By Claudia Mathis
“Tell the students to give up their small ambitions and come Eastward to preach the Gospel of Christ,” said St. Francis Xavier, missionary to India, the Philippines and Japan.
Missionaries have been spreading the Word of God ever since Jesus instructed the Apostles to make disciples of all nations. (Mt. 28: 19-20)
Throughout history missionaries have responded to God’s call with an urgency to venture into the unknown with daring commitment. They live a life of serving the poor, sick and suffering in oftentimes remote and dangerous places.
Even though no organized form of missionary work existed before the 17th century, saints and doctors of the church such as the two Gregories (of Nazianzus and of Nyssa), Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Leo, Augustine and Gregory the Great worked to foster piety and strengthen faith. Also working to that end were the wandering Celtic missionaries, Ss. Columbanus, Gall, Kilian and Fridolin in the 6th and 7th centuries.
The rise of the mendicant orders in the Middle Ages began a new era in the history of missionary endeavor, according to the website www.newadvent.org. The Dominicans and Franciscans were popular missionaries, preaching chiefly to the masses, the poor people, using simple, unadorned language.
In the early 17th century, missionary work became more structured with the foundation of the Congregation of Priests of the Mission by St. Vincent de Paul in France. Then, in 1732, St. Alphonsus founded Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer in Italy. The congregation spread rapidly throughout Europe, according to the website www.newadvent.org.
Soon after, the Jesuits joined the cause to bolster people’s faith with their missionary activity. They were extremely successful in their efforts. Organized missionary work spread throughout Europe.
According to the New Advent web site, in the U.S. there was no systematic popular missionary work until about 1860. The Lazarist Fathers arrived in 1816, the Redemptorists in 1832, and the Passionists in 1852.
Mission work has, during the last century, become an extremely influential element in the life of the Catholic Church in the U.S.
Today, PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) reaches out to non-Christians in 17 different countries. As an International Society of Apostolic Life, it is comprised of more than 400 priests and 25 brothers. Founded in Italy in 1850, the institute opened its North American Region Headquarters in Detroit, Mich. in 1947.
Father Ken Mazur, PIME Missionaries North American Regional Superior, said that the members are on a mission to spread and proclaim the Gospel to the people in places such as hospitals and schools. Among the countries where they serve are Brazil, Algeria, India and Thailand. They also reach out to Asia. “Asia is our largest area,” commented Father Mazur. “That’s where the most non-Christians are. We’re following Jesus’ call to make disciples of all people.”
Father John Hurley, OSFS, Mission Procurator of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, believes that mission work is important in today’s world. “It was Christ’s command that we go out and evangelize, to bring God’s message to the world,” he said.
Founded in 1876, the order is headquartered in Wilmington, Del. Its members number 300 priests and brothers, who serve at De Sales University in Allentown, Pa. and at a number of high schools throughout the nation. In addition, the Oblates pastor at a good number of parishes in North Carolina. They also serve at orphanages, schools and medical clinics in 17 countries, which include the Republic of South Africa, India, Haiti, Mexico and Brazil.
Mission work today has undergone profound change, a reflection of social justice issues. Missionary formation now focuses in part on dealing with urban problems such as lack of housing, broken families, street children and migration.
Pope Benedict XVI recently added a new agency, The Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, to focus on the task of re-evangelization among traditionally Christian populations. His rationale for the new agency is that the church’s missionary map today is not only geographical but also anthropological, made up of cultural and social categories of people who have largely drifted away from the Gospel.
The Glenmary Sisters, whose headquarters are in Owensboro, Ky., have missions in Kentucky, Georgia and Missouri. They are celebrating their 70th anniversary this year. The sisters have established missions in the impoverished and rural areas of the South and Appalachia where the Catholic population is usually less than two per cent.
Sister Darlene Presley, GMHS, formation director of the Glenmary Sisters, explained how the missionaries reach out to the poor. “We assess their needs,” she said, “and then we offer them what’s missing.” The sisters run several thrift stores stocked with food and clothing and also head a Hispanic outreach program.
Sister Darlene said that there is a desperate need for their mission work in the poverty-stricken areas. “So many people are crying out for help,” Sister Darlene said. “Sometimes they can’t see God when they are in these circumstances, but we can be that presence of Christ for them. We can let them know that God is there.”