Columban Centenary – Homily by Columban Director in Britain

2nd July 2018 - by Fr Peter Hughes

Fr.  Hughes SSC the Director of the Columbans in Britain gave the Homily at the Centenary Mass in St.George’s Cathedral, Southwark. Pictures by Sophie Stanes,

I warmly welcome all of you to this celebration of 100 years of Columban Mission.

I would especially like to thank Archbishop Peter Smith for, not only lending us this Cathedral but also presiding over our Centenary Mass. It is an occasion when we thank you our friends and benefactors who have journeyed with us and continue to journey with us as a Missionary Society. I also warmly welcome our Columbans – priests, Sisters, Lay Missionaries, Co-workers, benefactors and all our volunteers. I also welcome members of other Congregations.

We remember Columban Missionaries from around the world who are celebrating today. The Centenary Pilgrim Altar Cloth, made up of pieces that have come from each of the countries where Columban missionaries serve, holding the signatures of many who represent all those who are and have been a part of the unfolding story of Columban mission over the past 100 years, This is being used in our celebration today. It’s being used at celebrations like this one around the world – in fact it’s been carried across rivers in Fiji, rushed here from Australia this week and will be in use in Ireland tomorrow.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the pioneering spirit of our Co-founders, Bishop Edward Galvin from Cork and Fr John Blowick from Mayo. We thank them for their foresight and vision in founding a new Missionary Society, ‘The Maynooth Mission to China’. To initiate a new venture like this in the turbulent years of the First World War demanded a huge leap of faith and trust in God’s providence. Conditions for the Irish people were very difficult and hard in those days.

From the beginning the generosity of people was extraordinary and it continues today. We Columbans want you to know that we are very grateful for your continued support. In our mother house in Ireland there is a quotation from an Irish Bishop to our late Co-founder Fr John Blowick which still holds very true today. Referring to the College recently built he said ”Built for you by the generosity of people who couldn’t afford it”. What we have to offer you in return for your generosity is very little compared to what you give us. I do want you to know that you are remembered each morning at our Community Mass. Each day we receive many letters from people, requesting our prayers, and you are prayed for.

In 1920 the first group of Columban missionaries went to China and some years later Columbans came to Britain. We give thanks to the many dioceses and parishes here in Britain who have welcomed Columban priests, lay missionaries and co-workers to serve the people of God and to promote Columban mission and the Far East magazine, which next January, will celebrate 100 years of continuous publication. We also distribute Vocation for Justice. We have been blessed to form partnerships with many groups here in Britain in our ministries of justice, peace and ecology, our ministry of interreligious dialogue among migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and our building of bridges of solidarity between the church in Britain and the Church in China

Today, the Columban missionaries work in China, Myanmar, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Peru, Chile, Fiji, Pakistan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. It is important to remember that even before we set foot in these countries God was there before our arrival. For the most part it was the ordinary people who shaped and nurtured us in our vocation as Columban Missionaries. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the men and women of these countries, many whose lives were difficult because of poverty and oppression. When we went on cross cultural mission it was our hosts who welcomed us and were patient with our cultural clumsiness. We shared with them our faith only to find they had much more to teach us. They were full of God’s compassion and love. This bond of friendship still remains.

On arriving in China, Bishop Galvin, our co-founder, said: ‘It was a mad thing to do’. He also said “We are not here to convert the Chinese but to do the will of God”. Was it a mad thing to do? It probably was, but history will show that God has been full of surprises. With God’s grace, and God’s gift of missionary imagination, all involved in Columban mission over the past 100 years have listened to the word of God, have discerned the ‘signs of the times’ through the movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and in the world, and responded courageously and creatively to do the will of God.

Mission Today

A number of Columbans have met violent deaths over the years. Their photos will be brought to the altar in the Offertory procession. 23 priests and one Columban Sister suffered violent deaths in mission lands. They paid the ultimate price. Many priests, sisters and lay missionaries left this world too soon. They were buried by the people who loved them and whose country was their home. We remember them as we do all the Columban missionaries who have gone before us.

We have experienced and continue to experience many changes in our understanding of Mission over the years. We have tried to adapt to the changing situations and the challenges that each decade brings, of course always recognising the centrality of the person, message and mission of Jesus and his love and compassion for all

As we reflect back over the years, we have always tried to follow in the footsteps of the Lord by reaching out to the poor and the most vulnerable. Today we also recognise that an integral part of mission is caring for the Earth and the environment. As Pope Francis says in his encyclical Laudato Si we seek to “listen to and heed the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor”. We have worked and continue to work in many cultures where Christianity is a minority religion, alongside Buddhists, Muslims and people from other religious traditions or none.

When St Columban stood against the powers that be, he spoke fearlessly, with great courage. He paid dearly for his stance. He had to endure the heartbreak of being expelled from his beloved companions and his earliest three monasteries in France. Columban missionaries, over the past 100 years have shared something of his experience.

All of our members were expelled from China in 1952; all had to leave Burma/ Myanmar in 1979; individuals were expelled from Fiji, from Chile, from the Philippines and from Taiwan down through the years. Many were interned during several wars and four survived years of solitary confinement in China. Others endured torture, being kidnapped and falsely imprisoned. Columbans went and stayed with the people in violent times of dictatorships, military regimes and terrorism. I myself spent 27 years in Chile – under the dictatorship of General Pinochet – and experienced the denial of human rights.

We pray that people will continue to respond to the Holy Spirit’s invitation to join us on mission as Columban priests, lay missionaries, sisters, benefactors and volunteers. We ask our Patron St Columban to intercede for us in a special way during our Centenary Year. The missionary spirit of our Co-founders, Edward Galvin and John Blowick, and all Columban missionaries and benefactors who have gone to God, inspires us and fills us with hope as we continue to respond generously to God’s call as missionary disciples of Jesus, sharing gospel joy in our world today.

We will need divine assistance into the future. Poverty and violence are forcing large numbers of people to abandon their homeland, leaving them with a grim and fearful future. Moreover as the world becomes smaller, hostility between different cultures and traditions will continue to cause all of us uncertainty and anxiety. Furthermore our common home the Earth will be plundered further. In the face of such grave challenges there remains an urgent need for international messengers of hope, dedicated ambassadors of Christ and committed witnesses to the Gospel message of justice and peace across the world. In this context we pray especially for the Synod of Bishops on the family which Pope Francis is going to attend in Ireland in August.

Unlike earlier generations, younger Columban missionaries build bridges not just between east and west, or north and south but all around the world. In earlier decades all of our priests were from English-speaking countries. They spent their lives proclaiming the good news in East Asia, Oceania and Latin America. Thanks to their labours, and the efforts of so many, including the local people, the Church became firmly established in those places. Not only that but in recent decades, Christians in those countries have developed a deep sense of their own missionary responsibility. Consequently, the majority of young Columban missionaries today both priests and lay people come from Korea and the Philippines, Fiji, Chile and Peru. Indeed, since the last century, we have travelled a full circle since there are plans to ordain the first Chinese Columban missionary priest during this Centenary year.

It is fitting that the theme for our Centenary celebrations is ‘Sharing Gospel Joy’, a theme very close to the heart of Pope Francis. Pope Francis in his message to us Columbans on the occasion of our Centenary asks, “that we deepen our commitment to finding new ways of bringing the newness of the Gospel to every culture and people”. Today, we place the future of the Society in God’s care.