A particularly moving event took place in Dublin City Hall last Wednesday. There, 225 elderly Irish men and women who have spent between 40 and 60 years each abroad, educating and caring for strangers, were honoured in their own land for the very first time.
As Fr Michael Corcoran, president of the Irish Missionary Union, said "it seems to be the nature of missionaries not to look for praise or court attention", but that such an event was "long overdue". This was particularly so in Ireland. Our missionaries have been among our greatest ambassadors.
It has often been said that the most idealistic clergy of their generations went on the missions. Frequently too their family backgrounds were less prosperous than was the case with clergy who stayed at home. It was probably a reason why our missionaries seemed less encumbered by values which, at times, would appear to have inhibited some peers at home from living out the gospel as they might wish.
By the 1960s Ireland was producing so many priests and nuns that between a third and a half went on the missions. It moved Pope John XXIII to say in 1961 that "any Christian country will produce a greater or lesser number of priests. But Ireland, that beloved country, is the most fruitful of mothers in this respect."
Historian Prof Joe Lee described those clergy at home as "strong farmers in cassocks, [who] largely voiced the concern of their most influential constituents, whose values they instinctively shared and universalised as 'Christian'. The sanctity of property, the unflinching materialism of farmer calculations, the defence of professional status, depended on continuing high emigration and celibacy."
He continued, "the Church did not invent these values. But it did baptise them. Rarely has the Catholic Church as an institution flourished, by materialistic criteria, as in the Free State. And rarely has it contributed so little, as an institution, to the finer qualities of the Christian spirit. Censorship, Irish style, suitably symbolised the impoverishment of spirit and the barrenness of mind of the risen bourgeoise, touting for respectability."
Strong words. But that was then. It was when most of the men and women honoured last Wednesday left Ireland – the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Going abroad was probably a liberation from the stultifying conformity.
Then it was a church with " a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God's people but the Church as an institution," to quote from Pope Francis's Evangelii Gaudium document last week.
Church on the streets
In that document he expressed a preference for "a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church that is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."
And, where the Irish Catholic Church is now concerned, who better than our elderly missionaries to advise it on how this can be done at home. They’ve been living a “bruised, hurting and dirty” church for decades.
It is true that among them too there some few wolves in priests’ clothing who preyed on vulnerable children, just as in Ireland. Responsibility for such dysfunctional men lay not with them but with their superiors. They should not be tarnished with the actions of abusers or the gross irresponsibility of superiors who, as at home, placed the institution before that of children or the good name of clergy.
As with priests at home, the great good done by our missionaries abroad must not be eclipsed by the criminal behaviour of the few, whether abuser or superior. It must not be buried with their bones.
And, while rightly celebrating work by the larger number of Irish Catholic missionaries abroad, we must include our Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries as well. Everyone on this island benefits from the enormous goodwill generated towards us by all our missionaries.
We should be proud of them for the work they’ve done and be grateful for the reflected glory it has cast on the rest of us.
Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent