By Sarah Mac Donald - 01 July, 2018
The Columbans have left “an amazing legacy” and have made “an amazing investment in people” - Dr Mary McAleese.
Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly of Cashel & Emly delivered an upbeat message to the Missionary Society of St Columban at a Mass celebrating the centenary of the Columbans’ Foundation, in which he told them, “the message is – it is not over.”
In his homily, Dr O’Reilly told scores of returned Columban missionary priests as well as Columban Sisters and lay missionaries that age didn’t matter, their task was to ask continually were they “proclaiming the merciful embrace of the Father”.
He said that on the centenary of their foundation, the Columbans gave “thanks for those who did go out [on mission] to let people know of [God’s] merciful embrace”.
On 29 June 1918, the Maynooth Mission to China, as the Missionary Society of St Columban was then known as, was formally established in Ireland by the Vatican.
The Columbans today have over 400 missionaries in 15 countries around the world, including China, Myanmar and Peru.
As a former congregational leader of the Society of African Missions, Archbishop O’Reilly continued, “We have many questions – how do we move forward? Because my institute and your institute – and we have the same identity as apostolic societies; we would always be searching as to how we are going to live the gospel into the future.”
He said the demographic reality was that Ireland would not be providing the same number of missionaries that it had in the last century.
“That is fine – that is the way the Spirit speaks to us.” What mattered now, he said, was how they worked and lived out that reality in the countries where they have been blessed with vocations.
Archbishop O’Reilly also paid tribute to the book. ‘A Mad Thing to Do’ by Fr Neil Collins, which was issued for the centenary and covers the history of the Missionary Society of St Columban from its foundation as the Maynooth Mission to China up to today.
“‘A Mad Thing to Do’ is a fantastic insight into a missionary institute’s journey up to this day; it is a huge tribute to those who have built and proclaimed the witness of the Word of God,” he said.
He recalled his friendship with Fr Dan Fitzgerald who died two years ago at 100 years of age and who had worked with Columban co-founder Bishop Edward Galvin in China.
“I have always appreciated that we came on the coat-tails of the people who had established the work and the ministry.”
He continued, “For all the ups and downs, the last century has been one of the most extraordinary journeys in church understanding of mission.” Dr O’Reilly added that the journey had been an extraordinary one.
In his address at the opening of the Mass, Fr Pat Raleigh, Regional Director of the Columbans in Ireland said it was “very fitting that our oldest member, Fr Paddy Hurley, who turned 94 two days ago, brought up the Foundation Decree establishing us as a Society.”
In an interview to mark the occasion, former president, Dr Mary McAleese told John Humphreys, Irish Times journalist and author of the book, ‘God’s Entrepreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Save the World’, that the Columbans had left “An amazing legacy” and had made “an amazing investment in people”.
In Dalgan Park, Co Meath, the former head of state said Irish missionaries “are teaching us the value of” migrants and refugees today, just as in the past Irish missionaries had done work with prisoners and “people nobody else wanted to go near”.
She paid tribute to Columban Fr Bobby Gilmore and his work with the Migrant Rights Centre in Dublin and with Irish emigrants in the UK.
Of the foundation of the Columbans 100 years ago and the Columbans’ early missionary endeavours in China, Dr McAleese said, “In those early days there was suffering and martyrdom” and many of the priests had suffered privations and torture.
There was also “a learning curve and mistakes were made along the way but what one can take from them was their generosity of spirit and courage in doing what they did – they could have stayed at home and had much less challenging lives,” she said.
The former head of state, who is a canon lawyer, also paid tribute to Irish missionaries’ and the Church’s role in healthcare, education and helping the poor across the world.
“No other religion in the world does the NGO work that the Catholic Church does. Think of 60 million children in 200,000 schools, the majority of those children are not Catholics and nobody is trying to proselytise them. That ideal of service to the poor is the great legacy of our missionaries,” she said.
Of Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, she revealed that the McAleese family did not feel wanted at it because her son is gay and has married his partner. “It could have been great” she said but the editing out of gay-friendly material from resource material for the World Meeting of Families had caused her to lose faith in the event.
However, she added, “one of the things I think is terrific about [Pope] Francis, and is really very encouraging, is the way in which he encourages debate. These are debates that we didn’t have under Benedict and we didn’t have them under John Paul but we have them now and the church has become very boisterous and rowdy and noisy and even belligerent at times under Francis.”
She also stressed that she was not opposed to infant baptism and had no objection to it. “I think it is a very beautiful thing. All my children and grandchildren have been infant baptised. But it is mandatory in our church. You must have them baptised as soon as possible after birth.”
Dr McAleese added that the church needs to get into a debate on this. Why? “Because on the day we are baptised, not only do we have that theological gift of the grace of Christ, we also become members of the Catholic Church and members have rights and many obligations.”
“Among those obligations is obedience to the magisterium. We have very limited rights to free speech. We don’t have complete right to dissent. Those rights are narrowed by essentially man-made laws and it is the man-made laws that worry me because these are imposed on children when they are two weeks or two months old and then when they get to seven or fourteen we say, you are bound by this. I think they are entitled to say who bound me? We treat them like people who have agreed openly and freely and voluntarily and personally to embrace the faith.”
Columban Regional Director, Fr Pat Raleigh thanked Dr McAleese for her appreciation of the work of Irish missionaries down through the years and he told her that her cousin Columban missionary, Fr John Joe McGreevy, had been “an esteemed member” of the Society.
Speaking after Dr McAleese’s address, Fr Raleigh admitted, “We are living in very changing times. We have experienced and continue to experience many changes in our understanding of mission. We have tried to adapt to the changing situations and the challenges each decade brings, of course always recognising the centrality of the person, message and mission of Jesus and his love and compassion for all, but central to who we are is the message and mission of Jesus.”
“Was it ‘A Mad Thing To Do’ to start the Society? Perhaps it was but history will show that God has been full of surprises. Over the past 100 years we have made some little difference and have made small inroads and footprints into people’s lives and for this we are very grateful.”
Today in Dalgan Park, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin will preside at a Mass for a special ‘Family and Mission’ day.
Explaining the reason for the celebration, Columban Fr Cyril Lovett said, “First of all, it is a celebration of our centenary – 100 years of mission involving thousands of Columban missionaries – women and men. We wanted to draw as many people as possible into our celebration but particularly we wanted to draw our friends who have been so faithful in their support. We would love to bring them all together for one mighty celebration of 100 years of mission because as far as we are concerned, without them there wouldn’t be a Columban mission.”