SMA Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Opening its Doors to African and Asian Students for the Priesthood

In 1952 a decision was made by the SMA to admit African candidates to the Society. However, due to the fact that there were very few local clergy in the countries where the SMA missionaries then worked the decision was ‘put on hold.’ Down the years, various requests came in to the SMA from young Africans who wanted to be missionaries in our Society. In the 1960’s the Vatican began a process of replacing ‘white’ bishops in Africa with local bishops. Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Kenya, Tanzania, to name a few saw ‘sons of the soil’ taking leadership in their local Churches. A new wind was blowing across Africa.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI – the first Pope to visit an African country [Uganda] – said in Kampala that “By now, you Africans are missionaries to yourselves. The Church of Christ is well and truly planted in this blessed soil … Missionaries to yourselves: in other words, you Africans must now continue, upon this Continent, the building up of the Church.” The Holy Father encouraged the African clergy to take up the responsibility that the foreign missionaries had carried thus far.  To read Pope Paul’s Kampala address click here

The SMA had seen the growth in diocesan vocations all over Africa. Conscious of this and attentive to the words of Pope Paul VI, the SMA decided – at its 1983 General Assembly – to admit Africans to the Society. We also committed to accepting Filipinos, Indians and Polish candidates. The Lord blessed that momentous decision. Today we number more that 350 priests from what were initially called “SMA Foundations.”

At a recent meeting in Lyon, France [birthplace of the SMA in 1856], the 40th Anniversary of this decision was celebrated.  Below is an edited version of the homily preached by a former SMA Superior General, Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll, during those celebrations.

Recently, I took out a subscription to the electronic version of America magazine. This is a Catholic magazine from the USA published by the Jesuits. I understand it has had an unbroken life service of over one hundred years. 

About one month ago there was an article concerning the Sisters of Charity of New York. At a recent Chapter they had taken the momentous decision to close down the Order. They would no longer accept new recruits or members into the Congregation and they were embarking on what they termed “the journey to completion”. They had previously merged with another Congregation but each retained its independence. This decision only concerned this party to the merger.

The article was fulsome in its praise of the Sisters: the courage and serenity with which they adopted the challenge to complete their journey and die. It listed their many outstanding ministries: health care (they owned and directed many sizeable hospitals); education (they had built and controlled many large schools); social work (they had many social workers among the membership); pastoral (some had been coordinators of parishes); mission outreach (especially to the Bahamas), among other ministries. It highlighted especially their care for the poor and marginalised, and referred to this as a dangerous memory.’

Overall, it was a very positive story and one got the impression of a group of caring, dedicated, loving, committed Christian women. And no doubt they were all that.

About two weeks later, America published a second article on the subject, titled ‘Letter to the Editor’. It was written by a young black female historian by the name of Shannen Dee Williams, an associate Professor of History at the University of Dayton, Ohio. It was a devastating piece of writing. It seriously castigated America magazine for allowing such an article to be published in the manner it was. Shannen pointed out that the truly ‘dangerous memory’ which was most relevant was not even hinted at. This memory has two prongs:

–  This Congregation had been involved in slave ownership (like many Catholic institutes of that era);

–  they had adopted and pursued a policy of racial segregation in intake of membership. Only white women were accepted and any black applicants were turned away. Such a policy continued into relatively recent times. Even in the mission to the Bahamas, the Black Sisters eventually separated and formed an independent Congregation. In other words, they were decidedly racist in attitude and policy.

If the SMA had not adopted the plan of the Foundations 40 years ago, receiving as members men from our mission lands and Asia, all the Provinces in Europe and North America would be well on the way of the road to completion. But a courageous decision was taken and we are joyfully living the fruits of that decision today. We only need to look at the membership of this Plenary Council.

This is a very positive situation. But before being carried away in too much positivity we might ask a challenging question of ourselves: could there be a dangerous memory in the SMA that we don’t like to think about. Why did it take so long to come to the decision taken in 1983? It is interesting to contrast the approach taken by the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles [OLA] to the same pathway: for them there was almost no need of a discernment process; the answer was so obvious that they were able to move into a welcoming mode much earlier than SMA moved. Was there any element of racism operating in our delay? Maybe a good research topic for one of our students.

The decision of the SMA forty years ago to expand membership was only in response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to continue to be a ‘light to the nations’, as Isaiah put it in our first reading. This section of Isaiah comes from the second of the “Four Songs of the Servant of the Lord”. The speaker presents himself as a prophet whose word carries God’s own power. Through him God renews his covenant with Israel, and by his obedience to God and solidarity with his people he can bring about conversion and salvation for both Israel and the nations.

Each SMA missionary through obedience to God and solidarity with his people helps bring about conversion and salvation for himself and his people.

Our second reading from Acts shows how Paul sees the Jews rejection of the Gospel message as a full justification for the gentile mission. He sees it as an instance of the biblical promises being fulfilled. This gentile mission is being carried out today by the SMA and others.

Our gospel comes from the opening chapter of Luke’s account. Naturally, today it focuses on the birth, circumcision and naming of John the Baptist. It’s not clear to me why the Church chose to omit from today’s reading Zechariah’s powerful prophecy, what is usually referred to as the Benedictus, the prayer we pray each day at our morning prayer.

There are a few points that strike me from this gospel segment that might help us as SMA moves forward after forty years’ experience of this new reality:

Zechariah was a man characterised by radical obedience to the word of God. One might have excused a certain resistance pursuant to being struck dumb. But there was not the slightest hesitation on his part.

Having been told by the angel that the child was to be called John, he withstood strong protestations from his family and neighbours to choose a name familiar to the family. But Zechariah was uncompromising. John, too, in his own day was uncompromising in his following of God’s word.

This virtue of obedience may need to be recaptured in our lived practice in SMA today. Not just listening to God’s word, but obeying the word of our superiors. Maybe not in such an autocratic manner as in the time of Father Planque and Bishop Pellet, but perhaps we have erred too far in the other way. Not too long ago, I picked up a small book at the District house in Monrovia with the quaint title of ‘Don’t trust the Abbot’.

I wish I had read that book more than twenty years ago! The author, himself an abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Arkansas USA, makes a point that I had not pondered on much before; that is that religious take vows to obey their superiors, not to trust them. You don’t necessarily have to trust your superior, but you do have to obey. The hope is that trust will develop if not already there. But one doesn’t take a vow to trust. That may help both leaders and others to evaluate mandates given in a fresh way.  

We also benefit from the example of John by radically listening to God’s word and pursuing its lead.

We can only do this through prayer. Prayer is essential for all missionaries and most especially leaders. Like Moses at the Tent of Meeting, we represent the concerns of our members and present them in prayer in order to seek direction. The people at the door of their own tent took great solace from seeing Moses entering the special tent to encounter God. In the same way our members take courage from knowing that the leader is connected regularly to the Lord in prayer.

So, as we move on as SMA into the next forty or one hundred years, let us commit ourselves again to the vision inherited from Melchior de Marion Brésillac and truly be missionaries from the bottom of our hearts.

Through the intercession of Mother Mary and Venerable Marion himself, may we get the strength necessary to radically live this mission.

Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA


Previous articleHomily for the Feast of the Transfiguration
Next articleSMA International News – August 2023