Fr Kevin Hegarty
LAST weekend, Mission Sunday was celebrated in Catholic churches throughout Ireland. By coincidence, Irish missionaries were in the news during the previous fortnight.
On October 11, Fr Michael Sinnot, a native of Wexford and a Columban priest, who has worked in the Philippines for the last 40 years, was abducted outside his home. At the time of writing, he has not been released.
A few days before the abduction, we learnt of the death of Fr Aengus Finucane, who for many years was intimately associated with the work of Concern, the third world agency.
Aengus’s passion for social justice was triggered by events in Nigeria in the late 1960s where he was then working. Biafra seceded from Nigeria. In retaliation, the Nigerian government tried to starve the Biafrans into submission. He took part in an international campaign to alleviate the horrendous suffering that ensued.
As a young man, Aengus played rugby and hurling in Limerick. A contemporary recalled he was never fit but knew how to use his weight on the sports field. He certainly knew how to use his spiritual and intellectual weight in the battle against deprivation and oppression in the developing world.
Michael and Aengus are part of the story of one of the most significant movements in Irish Catholicism in the last two centuries.
The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 gave an injection of self-confidence to the Catholic Church in Ireland. This self-confidence expressed itself in the assiduous building of churches and religious houses, the Romanisation of Irish prayers and devotions, the prodigious growth in the numbers of clergy and religious and in the establishment of religious congregations and societies with the aim of spreading Christianity in Africa, Asia and South and Central America.
The high point of this activity occurred between 1916 and 1937. By 1965 there were over 7,000 Irish missionaries, mainly clerical and religious but including some lay people, working in these regions.
They did not confine their ministry to catechesis and the administration of the sacraments. The majority of Irish missionaries also sought to provide education and medical care for their communities. They had a holistic approach to human development before the term was coined.
In recent years, missionaries have encountered accusations of cultural arrogance, religious imperialism and collusion in colonial exploitation. Despite our experience of colonial domination, Irish missionaries have not escaped censure.
There is, I believe, some truth in these allegations. Missionaries today are more sensitive to the cultures where they work. There are dark threads in the tapestry of the missionary tradition. We await definitive studies before any fair evaluation can emerge. My hunch is that, for the most part, Irish missionaries have been heralds of hope for millions of people.
The great age of Irish missionary endeavour is now over yet there are still over 2,000 working in 83 countries. It is a challenging and sometimes dangerous life, as the capture of Fr Michael Sinnott most recently testifies. The Goal worker, Sharon Commins, has just been released after 109 days in captivity in the Sudan. By a happy coincidence, news of her freedom came on Mission Sunday.
Our missionaries continue to provide us with inspiring stories of their witness to the liberating message of Jesus Christ.
Take, for example, the work of a small group of Irish Loreto Sisters in southern Sudan. Sudan has recently emerged from a lengthy civil war. There is now a fragile peace but murderous hatreds still simmer under the surface.
Women are second-class citizens, the possessions of their fathers and husbands. Among them there is an illiteracy rate of 92%.
The sisters heave recently founded a secondary school for girls in Rumbek. It was a great challenge. One of the sisters, Sr Kathleen Maclennan has written, “The biggest problem is that girls are married off very young. A daughter brings a dowry as the husband effectively buys her from her father. The currency is cows. A girl may bring up to 400 -500 cows and this gives her father esteem and prestige in the community. To ask a father to forgo this for five years so that he daughter can attend school is a very big thing, and we understand that. We hope to convince them that it will in the long term be good for the whole family. We hope to give the girls a childhood and a dignity and a self-worth that’s not measured in cows, but measured in her beauty of mind, her humanity and ability to be loving, just and creative.”
A small school in the Sudan, yet a beacon of hope.