On 25 June, 161 years ago, the Founder of the Society of African Missions [SMA], Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac, recently declared Venerable, died of Yellow Fever, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He had arrived there just six weeks earlier.
In 1855, aged 42 years, due to difficulties about the caste and other Indian customs, de Brésillac resigned his bishopric in India. The following year, on 8 December 1856, he founded the Society of African Missions in order to commit himself “to the most abandoned peoples of Africa“.
On 14 May 1859 de Brésillac and two more SMA missionaries arrived off Freetown, Sierra Leone, and were told they should not land as Yellow Fever was raging in the town. The three insisted on joining their companions who had arrived earlier.
The moment of his death is described for us in the words of Mr Brémond, a French trader, who came to visit him as he was dying:
At this moment he raised his eyes to heaven and said in a tone of voice that I shall never forget: ‘Faith. Hope. Ch..’
‘Charity’. I said.
‘Thank you’, he replied feebly.
He died at 1.20 pm in profound peace, but after having had a terrible agony of half an hour.’
From the human point of view his death looked like failure: the end of a venture launched with so much hope and pursued with unstinting courage. As de Brésillac was dying, the last of his five companions on that fateful pioneering mission to Sierra Leone, Fr Reymond, was extremely ill. He would die three days after the Founder.
Ten days before his death, our Founder would seem to have had a premonition of what lay ahead, for, in a letter to a priest friend, he expressed the hope that his mission would withstand such a catastrophe, since ‘God knows how to draw good even out of evil, and perhaps … all this evil is in reality good.’ God indeed did know how to draw good from that catastrophe, for the death of de Brésillac and his companions proved to be the seed that, having fallen to the ground, produced a rich harvest.
When the news of how our Founder had died reached Lyons, France, his remaining confreres, led by Fr Augustin Planque, had no hesitation about what they must do. ‘I have a duty’, Fr Planque wrote to Rome, ‘to continue the work sanctified by so great a sacrifice’. The sacrifice of Our Founder and his companions would inspire hundreds of young men to give their lives so that the Gospel of Christ might reach ‘the most abandoned’ in Africa. Today we recall that event with a sense of awe and gratitude. We also strive to recapture something of the spirit that gave us birth as we embrace the challenges of mission in the context of our time.
What is the spirit that is so clearly manifest in the life and death of our Founder? It is, to use the title of an SMA publication of twenty years ago, a ‘passion for mission’. A passion expressed in the willingness to give everything, even one’s life, to bring to others, especially those most abandoned, the infinite riches of the Gospel of Christ. It is the courage to be a fool for Christ’s sake and, if I might borrow the words of the Irish poet, Padraig Pearse, ‘to squander the splendid years of one’s life in attempting impossible things…, to strive to give life in the world of time and space to a dream that was dreamed in the heart and only the heart can hold.’
It is a passionate commitment to a vision that was born in the heart of God and that only God’s heart could sustain: this is the spirit that dominated the life of our Founder and led him to an early death in Freetown. This is the spirit we still need in face of the challenges of mission today.
True enough, the world we inhabit is very different from the world in which our Founder lived. Many things that our Founder would have taken as absolutes are questioned today, even the very concept of mission itself. When I was teaching courses on Mission Theology at the Kimmage Mission Institute, Dublin, over two decades ago I was often asked why I still continued to speak about mission rather than dialogue. I replied, that “to abandon mission would be to destroy the identity of the Church and undermine its reason for existing.” The challenge facing us today, I argued, was not to abandon the notion of mission but to recover its true focus: allowing Christ to lead us to others so that, with them, we may realise the dream that was born in the heart of God that all people ‘may have life and have it to the full’ (Jn 10:10).
Many young men and women, clerical and lay, from the four corners of the globe continue to commit themselves to the enterprise for which our Founder gave his life 161 years ago. We remember them in this Eucharist and pray that they will keep alive our Founder’s Passion for Mission.
We pray also for ourselves gathered here today and for all our missionaries: that God may make us into ever more fitting instruments in the service of his missionary purpose, and that, in reaching out to others in love, we may help the Church grow to its full potential as a community of ‘faith, hope, and charity’, to echo the last words of Our Venerable Founder as he lay on his death bed.
Michael McCabe SMA, Blackrock Road, Cork – June 2020