A Call to Communion for Columban Centenary

6th March 2017 - by Nathalie Marytsch

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Lay missionary Nathalie Marytsch explains how the Centenary Pilgrim Altar Cloth gives expression to the Columban story of mission beginning in China in 1918.

In 2018, the Missionary Society of St Columban will celebrate 100 years of mission. At a ceremony last October in the Philippines, Superior General, Fr Kevin O’Neill, announced that 29 June 2018 has been designated Foundation Day and will therefore be “a special celebration” for the Columban family. He made the announcement at a ceremony on 10 October 2016 in Tagaytay, Philippines, where 47 young missionaries, lay and ordained, had gathered to commemorate the centenary of the day the co-founders of the Maynooth Mission to China, Fr Edward Galvin and Fr John Blowick, received the blessing of the Irish bishops to establish a seminary for priests to go as missionaries to China to spread the Gospel. Fr O’Neill explained to the young missionaries that 29 June 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of “the day on which we received approval from Rome to establish the Society”.

The Maynooth Mission to China became known as the Missionary Society of St Columban and after one hundred years it is present in China, as well as Pakistan, Myanmar, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Fiji, Peru, Chile, USA, Australia, New Zealand and here at home in Britain and Ireland. In his address, the Columban Superior General announced, “We, Columban missionaries, men and women, lay and ordained, invite our benefactors and supporters, our families and friends, and all those among whom we live and serve to join us in celebrating our centenary.”

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On that warm and rainy afternoon at the Scholastica Retreat Centre in Tagaytay, a Centenary Pilgrim Altar cloth was unveiled as part of the centenary preparations and celebrations. The cloth will be inscribed over the coming months with the names of those who are part of the Columban mission story. The idea of a pilgrim altar cloth was chosen  as a symbol of members’ communion with one another as Columbans, as we place our lives on the table of the Lord. This altar cloth is an expression of solidarity with the work of Columbans throughout the world and brings together the sacrifices, hopes and aspirations of so many families and peoples who have given their all for the Gospel.

The Columban story over the past 100 years is all about living the Gospel message through the lives of people and places. The Centenary Pilgrim Altar Cloth gives expression to this story of mission. At the moment, the Irish linen cloth is made up of 14 sections. Each section is embroidered with the name of a country where Columbans presently work. The young Columban priests and Lay Missionaries, representing all our mission areas, who were gathered in Tagatay that October afternoon, were each given a section of the cloth during a moving ‘handing-over ceremony’. During the ceremony we remembered the pilgrims and missionaries who followed in the footsteps of Jesus, the numerous Columbans who answered God’s call and left an imprint on where they lived and worked. We sang a chant in Korean, Spanish, Filipino and Fijian language to encompass the multicultural dimension of the Columban family today. 

We brought our section of the cloth back to our places of mission with the task of inviting other Columbans, family members, friends, benefactors and supporters and all who are involved in Columban mission to write their names on the cloth. Here in Ireland and Britain, we invite all our friends and benefactors to seek out the cloth, be it in Dalgan or the Columban House in Solihull, and put their names to it. Owing to the large number and wide spread of Columban benefactors and supporters across Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, it would not be possible for everyone to add their name to the altar cloth! Opportunities have been arranged for those who live in near Dalgan Park, Solihull and London to add their names to the cloth as representatives of the many people that participate in Columban mission by their prayers and generosity.

All the names being added to the cloth shape Columban mission today: a mission of peoples and places moulded in the love of God and experienced in the cultures and situations where Columbans live and find God. As these sections of the Centenary Pilgrim Altar Cloth find their way into communities, parishes and places where we engage in mission, they symbolise a journey: a journey that celebrates our love for Christ expressed in our commitment to work for justice for all, our open-door welcome for migrants, our dialogue with other faiths, our solidarity with the poor and our call to live among those on the margins. 

Each of the 14 sections of the cloth will be stitched together to form a single altar cloth which will be used for Eucharistic celebrations throughout 2018 when the Centenary Pilgrim Altar cloth will unite all of us across the Columban world “to give thanks for what has been, with passion celebrate mission today and with hope to look forward to our unfolding participation in God’s mission into the next 100 years and beyond”, as Fr Kevin said.

The writing of names on the cloth is happening in countries as distant from each as China and Chile, Myanmar and the Fiji Islands. It is indicative of the multicultural nature of the Columban family which will be symbolically present in every Eucharist and thanksgiving ceremony throughout the Centenary year. It officially begins on 23 November 2017 and continues until 23 November 2018 and has as its theme ‘Sharing Gospel Joy’. We will keep our readers informed when the Centenary Pilgrim Altar cloth will be in Ireland and Britain for our celebrations in 2018. You can follow the progress of the Centenary Pilgrim Altar Cloth on Facebook page ‘Columban Mission Centenary’. News and stories about how the Columban Centenary is being celebrated in different parts of the world will be shared in the Far East magazine and on social media.

Nathalie Marytsch, a married Columban lay missionary originally from Chile, currently works in Birmingham on inter-religious dialogue and with asylum seekers and refugees.

This article appears in the March-April issue of the Far East magazine. To request a copy of this issue contact the Columban Mission Office in Solihull on 01564 772 096 or