What is a Missionary?

By Father Joseph Doyle, SSJ

When we think of “foreign missions” we think of priests and religious men and women traveling thousands of miles to preach the Gospel “to all the nations.”
Such was the dream of Father Herbert Vaughan who opened St. Joseph’s College of the Sacred Heart at Mill Hill, London, England on March 19, 1866 to begin training men for the foreign missions. His plan was to send his first missionary priests to Africa, Asia and other “pagan lands.”

After many painful negotiations with the Holy See about the assignments for the four recently ordained priests, Pope Pius IX, upon the advice of Archbishop Martin John Spalding of Baltimore, agreed to send them to the United States to “evangelize Negroes.”

Father Vaughan departed for America with his four “apostolic missionaries” on Nov. 17, 1871 and arrived in Baltimore on Dec. 5, 1871. They were known as St. Joseph’s Society of the Foreign Missions, consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Some knew them as Josephite-Mill Hill missionaries who were trained in England and served in the African-American communities of Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and elsewhere.

By 1893, the American Josephites separated themselves from the English Mill Hill Missionaries but both communities remained missionaries in foreign lands. It was not until 1908 that the Holy See decided to drop the United States from the list of “mission territories” which depended on clergy, religious and donations from Europe to build up the Body of Christ, the Church, spiritually and materially in our country.

The Vatican must have realized that the Catholic Church in the United States could now stand on its own feet in terms of financial resources and personnel. At last, we had a growing number of indigenous clergy and seminaries would continue to multiply for the next fifty years or so. Catholic parishes and schools, some staffed by diocesan priests and others by religious communities, grew at an unprecedented rate.

One of the many reasons for this phenomenal growth was that many Catholics were mission-minded. Having benefited from the good work of missionaries in our own country, it was now the obligation of U.S. Catholics to support their own parishes and schools without neglecting the foreign missions.

For example, in 1918, the Catholic Student Mission Crusade was started by two Society of the Divine Word seminarians in Techny, Illinois for the purpose of supporting missions at home and abroad. By the 1930’s, nearly a half-million members were enrolled in Catholic high schools, colleges and seminaries, including the Josephite seminary in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, in 1972, the national office of the CSMC closed its doors. Were Catholics, especially young Catholics, losing their sense of mission-mindedness? Or, was it perhaps a new vision of “mission,” presented by Vatican Council II that was not yet fully understood?

The Council document, “Ad Gentes,” explained that, “the specific purpose of missionary activity is evangelization and the planting of the Church among those people and groups where she has not yet taken root” (AG, 6). It goes on to say that the “work of evangelization” remains the personal responsibility of all Catholics who have the obligation to actively support and promote the missions. That is how we become “heralds of the Gospel.”

Having begun as “foreign missionaries,” the Josephites are now “home missionaries,” serving exclusively in the African-American community in the United States.

For the past fifty years or more, the Josephites have worked with other religious communities such as the Paulists and Glenmarys in promoting the ideas and experiences of evangelization based on the teachings of Pope Paul VI’s “Evangelii Nuntiandi” and Pope John Paul II’s “Redemptoris Missio.” Many good, creative initiatives have come out of this collaboration, especially in our parishes. These documents provide the theological foundation for an understanding of evangelization and the “new evangelization.” Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself, properly internalized and proclaimed by the way we live, would be a better way to restore a sense of mission-mindedness.

Were Catholics, especially young Catholics, losing their sense of mission-mindedness?

There is nothing wrong with being an “arm chair missionary” whereby we offer our prayers and sacrifices for missionaries. St. Therese of the Child Jesus is a perfect example. She and St. Francis Xavier are patrons of the missions – one contemplative and the other active.

We can support the missions financially following the example of Ven. Pauline Marie Jaricot who, as a young woman, collected a penny a week from the employees in her family’s silk factory in France. She is considered the foundress of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith. Now days, a penny per week doesn’t go very far, so parishioners are asked to be generous in the Mission Sunday collection, the Indian and Negro Mission collection and the collection for the Home Missions.

The concept of mission-mindedness can take many different forms. It is a wonderful thing to see how many affluent Catholic parishes “twin” with poor parishes at home and abroad. The wealthy parishes have reported many blessings as a result of their sacrificial generosity, not the least of which is an increase in vocations from their parishes as a result of young parishioners taking mission trips to countries such as Haiti and Mexico. Some families have visited their “twin” parish as a summer vacation instead of going to the beach or a theme park.

Finally, the tables have turned. Missionaries from Africa, such as the Missionaries of St. Paul, have been coming to the United States to fill the gap left by the serious shortage of American vocations. The Josephites have been relying on vocations from Africa to join our ranks, and after seminary training in Nigeria and Washington, D.C., they are ordained to serve in the African-American community. It appears that once again, the United States is “mission territory.”

Father Joseph Doyle, SSJ, is novice director for the Josephites.

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