By Fr. Zach Rathke, C.S.C.
Before I entered the Congregation of Holy Cross, I spent a year as a lay missionary teaching in a high school in Nairobi, Kenya. I found great joy there even as I encountered the dire poverty of so many of my students, many of whom were refugees from Somalia. I experienced the deep joy of instilling values and imparting knowledge that would hopefully transform the lives of my students. The exchange was not one-sided, though. I am forever changed by my students, who taught me through their seemingly unshakeable faith, love, and joy, even in the worst of circumstances.
Yet, by the end of the year, I felt that I lacked what is often called the “missionary charism.” I met countless missionaries from around the world who served in Kenya, and I noticed how so many of them seemed totally at home in a culture far different from their childhood. They also seemed to have a gift for quickly forming deep connections with the people. For me, I never really felt at home, and I sensed a distance between myself and the people around me. I could never seem to bridge the gap. On my flight home, I thanked God for my moving experiences in Africa, but at the same time I felt a sense of relief, as if I was closing the door for good on foreign missionary activities.
Only two years later, I was settling into life at Moreau Seminary as a postulant for the Congregation of Holy Cross. Since the Catholic Church in the United States has increasingly become more Hispanic, I thought it would be essential to learn Spanish, so I began with the beginner’s course in my first semester. My intention, of course, was not to become a missionary again. However, my formators thought otherwise! I was only two or three months into life in Holy Cross, and one of my superiors asked me to go to La Luz Parish in Monterrey, Mexico, in the upcoming summer. Secretly, my heart dropped. Yet, I wanted to be an obedient religious, so I said that “it would be just fine.”
As I expected, my experience in Mexico was not easy. I had just finished the second semester of basic Spanish as I arrived to La Luz Parish, and I could barely introduce myself and speak about my hobbies and favorite foods. I felt like a beginning swimmer tossed into the depths of the ocean. I found it even harder to build connections with people in Mexico than I did in Africa. Not only that, my conversations would break down so quickly that my grasp of Spanish did not seem to progress. On my flight back to the United States, I thought my experience was proof enough to close the door for good on foreign missions and also to learning Spanish.
I was wrong about that! During the rest of my formation, I was called to go twice for extended periods to our parish in Lima, Peru, and once more to Mexico. After a total of ten months in Latin America, I began to catch myself thinking in Spanish and communicating complex ideas. I even felt like I was beginning to build some meaningful connections with people. It was nothing short of a miracle! Yet, I was still convinced that I lacked the charism for foreign missions and languages.
My first two assignments after final vows were in the United States. I spent a year as a deacon at St. Ignatius Martyr Parish in Austin, Texas, and then the next three years at St. Adalbert Parish in South Bend, Indiana. One night in October of 2022, I was in my office finishing some work. Then, my pastor walked in and sat down. This didn’t seem to be a quick, shoot-the-breeze kind of conversation! He told me that he had just received a call from the provincial, who said that I was on the short list to be sent to Santiago, Chile, as an assistant in our house of formation.
After all that I have said, you would think that I would be disappointed, anxious, or even angry. Instead, I felt a sudden peace come upon. It was a kind of spiritual stillness that I have felt only twice in my life: that night and years before when I finally sensed God calling me to religious priesthood. The supernatural peace in the midst of a turbulent moment in life can only be the work of the Holy Spirit. After the conversation with my pastor, I went immediately to our chapel and told the Lord that I would put no obstacles in his way if it were his will that I go to Chile, trusting that the Holy Spirit was with me and would move everything according to the designs of Divine Providence.
Well, it was meant to be! St. Paul, who was a missionary who traveled widely through the Roman Empire, said, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Through my missionary experiences throughout my life and especially now, I have learned that God often works through what we perceive as our greatest weaknesses. It reveals that he is the one working, for only he can transform our weaknesses into supernatural strengths.
I work in the formation house here with Holy Cross religious from Mexico, Peru, Haiti, and the United States — seemingly everywhere but Chile! All of us are foreigners and only a few of us are native Spanish speakers. They, too, face the challenge of adapting to a radically new culture and a new language. It is difficult for anyone to begin such a transition, even if you have the charism for it! My apparent weaknesses in my previous years in Africa and Latin America have prepared me to walk with our religious in formation with understanding, humility, and an open heart as they grow into missionary life. Knowing deep within me that God has called me here, I look forward with anticipation to what He will do during my time in Chile. Luckily, God can open doors that we thought we had already closed!