Missionary Insights and Practices for the Irish Context


Address by Kathleen McGarvey OLA at the

Mission Symposium, Crossing the Other: The Changing Face of World Mission in Thurles 




It is claimed that “the Irish Missionary Movement is arguably the most significant contribution that Ireland made to the world during its first 50 years of independence. Over five decades, between 1920 and 1970, more than 30,000 men and women joined missionary orders, both Irish and continental, and travelled deep into the developing world bringing their faith, charity and skills to the poorest of the world.”[1] Still today there are about 1,500 Irish missionaries working throughout the world, including priests, religious and lay people. For a small country we have certainly made our mark and as Mary McAleese once said, Ireland was privileged to have in its Irish missionaries the ‘best unpaid ambassadors’. Hence, it is only right that we should reflect on that legacy, which of course continues today although in greatly reduced numbers, to see what we might learn from it for our Irish context as Church and society today.

Despite declining numbers and a rising age profile, it is important to acknowledge that we as religious and lay missionaries are still doing so much to proclaim the Good News both in this country and from this country through our prayer, witness, and diverse activities, through both our personnel and our resources. Our communities are places of prayer and hospitality, especially to migrants from countries where we once worked. We are engaged in various and diverse ministries, with particular emphasis on ministry to migrants and refugees. Housing projects, teaching English to refugees and migrants and helping them in other very meaningful ways to integrate into Irish society, accompanying families in the Direct Provision Centres and challenging this inhuman living condition, advocacy and work for justice including climate justice, work in the area of trafficking, service to the hungry and the disadvantaged… These and other ministries are done today by committed religious and lay persons, including returned missionaries, and where possible we continue to be engaged in pastoral care in parishes as well as in fields of health care and education. During the recent AMRI Autumn Conference held in Emmaus, we heard living testimonies of some of these engagements. There are also some active returned missionary lay groups in a number of dioceses throughout the country supporting each other and with meaningful engagements in their communities. Hence, to ask missionaries to do more than we are already doing is not the aim of my presentation, but I would encourage us to continue.

Rather, in this paper I will share some thoughts on wisdom, or preferably insights, the missionary experience can bring to Ireland today. Firstly, I will speak a little of the changes in the understanding and practice of mission over the years; then I’ll have a brief look at our New Ireland and some ‘signs of the times’; and thirdly I will mention some experiences had by missionaries that we might learn from for our Irish context. What I share are observations and opinions and therefore are not conclusive, but I hope only to stimulate our thoughts and conversations as together we seek to live our common call as a community of missionary disciples here in Ireland and in our common home today.

Missiology changes


Vatican II affirmed, and Pope Francis always reminds us, that the Church is missionary by nature and all the baptised are called to live as missionaries. However, in Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II affirmed the continuing relevance of a ‘special vocation’ in the service of mission ad gentes (cf. RM 65), that vocation to go ad extra, to witness to the universality of the Gospel and of the family of God. This special vocation is based on the conviction that the Gospel of Christ is relevant for all peoples and is manifested in a constant outreach to others, to help the Church to become something it is not yet, to be outward looking and outward moving, going beyond existing boundaries, reaching out to others, exploring and discovering what the Church is called to become: not an Institution but a Communion of all peoples and all creation.

Today, no less than in the past, there is need for missionaries and missionary groups who have that ‘special vocation’ -  they provide the Church with a clear model of missionary commitment (cf. RM 66) and of course, going ad extra is a broadening experience demanding a greater openness, being found in a situation of unknowing - of having to learn, to not judge, to accept difference. The Church needs contemplatives and it also needs missionaries ad gentes to witness in a radical way to these dimensions of all Christian discipleship. Let us not tire of finding ways to promote this vocation.

Members of missionary congregations/institutes are asked today to ‘renew the grace of their specific charism’ (RM 66): it is not enough for today’s missionaries to stick to doing ‘the same old thing in the same old way’.

The aim of mission is not the growth of the institutional church or the safeguarding of its interests. Mission is no longer, and of course should never have been, a one-way traffic.  Mission is as much about receiving as about giving, knowing that people of all religions and cultures have something to give and to receive. Today, missionaries, and indeed the whole Church is challenged to read the signs of the times and to plough new furrows.

Irish Context –Signs of the times


In the past thirty years, when I first entered religious life, Ireland has changed quite dramatically. Today’s Ireland, which is now multi-cultural, is in many ways a great country, and some aspects of Irish society can never change; we love living life to the full, we love sport, we love being together, we love the craic! The people are friendly, the countryside is beautiful, community support and spirit are most often alive and strong. It is a country today where the standard of living is high, although as we know there is an increasing gap here between the rich and the poor. It is also a country today where most people under fifty have, by and large, abandoned the institutional Church, and Catholic religious convictions, or indeed any religious convictions, no longer constitute the core of our cultural identity. Of course, there is an almost complete collapse of vocations to priesthood, religious life and the missionary institutes; for example, since I entered my own congregation in 1989, only one other has entered.

The mass media today seems to have taken over from the Church as the shaper of Irish culture, the new voice of moral authority in society.  Many perceive our New Ireland to be “Less stuffy and more tolerant, vibrant and outward looking, willing to absorb many influences and listen to many voices.” However, instead of being inclusive, the tendency today is to exclude faith communities from public discourse, portray anything that refers to faith, especially Christian faith, as unjust, prejudiced and as a threat to individual freedom and autonomy, and even try to remove religious and cultural symbols from public spaces. Sorry realities of church personnel and practices in the past dominate any reference to Catholicism.

The drugs industry is huge,there is an alarming level of crime and of violence, and a dramatic rise in the suicide rate especially of young men who seem to have everything to live for. In many ways we are still a country of the Cead Mile Failte, but we have an increasing number of homeless people, a great lack of social housing, we are slow to welcome immigrants, and we have many begging on our streets.

Pope Francis calls on the whole Church today to make a missionary option which is “capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (Evangelii Gaudium 27). Therefore, we as religious missionary institutes as well as the Irish Church are called to move beyond a desire to preserve our past structures and fields of influence, many of which have just about crumbled anyway, to reach out to the many who have been disillusioned and have lost a sense of God in their lives, to help transform our society so that it truly is inclusive of all people and all life.

Experience had by missionaries and how applied/helpful here

Courage in an unknown territory


Undoubtedly Irish missionaries were inspired by a great sense of generosity and compassion, they made great self-sacrifice and were supported by their families and communities at home. In fact, in the early days, many missionaries knew they might never come home, and a great many died abroad at a very young age. Much good was done and many people’s lives were improved. They showed great courage, going out into the unknown, to an entirely foreign cultural context, where they were a small minority for many reasons but of course primarily due to the colour of their skin and the religion they professed. But they went, rooted in their faith and knowing God was with them. In these missionaries, there was something of a mixture of a spirituality of adventurer and martyr.

They lived in what we could call a pluralist situation with people of different tribes and religions, and they had to learn not to be judgemental, they had to be open to learn from all people and recognise that the people, who were so different from themselves in their worldview, had so much to offer.  Of course, they experienced rejection as well as welcome. They as Church were not the ‘norm’ and were in many respects ‘counter-cultural’. They had to find an opening to make their own presence felt and make a positive contribution and so they had to see where people’s real needs were and what they as missionaries could offer in response.

Maybe setting up base in the bigger towns, they gradually got to know the people, went out to the villages, set up small outstations, taking all kinds of risks to travel, opened small primary health clinics, small village schools, small village empowerment programmes for women, took in and cared for some orphans... responded to the needs, many were drawn to them and gradually developed small but committed Catholic communities.

With the increasing secularism in Ireland today, and the fact that so many have abandoned the Church as a community and a moral authority, the Church will become here, is already fast becoming, a counter-cultural community; in other words, a community that is ‘other’ to what is perceived to be the norm. It is likely to even find itself, if it doesn’t already, in the position of minority, even though a majority here still claim to be Catholic. Being peripheral in this manner is not a very comfortable place to be for the Church in Ireland which for so long has defined the norm, but it is the place where missionaries usually were and often still are.

Like the missionary who goes to a foreign land, and didn’t know the language or the culture, and had to listen and learn, the Church in Ireland today must admit it doesn’t know, it has to listen and learn, in dialogue together with the people, not only with the ‘faithful’ but to all others as they speak out whether against the Church or on other social issues, and whether with words or with actions.

Power - Humility


There was a certain illusion of power in the missionary era of the past, the illusion of rescuing the many needy, marginalised, sometimes desperate people in other parts of the world. The missionary was sent, always from the West, to ‘save’ whether through baptism into the One Holy Catholic Church, or through development endeavours such as health care, education and other very good and undoubtedly necessary efforts. We certainly believed the West was Best for all the Rest. As we know, many lessons are to be learned from this and today many of the ‘Rest’ challenge western domination and imposition of its ways and values.  Thankfully today we also respect that it is God, not religion that saves, and we encourage respectful interfaith and intercultural dialogue in any missionary engagement. On this aspect I just raise two points.

Firstly, I believe this association of the missionary endeavour with power speaks to us about the need for humility. It is humbling to admit that the colonial incursion into Africa, the consequences of which Africa continues to suffer, carried the banners of missionary Christianity and the historical connection is now known by the three c’s: Colonialism, Christianity and Commerce. Christianity facilitated the transformation of the continent’s cultural and religious worldview, and this was not always a good thing. This need for humility is also demanded of us as Church in Ireland today: to humbly re-examine our motives, as well as our structures and our practice. We are encouraged not to lose faith or hope or love, but in humility and faith to be purified, renewed and re-rooted in the Lord who still calls us and sends us, in a spirit of togetherness and dialogue with others to ‘proclaim’ the Good News in a relevant life-giving way in today’s context. We often hear reference today to the need for the Church to move from a Maintenance to a Missionary Mentality and this of course requires humility and a letting go.

Secondly, reflection on the illusion of power which was part of the missionary endeavour is necessary as indeed the West continues to dominate the rest of the world. Racism is still strong, based on people’s religion and their skin colour, and there is still a tendency to view our brothers and sisters from the south as our poorer neighbours, in every respect. This can even be the case within our international institutes where we might see our non-European members as our younger ones, somehow less able than ourselves, and also continue to see Africa and other lands as our poor neighbours, needing to receive from us but having nothing of importance to give us. I found it very interesting at the Mission Today and Tomorrow Conference organised by Misean Cara in Dublin in 2012, when Nigerian Jesuit, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, was asked to give a paper on ‘Towards Building New Partnerships between Europe and Africa’. He said this title was making assumptions since “partnerships: frankly speaking this is a designation that hardly applies to the relationship that has existed or exists between Africa and Europe and the rest of the West.”

I believe missionary institutes have a large role to play in helping to challenge racism. Not only to speak out against it but also to portray a positive image of the countries and their peoples in which we have worked. It is so often said that the West needs to see Africa in a new light. Yes, there is poverty and conflict and war, sickness and famine, and it is very often these situations that missionaries seek to address. But there is also the cultural wealth, the goodness of the people, their joy, their community spirit and so much else to tell about our experiences and the cultures and religions we lived among. I believe we have a great contribution to make in helping to counteract the scourge of racism experienced by so many immigrants in our country today.

Collaboration with the laity


As we missionaries know, in many of the countries where we worked, the Church is highly reliant on the work of the laity, with each parish having many Outstations and all relying on laity as Catechists or leaders and active members of women’s, men’s, youth, and other groups. Many parishes don’t see a priest or Religious for weeks and maybe even months, especially rural areas during rainy season, but the Church continues to be vibrant – due to its committed laity. The Church is much more than simply a place of liturgy and sacraments, or even of doctrine and moral codes, while it is of course these also. It is a living community, rotating around the work and other commitments of the people, where each one is concerned for the other, each one contributes no matter how economically poor they might be, and each one is fully involved. Being countries with younger populations for the most part, young people tend to be very much involved.

In Ireland we have a Church built around a system of small parishes which exist like enclosures – a priest and people in a particular area forming a parish community. Today we see this is about to change – due to a shortage of clergy. Whatever new structures our parishes take to ensure the accompaniment of the faithful and reach out to the wider society, there is certainly need for all parishes, and this means all the baptised, to become more ‘missionary’ and be more actively engaged in the Church including in terms of leading liturgies and taking decisions about the Church.

This change to lay leadership won’t be easy here: already we have had some changes making headlines. We saw the reaction in the parish of Kilcummin in the diocese of Kerry this Summer of 2019, as it lost its parish priest and no replacement was sent there; parishioners protested loudly to the Bishop and threatened to write to the Pope unless he provided a priest for the parish. Or in 2018 when there was no priest to celebrate mass in a parish in Dublin, a laywoman, who happens to be a politician, led the Sunday liturgy to which the Archbishop announced that he was not impressed, suggesting that the Minister’s actions and subsequent comments had caused parishioners “considerable distress.”[2]

I have heard it said that in Ireland lay people have been baptised but haven’t been evangelized and I believe there is a lot of truth in that. Our Church here must give way to becoming a lay-driven one. This will require properly trained lay leaders/ministers and catechists play critical roles. This will surely be life-giving and is very much in line with the theme of this missionary month where we are reminded that all the Baptised are Sent and are on a Mission to the World. In fact, we might indeed see the challenges to our Church here as a Pentecost moment, calling for this change! Missionaries have a wealth of experience of programmes for evangelization and training of lay leadership, including the youth, and could certainly share this to help to empower the lay Church in Ireland to take responsibility for the living out of their baptismal calling.

On another note, but on this same topic, I was very surprised when I came back to Ireland and discovered what news it made that the diocese of Limerick was holding a synod – that was when I realised that this is something quite unique in today’s Irish Church! From my own experience in Nigeria, parish councils were the norm and diocesan assemblies and synods were regular, with the full participation of priests, religious and laity. Undoubtedly, we need to find ways to be a synodal dialogical church, where we gather as baptised, no matter our status in the Church, and listen to each other as we share our experiences and decide a way forward.

I think good to add here also that Ireland has traditionally, and still is, very supportive of missionaries who work abroad. We have good structures to enable priests and religious, members of our institutes, give their lives on mission abroad and then return to Ireland when health or other circumstances dictate, knowing they will be welcomed and cared for. However, support of lay missionaries is something that still requires effort and much dialogue is needed to see how we can better promote and support lay people who feel called to that ‘special vocation’ ad gentes. On this I have no easy answers but undoubtedly it is an area that deserves to be looked at much more seriously.

Learning what people want


In a very good publication by Gerry Guerin Media in 2013, The Missions Handbook, stories and testimonies of Irish Missionaries are given. Here, K Mooney wrote: “Their ability to integrate, educate and challenge their new community is necessary to achieve any success in their position and has less to do with the organised religion we experience in Ireland. A missionary must learn to live within the community and listen to their needs and wants. A missionary cannot impose their own ideals on a community but rather teach through integration.”[3] Here in Ireland today, we can certainly learn from this and are again reminded of Pope Francis’s words asking us to reach out in new ways, beyond our traditional organised Church structures, listen to the needs and wants of people in Ireland today, and be “suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation”

In a spirit of trying to listen to what people want and search for in Ireland today, and read the signs of the times, I believe we must ask what the lower church attendance, the great lack of vocations, and all the other challenges in Ireland today are Symptoms of?

While the lack of faith and a faith community is not the only reason for the dark side of our country today, it certainly has something to do with it. Possibly people, especially our young people, are ‘searching for meaning’ and Redemptoris Missio refers to this as a world of mission ad gentes. Maybe another word for this is ‘searching for an experience of God’, of the transcendent, of a Power much greater than the material who gives meaning and purpose and strength to our lives.

A sign of our times in Ireland is an increasing ‘commodification’ of the faith, seen in the way Baptism and First Holy Communion and even Marriage and funerals are primarily social occasions. People seem to want the Church for these moments in life, but not for any explicit reason of faith. Yet, the fact that they are important, points to a hunger for something and maybe it is not always just social. The importance of funerals when people are faced with pain and parting and mortality, points to this desire for something deeper, a sense of a power greater than ourselves, a sense of meaning to life and death, a sense of communion with those gone before us, in other words, a religious experience of some depth. It may well be that people don’t want Church in the traditional sense of going to mass or celebrating other sacraments, but they do want something – they do seek God. People, including young people, are also drawn today to other ‘spiritual’ moments, such as pilgrimages to ancient shrines, or outdoor retreats, or other moments of sharing and reflection on the Mystery of Creation, and again these may be the form of Church we must seek to develop instead of the traditional institutional sacramentalised over-clericalized model we have been used to in Ireland for the last three hundred years.

Missionaries are called to be ‘contemplatives in action’, and that refers to our contemplating God in our context wherever we are, as we seek to be instruments of God’s Kingdom to the people to whom we have been sent. Hence, I imagine an area in which we are called to be missionary here today is to find ways to help people contemplate, experience the transcendent, the spiritual, the mystery in life. Maybe it is not so important that they name it, but we can at least help them sense it. As St Francis said, ‘preach the Gospel and if necessary, use words.’ Our mission as OLAs is, in the words of our founder, ‘to know and love God and make God known and loved’. We don’t know God, but our lives are a journey to grow in that knowledge which is beyond all knowledge. We can find ways to invite people into this journey of entering into the mystery of God which is within us and around us,  experience the transcendent in their lives, the experience of communion with self, others, and with all of creation and through that to experience God who is Love and is within all. And as for missionaries always, the commitment to loving God, brings with it the commitment to working for justice, peace and care of all creation.

Integration of faith with development


In The Missions Handbook, which I have already cited above, K Mooney wrote: “Many of the people I have met on the journey to develop this publication have devoted their lives to God but admit that religion plays only a part in what they do.”[4] Since 1891 the Church has issued encyclicals on social issues giving guidelines based on the gospel teachings on how Christians should respond to poverty, oppression, and injustice. This was the foundation of what we now call development. Mission obliges us to be concerned with the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of all people, especially the poor and marginalised. Catholic Social Doctrine has inspired Irish missionaries to go out, be actively involved in people’s lives, helping to change their situation, empowering people to have a voice, helping to bring about peace where there is conflict and reconciliation where there is division.

It is good to remember that the years when Ireland sent most missionaries were years of great suffering and poverty here in Ireland – and it is said that the Irish missionaries closely linked development with mission because of the hardships experienced in Ireland. As Mary McAleese once remarked on a visit to Kenya: “Anyone who thought the missionaries came simply to preach got it very wrong indeed. These men and women were doers – accomplished doers for whom no task was too small, no job beneath their dignity, no problem without a solution.”[5]

Primary among the values that motivate missionaries are faith, hope and love and the desire to share these with all people, especially those who seemed to be the most abandoned in far off regions of the world. The values of justice, respect, compassion, commitment, and integrity are enshrined in the missionary movement and of course these are basic gospel values that all Christians are called to cherish and live. Today the many and various ministries religious and returned missionaries are engaged in here in Ireland with refugees, the marginalised, for climate justice and so many other areas, witness to this same spirit.

What I think is very challenging is that when Irish people think of the Church, this engagement of so many religious and missionaries is not what immediately comes to their mind: instead they see Church as being represented by the Bishops and the priests, the practice of Mass and sacraments. This unfortunately is the ‘Church’ that is most often portrayed by the media, except of course to speak of our social engagement in the past which sadly is mostly remembered for its negative aspects.

There are today in Ireland many secular groups working for global justice, peace and the care of the earth. These are not inspired by their faith or the Gospel, at least not explicitly.  With them we are called to collaborate since we are, at least on a surface level, working towards the same goals. However, I believe the reasons for our own commitment and that which motivates us to reach out to help, must always be clear, being basically that our faith inspires us to see all people as our brothers and sisters, all children of the one God. Through our commitment and witness, we proclaim our faith, again not necessarily using words.

Church in pluri-religious and pluri-cultural contexts


Typical of the missionary experience is living and working among and with people of different cultures and religions, whether in Muslim majority countries or in other situations where Christianity was a minority. My own experience was of working in interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding in Northern Nigeria, trying to build trust and positive relations between Muslims and Christians. Here I was certainly challenged to help overcome the prejudices people had towards one another, mostly due to hurts experienced in violent conflicts and a sense of being persecuted by the dominant group. I worked in dialogue at many levels, in the Church, with Government bodies, with NGOs, with youth, but I worked especially with women.

It was of course very challenging to be involved in dialogue when few people believe in it.  Most of the Christians even in my own religious community and in my parish simply could not bring themselves to trust Muslims or to believe dialogue was possible or fruitful. However, my belief is that if we can’t live together on earth we will certainly not live together in heaven; the only way to a better tomorrow is to learn to understand one another and join hands to build together a better world.

I learnt a lot from that experience, from women and men of both faiths. Their willingness to forgive, their courage to speak out even when they knew their own communities would not agree with them, their resilience. It was their faith and their desire for peace that helped them to remain committed. Despite the recurrence of violence and even though many of them lost their loved ones and their homes, they continued to be committed to working together for peace and positive relations. These people inspired me.

Unfortunately, today, questions on the relationship of Islam and Muslims to and in Europe, including in Ireland, tend to focus on mutual fears rather than on benefits that both parties can derive from this situation.[6]  Islamophobia is strong and with it radical Islam grows. For missionary congregations, founded many years ago in Europe to proclaim the Good News of God’s Reign of Peace and Communion to non-Christian peoples and nations, to go with audacity and faith beyond those frontiers which others do not want to cross, this situation in Europe presents a great challenge today.  It speaks loudly of the need for dialogue, especially interfaith dialogue, so that we can all grow in mutual knowledge and understanding and can learn to coexist as people of different faiths. To do something constructive about this, to find ways to promote and be engaged in interfaith dialogue truly is, I believe, a missionary imperative.

Challenges to the Prophetic voice of Church: Women


Following on the field of interfaith dialogue, I would like to bring in here the question of Women. Many condemn Islam because of its perceived oppression of women. Certainly, there is some justification for this view, at least in many cultural contexts, but at the same time I think it is hypocritical of us to condemn Islam or any other religion or culture on this ground without looking to our own house first. As I said at the AMRI Conference last week, an issue that greatly undermines the ability of the Church today to be ‘prophetic’ and to be taken seriously in the pubic square here in Ireland is the exclusion of women from leadership and decision making.

Maximum Illud, the pastoral letter on mission which was published 100 years ago, and we are celebrating this year, spoke mainly of priests and bishops – they were the missionaries and mission was primarily about establishing a local institutional church with its own hierarchy. As we know, then as now, women missionaries were numerous, possibly more numerous than men. However, only one short paragraph, number 30, is dedicated to women, mentioning especially women religious, and acknowledges their important contribution in mission, through health care and education, especially to women and children. Over the years, mission in terms of promoting God’s Kingdom through integral human development, justice, peace, reconciliation, interfaith dialogue, care of the earth, care and inclusion of the most marginalised, has been more and more recognised and emphasised. Women, even more than men, have been and are to the forefront in terms of practical engagement in all these areas with local communities on the ground. However, in Church documents, and even here in Ireland when our bishops speak, the ‘important role’ of women is still spoken of in short paragraphs – on the margins! Even now at the Synod being held in Rome, women, although they are the ones most involved in the Church in the Amazon and have been involved in organising this Synod, cannot vote because they are women, that is not clerics! 

I think, if we are to be sincere in our acknowledgement of the mission of the church as a prophet, and if we are to expect to have credibility as Church with a voice that deserves to be listened to (and not only benefit from our charitable works), the full inclusion of women, religious and lay, not only through their works but also their voice, in leadership and decision making, must be given more consideration. It can no longer be one short paragraph of recognition and praise! As we know, some Canons in the church still limit those offices of leadership and decision making to clerics so it might indeed be time for the hierarchy of the Church to have the courage to look at these and revise them. However, I believe that all of us as missionaries need to add our voice to this conversation so that the Church can truly have a credible Prophetic voice.

Missionaries from abroad coming here


As we know, Ireland has traditionally been a missionary church; but it must also be said that we have been so primarily in a one-directional sense: that of sending missionaries abroad; we have not been used to receiving. We can claim to have been pioneers of the Church in so many different parts of the world. Today the Church in these countries is dynamic. These vibrant Churches are very much aware of their missionary call and are aware that they too are sent to be missionary to the ends of the earth.

Our own country today is in need of missionaries, is in need of mission ad gentes. This demands not only that we who call ourselves Catholic become more aware of our responsibility to share the faith with those around us but also that we open our doors to receiving more missionaries from abroad.

Orobator, who I have already cited, greatly challenged us, and I quote him directly:

“In envisaging new partnerships between Africa and Europe, we should allow for the possibility of a re-evangelization of Europe as part of missionary enterprise spearheaded by the religious institutions and organizations in Africa…In this domain, my advice to European religious institutions and development agencies is to focus on cultivating mutuality in mission… At the African Synod in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI described Africa as ‘an enormous spiritual lung for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope’. It used to be the case that missionaries from many countries of Europe came to convert and civilize the dark and savage African continent. Today, the faith is growing in Africa; in the midst of formidable challenges, Africans have found a way to make their faith count for something – joy in the midst of suffering, hope in the midst of misery; resilience in the midst of crushing poverty. I have travelled across Europe and I have witnessed firsthand the cloud of disaffection, disillusion and resentment hanging over this once-Christian continent. Some perceive it as secularization, relativism and atheism. My perception is that for all the talk of a loss of faith, people in Europe have not stopped seeking deeper meaning in life, reaching out in solidarity or practicing compassion and charity. The message of the Gospel that Europe brought to Africa and lost is still vibrant on the African continent – you need that faith, and we’ve got it! I say, let’s talk… as equal partners.”[7]

He also asked, “Is Ireland ready to harvest the fruits of its missionary labours on its own soil or will the Church simply opt to bear the burden of diminishment with resentment and nostalgia?”

I believe that it is difficult for us in Ireland, including even in our missionary institutes among our members, since we have been used to sending and giving, to accept and admit that we need to receive.  Africa and Asia, for example, do not only need to receive from us but have something to give us; are we humble enough to admit that and receive it? We have been trained in the practice of the West to the Rest. Can we accept that the Rest has something very worthwhile to share with the West?

I believe that if priests, religious and lay people come to Ireland on mission, they should come as missionaries, they should not be filling slots which were once filled by Irish priests or religious. Instead with them we must find new ways of being Church, reaching out to people, especially our youth, finding new openings, what people respond to. Finding new ways of reaching out to people and finding what people respond to is what missionaries have done throughout the ages and it is what missionaries are called to do in Ireland today.

Many of our missionary institutes are today international, and thus our members from other countries are already familiar with a lot of what is Irish. Many of us when we went on mission were thrown in at the deep end; we were not given mush orientation and had to find our feet. However, many of us went to places where already Irish missionaries were there to meet us and show us the ropes or had already laid down many practices, even in terms of cooking, that made our insertion in this unknown land somewhat easier. Since missionaries coming to Ireland will be something new, we must of course ensure a good orientation for missionaries to our Irish reality today. Kimmage has made some inroads in this regard and we hope that can continue and develop. Together with missionaries from abroad, from the young dynamic churches of which we were pioneers, we could form here in Ireland international and intercultural communities, strengthening our present ministries and with and through them, in a discernment together of the signs and needs of the times, finding new ways of being engaged.

Of course, already we have some few ‘foreign missionaries’ working with us in Ireland and we greatly appreciate their giftedness, creativity, joyful living, newness of approach and the spirit working in them. Irish people might complain that they don’t understand their accent, or they have different worldviews, and so on, but I believe receiving such criticisms is part of the reality of being a missionary and hopefully we can all listen, learn and grow. We, whether as religious communities or as Irish Church and society, are called to build a new ‘home’, to value difference, be more inclusive and recognize the witness value of intercultural living.



The hallmark of Ignatian spirituality is gratitude: ‘give thanks to the Lord our God for the favours received’. Gratitude to God for all things. Gratitude to God for the great things God has done through Irish missionaries the world over throughout the centuries. Gratitude to God for all the riches missionaries have received during their years abroad among people of other cultures and religions. Gratitude to God for the spirituality which moved them and inspired them, gratitude for the welcome they were given, gratitude for the things they have learnt, and gratitude that God is still with them and working through them, abroad and in today’s Ireland. Gratitude also for the new face of the Church today, the new face of our world, and the new understanding of mission which we now know cannot be in one direction (from the West to the Rest) but requires respect, mutuality and dialogue. As Shakespeare say in the Twelfth Night, “I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks and ever thanks”. And basic to that sense of gratitude is humility: if missionaries have ever done any good, it is not thanks to themselves but thanks to God who has done it through them and through the people they lived and worked among – and God is still in control. God asks only that we share the love of God, the joy of our faith, with others in whatever way we can – whether on the missions abroad or here in Ireland.

To conclude I quote John Henry Newman, who, like our missionaries of old, despite the hardships and challenges he faced, never lost his faith or hope. May he inspire us as we live our mission in and from Ireland today:

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead thou me on;

The night is dark, and I am far from home;

Lead thou me on;

Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene: one step enough for me.

Kathleen McGarvey, OLA

[1] Ruan Magan, in Matt Moran, The Legacy of Irish Missionaries lives on, 2016, p. 5

[3] The Missions Handbook, 2013, p.5 (available online at https://guerinmedia.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/the-missions-a4-final-epub.pdf)

[4] The Missions Handbook, 2013, p.5 (available online at https://guerinmedia.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/the-missions-a4-final-epub.pdf)

[5] https://president.ie/en/media-library/speeches/remarks-by-the-president-of-ireland-mary-mcaleese-at-the-honorary-consuls-r

[6] Tariq Ramadan, ‘Europeanization of Islam or Islamization of Europe’ in Hunter ed., (2002), 207 – 218.

[7] Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, SJ, ‘Towards building new partnerships between Europe and Africa’, presented at Mission Today and Tomorrow Conference, Dublin, 2012