Dublin: Senator pays tribute to Irish missionaries at book launch

Ahead of World Mission Day, Senator Ronan Mullen paid tribute to the work of Irish missionaries at the launch of 'The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On' by Matt Moran, in St Paul's Church, Arran Quay, Dublin last Wednesday.

The book also deals with the role of faith in international development, the work on advocacy, social justice and climate change by religious at the UN, the increasing role of lay missionaries, parish twinning as a new bridge and link between communities in Ireland and developing countries, and the how missionary development remains an integral part of Ireland's overseas aid programme.

The foreword in the book was written by Ireland's former president, Mary Robinson who is now UN Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate Change.

The full text of Senator Rónán Mullen's address follows.

'Like St Patrick, I too have heard the call of the Irish.' Those of you who were in the Phoenix Park in 1979 will remember these famous and moving words of Pope John Paul II. 'The call of the Irish' is an idea known to every school child who has heard the story of St Patrick.

As I read thorough this remarkable book, my thoughts strayed constantly to the idea of the 'call of the Irish'. In St Patrick's case it was the vocational pull from the Irish to preach the Gospel to them. But for generations of missionaries, it was a call 'to' the Irish, from the Holy Spirit and from the people of missionary lands.

Thousands of Irish men and women, over 30,000, it is estimated, between 1920 and 1970, heard and answered the call go and preach the good news to all mations. And not only to preach the good news in the sense of teaching the faith, but as this book so eloquently chronicles, to preach the good news in its fullness by building up the kingdom of God on earth, witnessing to the dignity of the men, women and children of these countries of mission, transforming people's lives and possibilities, and drawing the people of missionary lands into that process of transformation, and helping them to become agents of positive change themselves.

Looking at the chaos and darkness of so many parts of the world today, one can be tempted to despair that the Kingdom of God will ever get built. The problems in the world, including in some of the lands where Irish men and women have ministered tirelessly, can seem enormous. But Christian people have always known that the problems never go away. Our task in every generation is to bring the transforming love of God into the lives we encounter.

This book is a treasure trove ... it is a chronicle of enormous achievement by the people of one small country. But it is more than that. It points the way to the work that can and must still be done, building on what has been achieved, by a new cohort of people. Irish religious missionaries will be fewer in number - dramatically so. But they will be joined by lay people inspired by their missionary spirit and charism, lay collaborators in the work that the missionaries have started, priests, nuns and brothers from the missionary lands, members of diocesan and other congregations started by Irish missionaries, and lay people working for other NGOs, inspired in many ways by the spirit and standards of the missionaries.

This is a book about mission, but it is also a book with a mission, and it is clear that Matt Moran, its writer, is on a mission. To look at that, we should quickly look at the chapters of the book to see how Matt tells his story.

Beginning with testimonies to the impact of Irish missionaries on the Global South, he gives us ample evidence of the dedication of Irish missionaries and the widespread recognition of their work.

It is a chronicle of people doing, to quote the title of Malcolm Muggeridge's book about Mother Teresa, 'Something Beautiful for God'. (It is interesting to note, in passing, that the now St Teresa of Calcutta, whose famous 'call within a call' saw her shape modern humanity's understanding of heroism, human decency and sanctity is also, indirectly, an Irish mission story since she started her training with the Loreto Sisters in Dublin).

I think this chapter should be read by people in Ireland who are stuck in a certain rut of thinking about the Church as a proselytising, negative, limiting force in people's lives, who think that missionary activity is a form of colonisation disrespectful of local cultures, that the teaching of faith is proselytism, that missionary-based development work is paternalistic and so on.

This book is a necessary corrective to such thinking. Everywhere is illustrated the breadth of vision that our missionaries have shown over the years, the development in the understanding of mission that the truth about the love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ must be expressed in actions that promote integral human development.

It is clear from this book that Irish missionaries have been a good news story. They were not agents of any colonising power, nor did they seek to impose their national culture in their work to spread the universal beauty of the Gospel.

Everywhere in the book there are eminent, local witnesses who give credit to the Irish missionaries. For example, our former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, addressing President Museveni of Uganda in 2000 said: "It is a matter of pride to us that you personally hold in particularly high regard the work of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa who educated your daughters."

We have a fine diplomatic corps, but our missionaries have been our best ambassadors. There is hardly any ambivalence about our missionaries. Good will has been spread. And that only happens where good has been done.

The book reflects on how Irish missionaries have seen their past, their evolving role, and the future of their work. There are chapters on the Influence of Irish Missionaries on Ireland's Overseas Aid Programme, The Role of Faith in International Development, Advocacy Work by Religious at the United Nations, Local Missionaries and Religious Stepping into Irish Shoes, the Local Congregations founded by Irish Missionaries, the structures planned by Missionary Communities for their Succession, the Contribution to Mission by Lay People and Volunteers, and Parish Twinning as a new bridge between Ireland and the Global South.

The impact of the Irish missionary experience on the development of the Irish aid programme fascinated me. It was remarkable to read about the role of TK Whitaker persuading reluctant Department of Finance officials (Quoting from Page 65: "Dr. Whitaker who had written about World Poverty in Administration in spring 1971 was very well informed and was passionate about the needs of the developing world. He made great effort to re-assure nervous Dept. of Finance officials about public funds being given to an external agency or the danger of over-dependency on public funds. In a letter to the Dept. on 10 January 1972 he stated: "The Catholic missionary bodies are spending millions and supporting thousands of people, including an increasing proportion of lay people. The realistic view is that the existing organisations are so committed that they are most unlikely to relax their efforts."

That idea of value for money and good stewardship has been borne out by various independent evaluations and oversight reviews of missionary development, and here we step away from just talking about the Irish missionary context to consider the role of faith in international development. What emerges here is a picture of western world countries and governments waking up to the importance of faith based organisations in getting to 'those hard to reach areas'. Why? For one reason, it's because the world is becoming more, not less, religious. Europe may be in a demographic and spiritual decline, but not other parts of the world.

But the influence and potential of missionary development activity is down to more than the persistence of faith, to use Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' expression. Earlier in the book, Lucy Franks of Misean Cara sums up really well the 'added value' that our missionaries bring (Quoting from Page 8: "Missionaries today express core faith values of justice, respect, integrity, compassion and commitment through their work and presence with poor, marginalised and vulnerable communities in the developing world.".

She goes on to talk about the role of trust through missionaries being present and involved with communities for a sustained period of time; their understanding community needs and competence in delivery - their commitment to presence in communities for a long time fosters an incremental development approach and culture of learning; their holistic approach to development with a strong sense of care and respect for the integrity of the person; being first responders in humanitarian emergencies because they are already there; their advocacy for human rights and social justice; their ability to move on to areas of greater need; and their motivation and inspiration of lay volunteers.

In her excellent forward, Mary Robinson talks about how "Congregations built up hundreds of thousands of supporters around Ireland, and this mass movement greatly influenced popular support for the Irish aid programme.". This mass influence of missionaries at home drove the whole spirit of Ireland internationally.

It comes down to values of dedication, competence, a holistic approach rooted in a missionary spirit and committed to excellence as a matter of personal and organisational vocation. As with the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, renewing respect for Catholic schools, so with the British, Dutch, German and other international governmental organisations who want to partner with religious organisations in creating a more just world.

Woody Allen said that 90% of success was showing up. In that context, I cannot ignore the comments of prominent British atheist and former Labour Party Deputy Leader, Roy Hattersley, because they illustrate so much: Page 91: "... writing in The Guardian on 12 September 2005 during Hurricane Katrina in the USA pointed out that almost all of the charitable groups involved in the disaster relief were religious. "Notable by their absence" he said "are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs, and atheists' associations - the sort of people who not only scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil."

We learn that, as recently as February of this year, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development published Religious Communities as Partners for Development Co-operation: Gerd Muller commented (Page 94): "Without the involvement of the world's religions, we will not be able to meet the challenges the world is facing. A values-based development policy takes the contribution of religion seriously. Wherever we can achieve more by working together, we will increase our cooperation with religious actors. We have laid down clear criteria in our strategy to guide us in this endeavour."

In the light of all this, we can ask about the future of our government's support for the work of missionaries and their partner organisations in the Global South. I note that Irish Aid cut its grant to Misean Cara by €500,000 in 2015. Now that the government has recently increased the Irish Aid budget by €10 million, could I ask that this cut be reversed and that we see an increase in the allocation to Misean Cara. Missionaries deliver value for Ireland's overseas aid programme and this should continue.

Hopefully, our decision-makers will not fall into the trap of thinking that because the number of Irish missionaries is in decline, that the Irish Aid contribution to this sector should fall accordingly. That would be not so much biting the hand that fed you, but rejecting the womb that bore you.
This book argues persuasively that the structures are in place, the succession plans are in good health, and the value of partnering with faith-based groups increasingly recognised internationally. The missionary model for development is good.

What a betrayal of our missionaries, and of Ireland's greatest exported idea, it would be if Irish funds ceased to flow because there was no longer Irish 'boots on the ground', so to speak, in developing countries. The sense of connection that Irish people had with their missionaries abroad led to our State's commitment to funding their activities. Surely, the torch having been lit, we will not let it go out? The light of that torch has come, not just from the fact of helping people but in the way it has been done, in the culture of collaboration and accountability that the missionaries established and continue to practise.
There isn't time to go into other aspects of missionary leadership for a better world, not least in the area of climate justice. But it is important to note what former President Robinson has to say in her foreword about the fields of engagement of missionaries, not just in the traditional areas of education and health, but in championing the welfare of women too.

The Church gets kicked around a lot for not falling into line with contemporary culture's version of equality promoted by practitioners of the art of sexual and gender politics in our time. But St Paul's words to the Galatians remind us that missionary commitment to the equal dignity of all is no Johnny-come-lately doctrine, no example of Mother Church arriving breathless, as the saying goes, and a little late. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." That friends is the radical source from which all this good work has come.
It was good to see that a December 2009 partnership document committed UNAIDS to "refraining from attempting to discredit or undermine religious belief". And faith-based organisations committed to "providing services based on evidence-informed practices consistent with the FBO's own faith and values". (Pages 86 - 87)

The secular world needs the inspiration, commitment, energy and selflessness of faith based organisations. And they must accept that they will be prophetic.
And you know, if you look at the lives of the saints, you discover that the really effective ones had to be 'bloody awkward' at times, clinging to their vision. And there is a sense in which Christian people, even as they thank the state for the share of tax-payers money for work they are doing on behalf of the community, will have to be 'bloody awkward'. You have to be bloody awkward at times.

That's why I will be bloody awkward and say that it sometimes falls to faith based organisations to say the truths that everyone should hear. There's a lot of talk of Pope Francis's appointments of 'moderates' to the various Episcopal sees in the United States. Whatever about that, the idea of the 'seamless garment', associated with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, expressing the Church's comprehensive and consistent concern for a range of human life and human dignity issues, is getting renewed attention.

That has something to say to the likes of Amnesty International, tragically losing its way at the moment in its radical advocacy of abortion. How often good ideals can get corrupted. It reminds me of what was said about Marxism - it set out to create heaven on earth but created hell instead. I note the existence of the Benenson Society, named after Amnesty's founder, which seeks to restore a consistent championing of human dignity. There is a challenge here for Church communities and schools to find new partners with which to work for a better world, and for a consistent and authentic vision of human rights.

In the end, though, it is not about culture wars but collaboration and conversion to the cause of love. And in that context I'd like to conclude by referencing a wonderful piece in the book by Susan Cahill who writes about her encounter with lay missionary Gena Heraty in Haiti. Asked about her fundamental motivation, Gena replied: "To be a person of love" (Page 109). I can't find any better words to finish with.

Matt, you have compiled the dossier on the fantastic achievements and continuing legacy of our missionaries. I am delighted and honoured to launch this book.