors of this beautiful building. Many have gone to their Eternal reward but their names and the work they did lives on.
I stand before you as an SMA missionary, who studied in Maynooth – yet I feel a part of this great building. I knew some of these men over the years and I know the great work that they did. Let us remember them tonight as we reflect on Missionary life today.
I became a missionary many years ago. In 1974 I finished Secondary School in Cork and I decided to join the SMA [or African Missions as they were known in Cork]. A Spiritual Year in Wilton [Cork], followed by six years of study in Maynooth led to my ordination as a priest in 1981. I left for Northern Nigeria in October 1981, with knowledge of Philosophy and Theology but no idea about where I was going to!
Dr Vincent Twomey writes: ‘The core mission of the Church is to preach the Message of Faith in season and out of season, so that people might know what God has done for them, how much God in Christ loves them, how they might find Hope and Joy in their lives’.
I went to Nigeria to bring this message of Hope, like many before me. I hope, in some small way, that message has reached the lonely, the abandoned, the poor and the sick, the uneducated and those with uncertain futures.
Today, I want to tell you about missionary life. I have now been a missionary for over 31 years and I have spent almost 30 of them in Nigeria. Was it worthwhile? – Yes. Is there work still to be done? – Certainly.
When we think of missionaries we think of women and men working with people in poor countries, bringing God’s message to them. Missionary work involves Evangelization, Humanitarian work, literacy, education and health care and more. There are many challenges facing missionaries today.
When I first began my work in Nigeria, I felt overwhelmed. So many people to look after – churches everywhere. After two weeks in Northern Nigeria, in Kaduna State, I was sent to a remote village to celebrate Mass. I had only a few words of the local Hausa language and worst still, I was shown a motor bike and told –‘there is your transport. I hope you can manage a motorbike!’ I managed and somehow I survived my first outing.
I soon realised that a missionary has to be ‘a person of many parts’. My early years were happy years, learning the language and culture, making friends with the local people and the ‘local wildlife’ and settling into a new country where rain was something you wished for and a cool breeze was a wonderful blessing. My first encounters with mosquitoes, scorpions and snakes were unforgettable. I remember lifting my shoe one morning and as I shook it a rather large scorpion fell out. My shoe was then put to a different use and the scorpion gave no more trouble! As I opened my curtains one morning, a black snake looked at me from the curtain railing and I ran faster than ever before! I called some help and the snake was caught. Later I heard that the snake was called ‘gobe da nesa’ [meaning tomorrow is far away in the Hausa language]. Not many people survive a bite from that snake.
Missionary work then and Now.
I worked as a Parish Priest and helped to look after fifteen of our churches. Some churches only had Mass every couple of months but, each Sunday they would have their Sunday Service and their daily morning prayer led by a lay Catechist. Irish churches are now experiencing what has been happening on the missions for many years. After two years of parish work I was asked to help in the education field, even though I was not keen on teaching, I ended up as a teacher and eventually as a School Principal and Parish Priest.
I do not have the time to tell you all the things that I experienced as a missionary. A missionary I worked with for many years, Bishop John Moore SMA [who passed away 2 years ago at 68 years of age] said:
‘My definition of a missionary is a person to whom God speaks from a culture that is not his own. I believe that is why I am in Nigeria today. It’s not that I had anything to give, but I can tell you that I have been given a lot and I have learnt a lot since coming here. I have become a better person. I have seen GOODNESS. I have seen KINDNESS. I have seen SACRIFICES here that would astound you and all that has TOUCHED me. They say that you think with your heart and that you go where you think you will find yourself and the truth. I knew I wasn’t pious but I knew that by working among the people of Nigeria, I would become a better person, a more rounded person and a better Christian. Hopefully, that is what I have become over the years.’
I can assure you that John was a wonderful person and a great SMA missionary.
We are remembering St. Thérèse in the Novena. Thérèse learnt to turn her suffering into something practical. Because of her ill health she was ordered to take exercise for a quarter of an hour a day and to enjoy the warm sunshine of the Spring. A Sister, seeing her walking with great difficulty, said: ‘You ought to be in bed, not walking like this’. ‘Perhaps’, said the Saint, ‘but you know what gives me strength? I offer each step for a missionary. I recollect that in a distant land one of them is perhaps worn out by his labours. To lessen his fatigue, I offer mine to God.’
We too could offer our sufferings for missionaries and remember them each day.
Today, in 2012, around 32% of the world’s population is considered Christian. There are over 41,000 Christian denominations in the world with the Roman Catholics being the largest Christian denomination with more than 1 billion followers.
Pope Benedict XVI reminded us recently, in his message for Mission Sunday, that we cannot limit our gaze to our own local church. We cannot ignore the fact that the greater part of the world’s population does not know Christ. Countless people do not know his love for them. They have not encountered him, so as to allow him to transform their lives – because we who believe no longer consider it our urgent responsibility to send out missionaries to them or encourage young men and women to leave all to become foreign missionaries. Dialogue with the other world religions is part of that mission. Concern for JUSTICE, PEACE and the integrity of CREATION are essential aspects of that mission also but there is more.
St. Paul would say: “to preach Christ our Saviour, in season and out of season so that others will be converted to the Risen Lord and encounter Him in His Church… woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel.” [1 Cor 9:16]
Many people have never read the Bible. As the late John Moore said: ‘There are people who are never going to read the Bible, the only Bible they will read is US, so we have to live the Christian message, because only as it is lived, will it make an impression.’
Today, we need missionaries more than ever.
Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Patroness of the Missions, is certainly an inspiration to us all. She never left her convent, but yet she prayed daily for missionaries and she truly inspired many people to follow Christ. We can be missionaries also today. Recently I went to see a woman – an old family friend. She was a great friend of my mother before my mother passed away. Bernadette, now in her seventies, has always been a supporter of the missions. Over the years she has helped me with various donations some large, some small. I visited her recently to say thank you. She is now on daily oxygen and she is not well. She was happy when I called and we chatted for a long time. As I was about to leave, she said ‘Do you still have projects in Nigeria which you are working on?’ I said I was still deeply involved in helping the school I had founded in Bauchi, Nigeria. She began to write and handed me something. It was a cheque for €1,500! She said: ‘I may be unwell, but I still want to help the missions.’
I use this example, not seeking money, but showing you how deeply committed this woman was to the missions. She has never been to Africa, but she has played a big role in helping missionaries. You too are missionaries today. We need your prayers. We need your encouragement. Missionaries are needed everywhere.
If you were to ask me today – what have you learnt in all your years as a missionary – I would answer: I have learnt about hospitality. I have learnt about generosity. The extended family is very important – no one should be lonely. My life has been touched by so many people. People who have so little have given me so much. My missionary life has been a blessing. May God bless all of you for your prayers and encouragement to missionaries.
Keep it up. We still need you. God still needs you.