Into Africa: Am I Really a Missionary?

Fr Pat Neary, CSC the missionary

Almost nine months into his assignment as rector of our seminary in Kenya, Fr. Pat Neary, C.S.C., reflects quite insightfully for us in his blog this month on what it means to be a missionary today. It is well worth the read …

When I was a college seminarian at Notre Dame in the early1980s, I was in awe of the old-time missionaries who would spend a few months of home leave at Moreau Seminary. These men had spent decades in Bangladesh or East Africa among the poorest of the poor. Their lives were no longer in America. Though they didn’t talk much about their missionary endeavors, they radiated a certain humility, simplicity, and inner peace. I remember watching Fr. Dick Timm, a veteran Holy Cross missionary, relish a bowl of ice cream one day, a rare treat for him in Bangladesh. Just the way he ate it spoke volumes about the soul of the man.

Fr Joseph Lehane, CSC

There aren’t many like him left these days. The whole notion of a missionary has changed dramatically. In former times, the Holy Cross missionary went to bring the gospel to foreign lands and to save souls. They left the States on steamships and might not return for ten years at a stretch. They battled malaria, cholera, and typhoid, lived without electricity, and if they followed Notre Dame football, waited months for newspaper clippings from the sports pages to arrive.

There has always been a certain badge of honor that comes with being referred to as a ‘missionary.’ That is why I laughed the other day when a friend referred to me as a missionary in an e-mail. In the traditional sense, I wouldn’t qualify. In the minds of most people, to be a missionary in Africa means you are surrounded by nomadic peoples dressed in traditional garb in a rural setting of grass huts. I live in Nairobi, a city of people where Western style dress, coffee houses, high rises and shopping malls abound. People are always texting on their cell phones. People might be surprised to realize that presently 60% of Africans live in urban settings.

Am I really a missionary in Africa? I have a nice office with wireless internet. I have a car at my disposal. I can call my family on my cell phone for 4 cents a minute or for free on Skype. Not long ago, to make a phone call to the U.S. from East Africa required a physical appointment with an operator, who would tell your family when to expect your call. I can even watch ESPN or the History Channel if I so desire. To follow Notre Dame football is trickier, though I can usually find a game streaming live on the internet.

Fr Pat sharing the local cuisine

Probably the only thing I have in common with the old time missionaries when it comes to technology is my battery powered shortwave radio and the BBC. Not a morning begins without the news from the BBC. In fact, it’s my regular alarm clock. I probably deal with a few things that the first missionaries here did not: traffic jams, internet outages, or the washing machine occasionally breaking down.

What does it mean to be a missionary today? At its most basic, it still means what it has always meant: a radical willingness to go wherever you are needed, to do whatever is needed, for as long as it is needed. It still means a radical openness to foreign peoples, languages, and cultures. It still means a radical love of the poor, even if the poverty is no longer that of the village.

In what ways is modern missionary work different? First, the face of the missionary has changed. Now the face is more often brown and black and non-European. Just notice how many African priests staff parishes in the U.S. Holy Cross religious in Bangladesh and India are now going to other countries, like the Philippines, to begin new Holy Cross apostolates.

Fr David Burrell, CSC, on the left and Fr Pat Neary in the center

Missionary work today often means shorter deployments than in days of old. For example, I was asked to run our seminary in Nairobi for two years. Fr. Paul Kollman, a Holy Cross priest and classmate who is tenured at Notre Dame, has agreed to teach for one semester next year at Tangaza College in Nairobi, where our men study theology. Fr. Bob Dowd, the Director of the Ford Family Program at Notre Dame, teaches at Notre Dame but has development projects taking place in twelve villages in Uganda and in a Nairobi slum where we have a parish. Fr. David Burrell, a most distinguished Holy Cross scholar from Notre Dame, has taught at Uganda Martyrs University for the past four years, while continuing to travel the globe to further his scholarship.

Fr Leonard Olobo, CSC

Missionary work is also more cross-cultural and mutually enriching. It means that the flow of missionaries is no longer one-way, but back and forth. Fr. Leonard Olobo, a Holy Cross priest from Uganda, is the first non-American to run the Holy Cross Mission Center at Notre Dame. Two young East African Holy Cross religious have either begun or will begin higher studies at the University of Portland and at Notre Dame respectively this year. In a world that is increasingly divided by nationalism, we in Holy Cross are able to cross boundaries of every sort. I learn something every day from the young East Africans seated around the table with me and they surely learn something from me. We know intuitively that we are a family in Holy Cross.

While the missionary of old was a jack of all trades—plumber, electrician, mechanic, and doctor—the missionary of today is probably more of a specialist. While I could never wire a house, I can offer my experience of seminary formation and help train the person who will follow me here.

Fr Lehane doing auto repair

The ways of the modern missionary have surely changed. Still, the timeless mission of the Church, to bring the love of Christ to all peoples, has not changed. I will never lose my admiration for the great missionaries of Holy Cross. I suspect they would let me wear the label of ‘missionary’ while I labor here in Nairobi. They would probably smile at my occasional trip to the Art Café in Nairobi, to enjoy a cappuccino and tap away at my laptop, as I am doing right now.

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