Missionaries on a mission to modernise

Thu, Jun 7, 2012, 01:00

Next week’s Eucharistic Congress is set to draw attention to the legacy of Irish missionaries

AMONG IRELAND’S main exports 80 years ago were beef, butter – and priests. The last Eucharistic Congress to be held here fell in the middle of a period of major expansion for the Irish missionary movement, and its impact is due to be the focus of some reflection at this year’s congress.

As Fr Eamon Aylward, executive secretary of the Irish Missionary Union, says, “Irish missionaries have made a very significant contribution to the universal mission of the church”.

Between 1916 and 1937 there was a dramatic increase in the number of indigenous institutes established for missionary work, among them St Patrick’s Missionary Society, otherwise known as the Kiltegan Fathers.

It was set up on March 17th, 1932, and its first destination was south Nigeria, which is sending a number of clergy and at least one archbishop to Dublin next week.

“A number of dioceses where we worked will be represented,” says Fr Tom O’Connor, from Killeedy, Co Limerick, who joined the Kiltegans in 1971. Like many priests, he has mixed feelings about the congress. “In ’32, it was very much a national celebration as well as an occasion for the church. We were 11 years into independence and there was a whole triumphant aspect that does not appeal to people any more.” Nonetheless, he says, this month is a welcome opportunity for reflection.

The way Mass is celebrated in Nigeria – with “a tremendous sense of Sunday as the Lord’s day” – is something Ireland could learn from, he suggests. As Kiltegans, he adds, “we are very proud of the fact that we emphasised the breaking of bread and the gesture of sharing as an important element of the Eucharistic celebration”.

One of the things he found “very powerful” in Africa was the way in which people who had very little would still share what they had with the poor at church collections. “For me that is the essence of the Eucharist: bread broken and shared.”

For Fr Severinus Ndugwa, a Ugandan priest studying in Maynooth, the congress has resonance; his mother was active in the Legion of Mary in Uganda and “would often exhort us never to miss Sunday Mass or Eucharistic service”.

Today, he ministers at the weekends in Finglas, Dublin, while wrapping up a doctorate on church teaching on the Eucharist. “I am excited that I will be part of this rare event,” he says of the congress. Asked what he makes of Eucharistic celebration today, particularly First Communion, he says he shares concern at the focus on “posh” receptions over the spiritual importance of the occasion. “The celebration of Mass, particularly on Sundays and holy days of obligation, should be considered a priority, not only as a duty but as a privilege.”

Fr Ndugwa might be seen as representing the future of the church, just as Irish missionaries represent the past. Fr Aylward stresses, however: “It would be the hope of many missionaries that as a church we might move to a completely different appreciation of what ‘mission’ means today in 2012: that would include an understanding of mission at home as well as mission overseas.

“One practical consequence of this reflection means that, as well as putting our hands in our pockets to help, the message of Jesus is also inviting us to pray and reflect on how the decisions we take each day may be contributing to injustice and inequality at home and abroad.”

During the congress, details will be announced of a major conference called Mission Today and Tomorrow, to be held in Dublin in June 2013 as part of the Government-sponsored initiative The Gathering.

Is this the end of the Irish missionary movement then, or rather a new beginning? Fr O’Connor is optimistic. “The year I joined was the year of significant decline,” with annual recruits to the Kiltegans dropping from 20 to 10 but, he says, “there are so many advantages to the fact that the church does not have so much power. We can now go back to the basics of the gospel, and for me there is great freedom in that.”