Homily preached by Fr Kieran O’Reilly SMA, Superior General,
at the Mass to launch the 150th Celebration of the
Founding of the Society of African Missions,
at St. Joseph’s Parish, Wilton
Sunday, March 19th 2006


Your Grace, Archbishop Sean Brady, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland
Your Excellency, Archbishop Lazzarotto, Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland,
Bishop John Buckley, Bishop of Cork and Ross,
Bishop John Magee, Bishop of Cloyne
Bishop Lewis Ziegler, Bishop of Gbarnga, Liberia.

Lord Mayor, Alderman Deirdre Clune
Minister Mícheál Martin
Members of the Civil Authorities.

Members of the Society of African Missions,
Members of other Mission Societies and Congregations,
Sisters of our Lady of Apostles.
Sisters of other Mission Institutes.
Families, Friends and supporters of the Society of African Missions.

I am very happy to be here in St Joseph’s Parish Church, Wilton, to celebrate this special occasion with you. Today, the Irish Province of the Society of African Missions opens its celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Founding of the Society.

The Society has its origins in France, at Lyons, in the middle of the 19th century. It was founded by a Missionary Bishop, Bishop Melchior de Marion Bresillac who had been the first Bishop of the Diocese of Coimbatore in South India. He had worked in India for thirteen years and on returning to Europe he had, at the request of the Roman authorities, founded a Missionary Society dedicated to work among the most abandoned in Africa.

His place of missionary endeavour was to be along the West Coast of Africa – in today’s terms a territory that stretched from Sierra Leone to the Niger River in Nigeria. He was made Vicar Apostolic of this territory that fronted the Bight of Benin.

Four guiding principles for his work
Before leaving for India, in 1842, at the age of 28 he made a retreat and wrote down the following resolutions in his diary, setting out in four short sentences the future direction of his life and the inspirational ideals that have played a significant part in the life of our Society.

  1. To be a missionary with all my heart
  2. To neglect nothing that will advance the work of God
  3. To seize every opportunity of preaching the word of God
  4. Lastly, and it is for this above all that I implore Your blessing, to use every available means, all my strength, all my mind, towards the training of a native clergy.

These remained his missionary objectives throughout his life… and are part of the identity of the Society of African Missions to this day.

Early years of the SMA
The first years of the Society’s life were marked by tragedy and set backs. Not least of these, was the death of Bishop de Bresillac, at Freetown, a short time after his arrival there, in 1859. This tragic event was to be repeated on many occasions over the following years. Young missionaries, not long arrived on the West Coast of Africa, succumbed to the difficult climatic conditions and the diseases prevalent at that time.

The young Society without its energetic and dynamic Founder survived, through God’s grace, and under the guidance of Fr Augustin Planque, successor to Bishop de Bresillac, who courageously carried the work forward. It was Fr. Planque who recognised the importance of the need of Sisters to work also in that difficult and demanding environment to assist with the women in the area of evangelisation. It was he who founded the Congregation of our Lady of Apostles who have worked in West Africa for over 120 years. I would like to pay special tribute to them for their work and commitment to the work of Evangelisation and for their generous support and collaboration with our Society. I am happy to see many of them here to day as we celebrate together the missionary life of our Society.

When the Society began its life, it was a fact that all missionaries travelled, one might say on the “coat tails” of the different colonial powers of the day. The two colonial powers that exercised the greatest influence in West Africa, at this time, were the French and British Empires. As the work of the first missionaries expanded and spread along the West Coast it was imperative to have English speaking missionaries to evangelise the territories under British colonial rule. With this in mind, the Society first came to Ireland in the 1870’s.

Ireland in the mid to late 18th Century.
It is well to recall that the situation in Ireland in the late 1870’s early 1880’s was very unsettled, agrarian unrest was widespread. In 1879, Michael Davit founded the Land League the political situation remained uncertain. Under Parnell, the struggle for Home Rule was entering a new phase. The main task for the Catholic Church was to rebuild after the granting of Catholic Emancipation and the end of the Penal Laws and to plan for the pastoral care of the millions who had been forced to leave Ireland following the Great Famine.

First Contacts
The first contacts between Ireland and the SMA took place in South Africa and were made through Fr James O’Haire, who was acquainted with some of the early SMA missionaries in South Africa. Through Fr O’Haire’s contacts with Bishop Delaney, the first SMA presence in Ireland was here in Cork on the north side of the city, in Mayfield. After a brief stay there the Society moved in the early 1880’s to Blackrock Road and opened there an Apostolic school and a Church. Moving here to Wilton in the late 1880’s when the Society purchased this property. From these two houses – hundreds of missionaries have passed through having prepared themselves for work in Africa.

Many of those whose memory we hold dear are from your families, they were your friends and neighbours, they are buried here and in the many cemeteries dotted throughout Africa. Many are buried in the adjoining cemetery but many are also buried in the small cemeteries along the West Coast of Africa, in Asaba, Ekpoma, Oke Are, Ibadan Lagos – Nigeria: Ouidah in the Benin Republic, Kumasi in Ghana, Monrovia in Liberia, In East Africa in Francisdale in Zambia, Nairobi in Kenya, and also in North Africa in Egypt.

Builders of the Irish Province
While this day focuses on the celebration of the work of the Society over 150 years it is good to recall the lives of those who have built the Irish Province of the SMA, in particular, men like Fr. Joseph Zimmermann, from Switzerland, who was instrumental in building up the Irish Province, over a twenty eight year period. He also contributed in no small way to a better understanding, in the Irish Church of the time, on the need for missionaries to the lands where the Gospel had not yet been preached.

The early benefactors like Count Blake and Mr Himsworth – one of the first to respond to appeals for financial help, and who contributed generously to the building of our house in Blackrock Road. Their support and the generous support of our many benefactors has enabled the Irish Province to grow and to contribute significantly to the growth of the wider Society of African Missions, the Church in Africa and the spread of the Kingdom of God. The early efforts culminated in the establishment of the Irish Province of SMA on 15th May 1912.

Africa, at the turn of the 20th century was still a mysterious continent. The coast had been explored but much of the interior was unknown. The coming of explorers, adventurers and the colonial powers was beginning to have a significant effect on the peoples and cultures of Africa that had remained largely isolated for centuries.

This was the world to which the young Irish Missionaries of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s left family and friends here in Ireland, knowing that they, more than likely, would not return again. The early years of the Society saw a continual flow of young men from Ireland willing to accept the missionary calling and follow in the footsteps of our Founder and the early missionaries.

Members of the Society Priests and Brothers
Ordinations to the Missionary Priesthood

Phase 1. Ordained Lyons, Egypt and Cork there were 123 – 1878-1926

Phase 2. From Dromantine – 587 Members – 1926-1971

Phase 3. From Maynooth – 73 Members – 1971 – 1999

Over these years, the number of Brothers who served in our Province numbered up to 35, among them the first two members of the Society in Ireland to die in Africa. Brother Alphonsus Nolan who died in 17th October 1880, of tuberculosis aggravated by dysentery and Brother Jerome Killen who died in Lagos on 5th December 1880.

(In the Society’s house of formation in Dromantine, in County Down over 587 priests were ordained for the missionary priesthood in a period or 45 years (1926-1971). In all, Seven Hundred and eighty priests have been ordained for the missionary priesthood in the Irish Province.)

Phase 4. Our own time.
The Society has entered into a new phase of presence in Ireland. In the Irish Province today the number of candidates coming forward has diminished and all but dried up. This is not just a phenomenon experienced by our Mission Institute but also by other Mission Institutes. The Society still invites young men to come and join us but many factors in our present cultural climate do not facilitate and encourage young people to respond to the call to Mission. However, we will continue to invite and trust that the Spirit will still lead young men to join the Society. We must listen and discern what the Spirit is saying to us through this reality. It is a time of soul searching in the light of the great missionary tradition that we have known in Ireland.

Growth of the International Society
As the Society grew in Ireland there was a corresponding growth in France and Holland. Territories were assigned to the different Provinces: the Irish Province was assigned Western and Northern Nigeria and in 1906 Liberia. This year we celebrate the centenary of our Society’s missionary involvement in Liberia and I am indeed very happy to have Bishop Lewis Ziegler from the Diocese of Gbarnga, in Liberia here with us.

The Nature and Purpose of our Society
From the beginning, the focus and direction of our Society has concentrated on Africa. This has been our central interest over the past 150 years. This focus is the basis for our planning and organisation for the future. We remain faithful and committed to the vision of our Founder, to work among the most abandoned in Africa. Our focus on Africa at this time is important as the challenges and needs of mission in Africa are more demanding than ever. Solidarity with Africa in Africa and outside Africa is our engagement now.

In our work of mission, as evangelisers, we do not only engage in proclaiming the Gospel, or converting individuals to Christ but also, in the words of Evangelii Nuntiandi, The missionary Encyclical of Pope Paul VI

“bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new” – (EN, 24).

It is a process which embraces, again in the words of Evangelii Nuntiandi,

“both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieux which are theirs” – (EN, 19).

This is a dramatic development in the understanding of Mission.

The Missionary Encyclical of John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio expresses it in this way

“The Kingdom of God is all embrasive, bringing the good news into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new.” – RM, 13.

This is a significant development in understanding what missionaries are about in our time and it is very different from when our Society was founded and the early missionaries departed from our shores to preach the Gospel.

The context of mission is more challenging and demanding than it has ever been. Issues of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of the created world in which we live are now at the centre of the Mission agenda. It is a difficult and often unrewarding task in our times to uphold such issues, but to do so is firmly rooted in the conviction that Jesus Christ, in his saving mission, has given dignity and worth to each and every human being. This is the fundamental cornerstone on which we engage in mission today.

As a missionary Society we have been part of that movement in the Church that specifically oriented its identity and work to going to the Nations following the injunction of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel:

“Go, therefore make disciples of all Nations” – Matthew 28.19

An important task in our time is, I believe, that of building communities that are “salt and light” to the world (Matt 5:13-16). The disciple is to witness to the Gospel with the aim of transforming the world, a witnessing based on the experience of their encounter with the Risen Lord. They are to be “the fragrance of Jesus Christ” 11 Cor 2:14

Builders of a better world after the vision of the Prophet Isaiah from the first reading in today’s liturgy of the Word:

“Building a better world where war and destruction will be no more:
He will wield authority over the nations
And adjudicate between many peoples
These will hammer their swords into ploughshares
Their spears into sickles
Nation will not lift sword against nation
There will be no more training for war”.
– Isaiah 2:4

Africa Today
Africa continues to experience rapid change leading, to among other consequences, a great rich/poor divide, a rapid movement into large conurbations where millions are now in search of a life for themselves and their families. These are the “new frontiers” of mission as defined by John Paul II in his missionary encyclical, “Redemptoris Missio”. This is the world of mission in Africa today. There remains also the geographical locations of mission, remote areas of Primary Evangelisation, where our missionaries’ presence is valued and welcomed…. where they work with the local people to guarantee education facilities for the future generations through establishing schools etc.

I believe that Our Missionary commitment calls us to stretch to the limit our charism of missionary service, after the example of our courageous missionaries – drawing strength from their labours and inspiration from their courage. The pastoral challenges include serious medical and health issues, the need to engage with the serious deficiencies of the education system in many of the countries where we work and to plan and collaborate with the local Church on all issues effecting the life of our people and communities.

Who are the Agents of the Missionary Enterprise of the Society today?
I have spoken about the number of Priests and Brothers from Ireland who have contributed significantly to the SMA. Today, our Society is engaged in a great journey with the Churches, who though us, received the gift of faith, where we have served as missionaries, over the last one hundred and fifty years. We now invite young men from Africa to join us for Mission to other parts of Africa.

We also have members coming from India, Poland, the Philippines, and Argentina and they now live in international missionary communities, in Africa. My recent visits to the Central African Republic, Tanzania and Kenya highlighted for me the new “identity” of our young missionaries. The greater percentage of our young missionaries, let us say those under 40 years of age, numbering nearly 90% of missionaries under 40 in the Society, now come from these new Units of the Society. It is an exciting time for our Society and other mission Institutes like ourselves.

Core of our Work
The challenges facing those engaged in mission are many but the centre of Mission remains for all generations of missionaries and that is the person of Jesus Christ, as the one who has come from the Father to bring a unique message of love to the world. Witnessing to the person of Jesus and establishing communities based on his vision of harmony and respect communities that are “light and salt”.

The world of the early church was divided on many levels, Paul in the Letter to the Galatians describes religious divisions and states that for those who are “in Christ” there is another reality:

Since all of you are in Christ, there can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female.” – Galatians 3:28

This is the reality that Missionaries are called to live in a dramatic way in the world in which they witness to Christ. They are confronted in their life and ministry by many of the divisions that exist in our world: The differences between ethnic identities, the social divisions that create all kinds of tensions that lead to dissension and discord.

The witnessing communities established by the Missionaries of tomorrow are called to cross boundaries and cross over to the “other person” to establish the values of the Kingdom. It is not an easy task. Many factors cultural, historical and social, challenge the vision of a world that can live in harmony.

Paul insists upon the unity of the Christian community (the body of Christ). We have been given a new identity in Christ, an identity that supersedes all others. That is one of the great challenges for Christian mission to bear witness to that reality. Any form of segregation in the community, ethnic, racial or social, is, for Paul, a denial of the Gospel, it is a counter witness to the Gospel.

One of the main tasks of Mission in our time is about creating witnessing communities as presented in the Gospel of Matthew that will be seen as radically witnessing to what the Gospel means : “as light on a hilltop and as salt that savours food” in a world that is broken and divided. Showing that in Christ a new world is possible, a Kingdom of Truth and love is possible.

That is the great missionary task, then, is about creating communities marked by a radical unity, flowing from their new identity in Christ.

I ask you to pray at this celebration today that this missionary challenge will become a reality in our time.

Looking to the future

The Society, from her foundation has endeavoured to live the vision of our Founder to go to the “most abandoned” with the good News of Salvation. The work of our Society continues in Africa and also here in Ireland where the vision and the passion for Mission of our Founder is still our guiding light.

The words from the Book of Proverbs comes to mind as we take stock of these past years:

Many are the plans of the human heart
But the purpose of Yahweh – that stands firm.” –
Proverbs 19:21

From the very beginning, the Society faced many challenges in discerning how best to communicate the message brought by Jesus Christ, we are still engaged in that search – I believe it never ends. The mystery of how to present the reality of Christ is not exhausted.

The “purpose of Yahweh” is still being fulfilled with the missionaries of our time. Today, the missionaries of our Society come from 24 countries, committed to Africa and the Spread of the Gospel. Quiet a change from the early days when three countries provided the candidates.

The presence of our SMA African missionaries to other Africans is the fruit of that fateful journey undertaken by our Founder when he set out from Europe in March 1859.) It is a journey that continues and is truly fulfilling the “purpose of Yahweh”.

To you, our friends gathered here today, I thank you for your faithful participation in our Missionary task over these years. The generosity and support of the Irish people has been, and continues to be, extraordinary. Without your support it is not possible, not only for the Irish Province, but also the entire Society of African Missions to carry out the task it has in spreading the Good News of Salvation.

It is a day of thanksgiving for all but also a special day of rededication to the future and participating in what the Book of Proverbs calls, the “Purpose of Yahweh”, we – missionaries, family, friends and supporters of the Society are humbled that we have been called to participate in this “purpose”.

Mission continues, for our Society we remain committed to acting in Solidarity with Africa.

I commend to you today our missionaries working in sixteen countries in Africa and in different places on the other continents.

Remembering the words of St. John’s Gospel, as Jesus prayed for his disciples, so at this Eucharist we pray for them:

“Consecrate them in the truth;
Your word is truth.
As you sent me into the world,
And for their sake I consecrate myself,
So that they too may be consecrated in truth”
– John 17:17-19

Kieran O’Reilly SMA
SMA, Rome

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