Making a major mission statement


A documentary on Irish missionaries portrays some radical free thinkers living maverick lives

For those feeling jaded and cynical amid a misery-laden news cycle, three Irish missionaries featured in a documentary on television tomorrow night provide a revealing, and at times moving insight into a species now bordering on extinction.

Film maker Ruán Magan travelled 35,000km to some of the most remote parts of the planet to capture them in their natural habitat.

Part David Attenborough and part Paddy O’Gorman, Lifers tracks down a particularly exotic subject in Fr Pat Brennan. Asked how he discovered the Roscommon man, who has returned to Ireland just nine times in 35 years, Magan replies: “You won’t believe this but I imagined him. I said: ‘What would be the most extreme situation in which you find an Irish missionary?’ and I imagined if there was someone up the Amazon working with indigenous Indians, that would be it.

“None of the people in administrative level in Ireland [in the Irish Missionary Union and Mission Cara, the State-supported funding body for the sector] had come across him. I just stumbled across him on the internet.”

In halting English, Brennan (64) speaks emotionally in the film about the trials of his vocation and the affection he still has for a homeland that seems ever more distant.

“I only feel well among poor people,” says the priest, who now thinks and talks in Portuguese. Part of his work is fighting against loggers, who are destroying the rainforests and displacing peasant farmers. It’s dangerous work: an American-born colleague, Sr Dorothy Mae Stang, was murdered in 2005 after receiving death threats from landowners.

But Brennan has no thoughts of quitting. In fact, when we leave him towards the end of the documentary, he is plotting a new human-rights campaign he wants to establish “before I get old”.

For Magan, the project was unfinished business from two previous treatments of the subject. In 2009, he made On God’s Mission, a two-part series with Tyrone Productions on the history of the Irish missionary movement. Two years later, he made a film on Charlie Burrows, an Irish priest creating wealth and employment in Indonesia.

All three projects have been funded in part by businessman Denis O’Brien (see panel). The initial series was also “his idea,” says Magan. “He went to John [McColgan] and Moya Doherty in Tyrone and suggested something should be done on the missions, and if so he would back it.”

An atheist’s approach

As an atheist, Magan says: “I would never have expected to be making documentaries about the church or missionaries but it has ended up as a great passion. I want to learn what motivates them, and the more you get involved, the more you’re fascinated.

“I could not get away from the fact that although I had done On God’s Mission, what hadn’t been captured was what missionaries were like as humans. Could we get them to talk about what it was really like: the depression, the loneliness, missing the All-Ireland Final, missing the best friend’s funeral, alcoholism, celibacy?”

What he concludes is that missionaries “are only normal people . . . they’re not doing a mysterious vocation. Some people are just driven to help others more than the rest of us. My feeling at the end of it was: if the church did not exist and these people hadn’t gone abroad, they would be doing the same thing in Ireland.”

Liberal views

A question you can’t help asking, however, is would they have had the same freedom to be themselves in Ireland, at a time when “liberal” priests are being silenced by their superiors?

The likes of Fr John Glynn, who runs a charity in Papua New Guinea for abandoned children, is the most outspoken of the three interviewed. The ban on married priests is unnatural, the priest states bluntly, and the institutional church has “lost the plot”. It’s “enormously important” to have a partner with whom you can share life. “We are designed to live together,” he says.

Brennan, in more diplomatic terms, says celibacy should be optional.

“These people are single operatives so it’s hard for the Vatican to stamp down on them,” says Magan, who believes their opinions on social justice and sexual morality are widely shared among missionaries. “In my mind, all three of them are talking for one. None of them would disagree with what the other would have said.”

The third profiled missionary is Sr Pat Murray, a Loreto sister in South Sudan, who was voted “one of the top 10 people of 2011” by Inside the Vatican magazine – “so hardly the radical fringe of the Catholic church”.

Fr John Glynn, originally from Co Clare, is 76 years old and had contributed to a documentary 17 years previously, says Magan, but “he was much more cautious. With age, it doesn’t matter any more”.

As founder-director of the We Care Foundation in Port Morsby, Glynn provides a harsh but compelling analysis of the church and human nature. Asked why he sticks with the work, in difficult and dangerous conditions, he replies: “So I can respect myself.” Along with the other pair, he throws down a challenge to anyone willing to listen.

It’s uncomfortable viewing, then, but you also may feel a tingle of pride. In some remote corners of the world, Ireland has done good. Magan admits this sort of message is a tough sell “particularly right now” in the wake of church scandals. “But surely there is a case to be made that some people in the church have been treated unfairly? They are not all to blame.

“Ratings are important,” he says. “There is no point making a film unless people will watch it. But if a single person is moved by it, or if more than one person ‘gets it’, then that’s a result.”

Lifers is on RTÉ1 at 10.15 pm tomorrow

Denis O'Brien's missionary work

Denis O’Brien plays an active role in promoting the work of Irish missionaries.

Lifers is the third RTÉ project he has funded through the Iris O’Brien Foundation, a charity he set up in his mother’s name. “Most young Irish people have little or no idea of how much these men and women did in Africa, in the Far East in the South Pacific and in the Caribbean,” O’Brien says. “These people are a very important part of [being] Irish. I would say that no group of Irish people has done more for Ireland’s reputation internationally than our missionaries.”

The telecoms magnate believes that the goodwill created by the presence of these nuns and priests has inadvertently helped him to secure mobile-phone licences in places such as Samoa, where the prime minister was educated by the Christian Brothers.

Among those featured in Lifers is Fr John Glynn, who has become a director of O’Brien’s Digicel Foundation in Papua New Guinea. O’Brien says that witnessing Glynn at first hand has provided “some of the most uplifting experiences in my life”.

Asked about his financial support for their work, he is coy. “The work being done by Irish missionaries deserves to be supported by everyone according to their means.” O’Brien stresses, however, they “do not get enough recognition. I would like to see one of the old seminaries restored and developed as a museum or centre in which our missionaries would be remembered.”

Producer Ruán Magan, who worked on all the film projects, says O’Brien lays down no preconditions, and “does not have anything to do” with content. “He just wants stuff to be made about missionaries.”

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