Irish missionaries: they haven't gone away, you know
Once the nation's pride and joy, they've slipped off the radar in recent times. But they're still out there doing good works.
Tomorrow is Mission Sunday. Plate collections in Catholic churches across the land will raise a projected €2m for Ireland's missionaries in the developing world. There are currently some 1,600 Irish missionaries scattered across Africa, Asia and South America, running schools, clinics and sanitation schemes, and giving a voice to human rights and social justice issues.
Little more than a generation ago, Mission Sunday was a red letter day in the life of the nation. Throughout the depressed middle decades of the 20th Century, the work of our missionaries was one of the very few good news stories an impoverished and repressed people had to tell, both ourselves and the wider world.
Achievements in other spheres, growing secularism, and a sharp decline in vocations have combined to elbow the missions from centre stage to the wings. According to Jackie Pallas, the national secretary of Missionary Children: "It has slipped off the radar because you don't have nuns and priests teaching in schools and promoting it, but it has survived because teachers tap into the fact that pupils have a tremendous empathy with other children facing hardship."
By way of illustration, she says: "Some time ago, I visited a school in Uganda. There were four kids squashed into desks that were built for two. They had nothing. I wanted to see what food the children had brought from home, and asked them to take out what they had. One little girl just had a boiled egg to get her through the school day. Because I'd asked her to take out her food, she thought that I must be hungry and gave me the egg. I tried to say no, but the teacher said I'd have to accept it and eat it, so I did, meaning she had no lunch. I told this to a class back in Ireland and a little boy came up and gave me his money to buy the little girl an egg. That's the sort of empathy we find everywhere, in children and adults."
A laywoman from an accounting background, Jackie "felt led into the work" 15 years ago, despite initial reservations. She says: "From the first day, I felt an overwhelming peace and calm, and that's still there."
In contrast, Fr PJ Cassidy, provincial delegate of The Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), felt the tug of his vocation at an early age. His curiosity piqued by a priest who regularly stayed at his family's guesthouse in Donegal. He reflects: "He was a White Father from Tyrone and he gave me the sense that missionaries interpreted the world in a broader way than most people. His stories of Africa intrigued me."
Now in his mid-40s, PJ joined up as a student with the Jesuits at a time when many were being called but few chosen. After completing a philosophy course in Dublin, he was packed off to Zambia "for a novitiate, or spiritual year, where you attempt to ground your training in an African setting and to get to know yourself".
He says: "When I joined in 1987, I was one of an initial group of 25. By the end of the first year of study in Ireland, 10 had dropped out, and another four or five dropped out during their year on the ground in Africa. They would have felt it just didn't do it for them."
When the numbers going to Africa were at their peak from the 1920s to the 1970s, the claim was often heard that the missions were the Church's method for exporting its more turbulent, progressive and radical priests, mirroring the way that mass emigration acted as a safety valve for discontent in the broader Irish society.
Fr Cassidy indicates that the missions may still serve that function to some extent, saying: "I'd share that mentality. I would find it hard enough to work in the confines of an Irish parish. In Africa, you can represent the God that's within you. You can put your own interpretation on things. For example, you may decide to reposition the giving of the sign of peace in the Mass. It might make sense to move it to the front of the ceremony, so that the first thing the people do when they come together from far afield is to greet each other with a shared gesture of being neighbours in a community.
"In a missionary setting you can move things around without having people getting on your case. You have a freedom from getting bogged down in red tape. We are administrators, but the Africans living there are the ones running their communities. Our job is not to lead but to facilitate."
I tell Fr Cassidy about a long conversation I had some years ago with a veteran priest on a flight that was taking him back to Kenya, where he'd spent some 50 years. I was deeply taken aback when he told me that while he was a respected and popular figure in his bush community, he had a deep, despondent sense that in some ways he'd wasted his life amongst a people who'd accepted the material improvements he'd helped to bring, but who had passed on the Christianity part of the package.
PJ responds: "I think that's a man who you'd have to admire for dedicating his life to a cause. He'd have arrived at a time when people would have looked up to a missionary priest as sort of guru, but attitudes have changed.
"There would be times when I myself would be discouraged. You might go to meet with a little community in the middle of the bush to say Mass for them. You've travelled a long way, perhaps for days, and they don't turn up to meet you, and you say 'I've wasted all this time and effort'. But still you wait, and they finally turn up and you greet each other warmly and we all have a great gathering, and it's all been worth it.
"But that sort of existence can be tough for elderly priests. Many of the older lads find it getting harder, but they love it still and many can't face the prospect of coming back to Ireland to face a new unknown. Many want to stay out there and die out there, and I totally understand that and would always allow that. But it is the toughness of missionary life in Africa that makes it a living faith. I've found from my own experience that when your faith is tested, that's what makes it very real."
He continues: "Many of the older priests find it hard to accept that Africa is a continent on the move, changing and vibrant. For instance, the mobile phone network in Africa is much more developed than here. One of the lads was recently about to leave Ireland to head back to Mali, and getting ready to go, he got a call from the bush wishing him a safe journey. It's a changed world."
The face of the missions has changed here too since the days of the guru priest. Jackie Pallas represents the body that once distributed the Black Babies Box, an item found on every shop counter and every church porch for decades. By the 1950s, Ireland was going black baby crazy. Black babies were popping up as clues in The Irish Times crossword, top designer Sybil Connolly was using Black Baby Ribbon in her costly creations, and the exclusive Switzer's department store was selling 'Black Baby Dolls' for 23s 6d each. Stealing from a Black Babies Box was the lowest of crimes. In 1956, two men were sentenced to hard labour for pilfering £1 from one. The collection boxes, and the slogan, "A penny for the Black Babies", seemed to vanish almost overnight in the mid-1970s, suddenly appearing condescending and a bit un-PC in a world of changing sensibilities.
Jackie says: "It was part of childhood. Bob Geldof said in his book that the Black Babies Box gave him his first consciousness of helping. His publishers got in touch with me looking for a box, but I couldn't find a single one anywhere."
While his work keeps him in Ireland for most of the time, Fr PJ readily admits that he yearns for a return to working on the ground in Africa. He explains: "The people there can face the day with a smile when there is literally nothing to survive on. In Mozambique, people didn't know if they were going to be alive at the end of the day. I feel alive in Africa. I love what I do and it's a privilege to do it."
Mission Sunday is celebrated in Catholic churches tomorrow.