27 November 2017
Sharing the joy of the Gospel in the Columban centenary year
Our report from the celebration of thanksgiving to open the Centenary Year of the Missionary Society of St Columban
The Columban Superior General, Fr Kevin O’Neill joined Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham and Fr Peter Hughes, head of the Columbans in Britain to celebrate the opening of the Columbans’ Centenary Year in Britain on Saturday. The Church of St Catherine of Siena, where the Columbans ministered for eight years, was packed on 25 November with Columban priests, sisters, lay missionaries and co-workers, alongside hundreds of partners and supporters.
A joyful Mass on the theme of "Sharing Gospel Joy" heard Fr Kevin, an Australian who is based in Hong Kong, say that “as Pope Francis says in his encyclical Laudato Si we seek to 'listen to and heed the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor'." Standing in front of an altar cloth comprised of 16 sections, prepared in the 16 countries were Columbans work, he prayed that, “people will continue to respond to the Holy Spirit’s invitation to join us on mission as Columban priests, lay missionaries, sisters, benefactors and volunteers”.
Archbishop Longley offered thanks for the Columban presence in Birmingham Diocese, where they have headquarters in Solihull. “We remember Fr Jm Fleming and Fr Ray Collier who were based here at St Catherines” he said, “and are grateful for the presence of all Columban priests and lay missionaries who have enriched the life of our diocese.” He mentioned projects with refugees and asylum seekers in the diocese which have had Columban Support, including St Chad’s Sanctuary, Restore and Fatima House.
Most Columbans sat among the people for the first part of the Mass as “a sign of the integration of all the people of God”. Around 30 priests moved to the altar for the consecration and these included Fr Tony Chantry, the director of Missio in England and Wales who commented afterwards that the Mass was an “inspiring tribute to the wonderful work of the Columbans and celebrating the wonderful diversity of the Christian faith”. He referred to bidding prayers said in languages the Columbans use on overseas mission. Fr Jim Fleming, who worked for two decades in Pakistan, said a bidding prayer in Urdu. Fr Kevin O’Neill said another in Chinese. Much of the liturgy planning music was organised by Columban lay missionaries from Chile – Mauricio Silva and Nathalie Marytsch – who have been based in Birmingham Archdiocese for 16 years.
The Offertory procession included a lantern, representing the Columban response to God’s invitation to bring God’s light into the word; a red plant representing Columban martyrs who were killed on mission; a green plant representing Columban Care of Creation; and a Lampedusa Cross, representing solidarity with refugees forced to flee their homelands.
Many religious orders and organisations were represented at the Mass, including Mill Hill Missionaries, Presentation Sisters, St Louis Sisters and Pax Christi. Lay people included John Blowick, a nephew of Columban co-founder Fr John Blowick, and the Tierney family, whose relative Columban Fr Cornelius Tierney died at the hands of communist bandits in China in 1931. He was one of 24 Columbans – one a Columban sister - who were killed on mission and are regarded as Columban martyrs. Their photos were displayed at St Catherine’s during the Mass, along with special Columban centenary banners highlighting Columban priorities such as Justice, Peace and Ecology and Inter-Religious Dialogue. A new booklet providing the history of Columban mission in Britain was handed out, along with a prayer card from the Columban Prayer Trust.
In his homily, Fr Kevin said: "We gather, united across the world, with all those engaged in Columban mission, with our benefactors and friends, with those among whom we live and those we serve. The Centenary Pilgrim Altar Cloth, made up of pieces that have come from each of the countries where Columban missionaries serve, holding the signatures of many who represent all those who are and have been a part of the unfolding story of Columban mission over the past 100 years, will be used in our celebration today. This special Cloth symbolises our communion as missionary disciples ‘sharing gospel joy’, which is the theme of our Centenary. It was fitting that the Cloth started its pilgrimage from Ireland, the birth place of the Society. From this church the Centenary Pilgrim Altar Cloth will take its journey to those countries where Columban missionaries serve the people of God."
He described the beginnings of the Columbans.
"Millions of Chinese to be won for Christ! That was the prize that enchanted a small group of Irish secular priests, who were the prime movers in initiating what was initially named The Maynooth Mission to China, and later became the Missionary Society of St Columban. It is fitting on this occasion to recall some of the story that lead to the founding of the Society."
Fr Kevin went on to detail how, in 1911, Canadian Fr John Fraser, who later founded a Canadian Missionary Society, the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society, gave a talk at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, about his life as a missionary in China. Fr John Blowick, was a student at the time, and was present at the talk. Three other students, who later also became Columbans, were also present.
Fr Edward Galvin, also a former student at Maynooth, who later became Bishop of the Hanyang Diocese in China, met the same Canadian missionary in New York, a year later, in 1912. At the time Fr Galvin was a young Irish priest on loan from his home diocese of Cork to the Diocese of Brooklyn. It was after this encounter that Galvin decided to go to China. Four years later, in 1916, desperate for help, and knowing that he had somehow to find a source of manpower and funds in Ireland to guarantee the future of the project in China, Galvin came back to Ireland. He was put in contact with Fr John Blowick and others, with the idea of setting up a Missionary Society for China. At that time Fr Blowick held the Junior Chair of Dogamatic Theology at Maynooth. Later that same year, on October 10th, 1916, the Bishops of Ireland gave approval for the new missionary endeavor giving permission to make a collection in the country and found a missionary college in Ireland.
"It is said that 'the bishops were rejoiced and thankful to God for this new and striking evidence of the continued life of the ancient Irish missionary spirit.' Shortly after the Irish Bishops’ approval, professors from Maynooth, together with priests and sisters from religious orders and almost every diocese in Ireland, helped in the nationwide appeals to raise funds for the new Society. On June 29th, 1918, two years after the Irish Bishops’ approval, the Maynooth Mission to China was formally erected by Thomas O’Dea, the Bishop of Galway. This is the Foundation Day of the Society and will be one of the key days of celebration during our Centenary."
Fr Kevin added: "Since that first invitation for the people of Ireland to participate in the new mission enterprise the Society has been forever grateful to the very generous spirit of our benefactors, both here in Britain and around the world, many of whom are subscribers to the Far East magazine, without whose prayers and financial assistance we would not be celebrating our Centenary. And since the first hearty welcome into the dioceses across Ireland the Society has been welcomed into numerous dioceses around the world as we helped to establish local churches, fostering in these churches an awareness of their missionary responsibility, principally in the areas of justice, peace, and care for Creation, while promoting dialogue between Christians and those of other religious traditions, and facilitating interchange between these churches, especially those from which we come and those to which we are sent. We believe the local people themselves have the responsibility for bringing the faith alive in their culture but missionaries have a role to play in setting up the conditions which make such inculturation possible."
In 1920 the first group of Columban missionaries went to China and within a couple of years Columbans came to Britain.
Fr Kevin said: "We give thanks to the many dioceses and parishes here in Britain who have welcomed Columban priests, lay missionaries and co-workers to serve the people of God and to promote Columban mission and the Far East magazine, which next January, will celebrate 100 years of continuous publication. We have been blessed to form partnerships with many groups here in Britain in our ministries of justice, peace and ecology, our ministry of interreligious dialogue among migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and our building of bridges of solidarity between the church in Britain and the church in China. We have also reached out to many around the world through the Prayer Trust providing prayer resources that uplift people through the power of prayer. We thank Archbishop Longley, Caritas Archdiocese of Birmingham, Father Hudson’s Care, and local parishes for the wonderful partnership in establishing Fatima House together. The project supports destitute female asylum seekers."
This ancient Irish missionary spirit, referred to by the Bishops of Ireland when they approved the setting up of the new Society, has its roots in the great missionary monks of Ireland one of whom was Saint Columban, who is the Patron Saint of the Missionary Society of St Columban, the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of St Columban and the Columban Lay Missionaries.
The Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of St Columban was established in 1924. The founders of the Congregation were Fr John Blowick and Lady Frances Moloney, who later became Mother Mary Patrick. Both the Society and the Congregation were founded for Mission in China. Since the 1950s the Society has been blessed to have diocesan priests work with us on mission. In response to the spirit of Vatican II, with its awakening to the church being missionary by its very nature and so all Christ
On going to China, Bishop Galvin said: "It was a mad thing to do." He also said: “We are not here to convert the Chinese but to do the will of God."
Fr Kevin said: "With God’s grace, and God’s gift of missionary imagination, all involved in Columban mission over the past 100 years have listened to the word of God, have discerned the ‘signs of the times’ through the movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and in the world, and responded courageously and creatively to do the will of God."
He explained that like all missionary disciples of Jesus, Columbans promote the message of Christ and not themselves, remembering the motto of St Columban: Christi simus non nostri, or "Let us live for Christ and not for ourselves."
"Like St Columban, we too are pilgrims for Christ. In our lives as missionaries we have learned the truth of St Columban’s words: ‘A life unlike your own can be your teacher’. The many people of different nationalities and cultures we have been blessed to serve and to live among have become our teachers."
He said: "We deliberately choose to locate ourselves among those most in need, the poor and abandoned of our world, and strive to live in solidarity with them through a companionship of empowerment. We encourage people, and walk with them on their faith journey, and in their struggle to change the unjust structures that keep them poor and on the margins of society as together we care for the Earth, our common home inspired by the words of St Columban in his First Sermon when he said: 'If you want to know the Creator you must first know his creation.' The source of our witness and actions is our faith in Jesus. We desire to mirror in our own lives the pattern of Jesus’ life, helping people of all faiths, or no faith, to gain their dignity as sons and daughters of God, loved by God. As Pope Francis says in his encyclical Laudato Si we seek to 'isten to and heed the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor'.
When St Columban stood against the powers that be, he spoke fearlessly, with great courage. He paid dearly for his stance. He had to endure the heartbreak of being expelled from his beloved companions and his earliest three monasteries in France. Columban missionaries, over the past 100 years have shared something of his experience. All of our members were expelled from China in 1952; all had to leave Burma in 1979; individuals were expelled from Fiji, from Chile, from the Philippines and from Taiwan down through the years. Many were interned during several wars and four survived years of solitary confinement in China. Others endured torture, being kidnapped and falsely imprisoned. Columbans went and stayed with the people in violent times of dictatorships, military regimes and terrorism. 23 priests and one Columban Sister suffered violent deaths in mission lands. They paid the ultimate price.
Fr Kevin said: "Many priests, sisters and lay missionaries left this world too soon. They were buried by the people who loved them and whose country was their home. We remember them as we do all the Columban missionaries who have gone before us. We thank God for their missionary witness and for their protection we experience in this earthly life from their place in eternal life. We pray that people will continue to respond to the Holy Spirit’s invitation to join us on mission as Columban priests, lay missionaries, sisters, benefactors and volunteers. We ask our Patron St Columban to pray for us in a special way during our Centenary Year. The missionary spirit of our Co-founders, Edward Galvin and John Blowick, and all Columban missionaries and benefactors who have gone to God, inspires us and fills us with hope as we continue to respond generously to God’s call as missionary disciples of Jesus, sharing gospel joy in our world today."
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