1966: Maynooth Mission to China at 50

The following report was presented to the Irish hierarchy in 1966 by the Very Rev. James A. Kielt, Superior General of the Maynooth Mission to China:

Your Eminence, Your Graces and My Lord Bishops,

In Maynooth, on 10 October 1916, the bishops of Ireland gave their blessing and approval to the project of an Irish missionary Society destined for China. On that day, in everything except juridical structure, the Maynooth Mission to China came into being. Now, fifty years later, I come to report on the Society thus created by your predecessors half a century ago.

On 17 March 1920, Archbishop Gilmartin of Tuam (in a sermon preached at the departure of our first missionaries from St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Galway) used a memorable phrase. ‘The mission you carry is far greater than the missionaries who carry it.’ Fifty years of missionary work has brought home to us this poignant contrast between the glory of our message and the human inadequacies of us, the messengers. We can see, and regret, errors of emphasis, of judgement, failures in zeal. There is, no doubt, more to regret that we cannot see. Nevertheless as we look back our dominant thought is one of deep gratitude to God who has blessed and made to prosper so richly the beginnings laid on that October day, 1916.

On 10 October, 1916, the pioneers were five; now the Society numbers 1,175. In 1916 there was a hope that the Holy See might assign us a separate territory in China. The years brought, in China alone, three territories — two headed by Irish bishops. Our work in China has, regrettably, been interrupted, but elsewhere the hope of 1916 has blossomed into major missionary tasks in Korea, Burma, the Philippines, Japan, Oceania, Chile and Peru. We were founded as the Maynooth Mission to China. Now we could almost more aptly describe ourselves as the Maynooth Mission to Anywhere. In 1916 a missionary college was only a dream. This dream of 1916 has become the reality of 1966: three major seminaries, one each in Ireland, U.S.A. and Australia, where 300 students are preparing for the missionary priesthood.

The presence of seven of our bishops at the Vatican Council underlines vividly the God-given growth in our numbers and burdens. In a sense they were the Maynooth Mission come of age.

This work began in Ireland, but Ireland has not been alone. In the half-century preceding 1916 Ireland’s major missionary effort was to English-speaking countries — Great Britain, the U.S.A., Australia and New Zealand. In the half-century since 1916, we of the Maynooth Mission have been reaping richly where others have sown. These countries have given us very generously of their means and of their sons. To them we owe almost a third of our priests and about one-third of our students. It is a vast response throughout the English-speaking world to a bugle call of October 1916.

The facts and figures given provide a rapid outline of growth since Edward Galvin and John Blocwick, sponsored by a group of distinguished Irish priests, sought and obtained the blessing of Ireland’s bishops for their new enterprise. Obviously the facts and figures provide no picture at all of our missionary work as it varies from country to country. In Korea, Communism has cut us off for sixteen years from part of our territory; in the rest of it our problem is that of coping with the numbers God’s grace sends. In Japan, once again affluent and confident, the missionary is listened to only by pitifully few. But these few often offer a striking example of Christian living and are a good foundation. Political pressures have forced out of Burma all our Columban Sisters and several of our priests. The future of our mission there probably lies in the hands of Burmese priests — good but tragically few. In the Philippines (our biggest commitment with 220 priests) our work has been that of turning a sincere but uniformed faith into a lived reality. Here Christian education, at secondary school and university levels, has been one of our primary concerns. Closely related to this are our efforts to promote vocations to the Filipino secular priesthood in a country many of whose religious problems stem from a dearth of such priests. In the Fiji Islands, a peaceful enough area in a convulsed world, our work shares in that peace and the problems are those of slow steady growth. On the other side of the world there is little hope of abiding peace in the slums of Lima or Santiago de Chile. Here problems of poverty, hunger, squalor and despair are inextricably mixed with those of Christianity. Communism, a reality in Cuba, is a possibility in many a place. Remembering China, we can hardly help wondering how much there is of time.

This varied missionary scene defies summary description and I shall not further attempt the impossible. Enclosed are some statistics which will indicate to what proportions 1916 beginnings have grown. And I now offer your Lordships some reflections on these fifty years of missionary work, initiated by you, implemented by us, your instruments.

The Second Vatican Council has told us that ‘the whole Church is missionary and the work of evangelization is a basic duty of the people of God.’ In carry out ‘this supremely great and sacred task of the Church the responsibility falls primarily on the body of bishops…Christ’s mandate to preach the Gospel to every creature (Mark xvi, 15) primarily and immediately concerns them with Peter and under Peter.’ (1) Never before, I believe, has the Church stated with such emphasis and clarity this closest and most vital of links between the bishops of the world and the spreading of the Gospel.

This new, fuller vision of the missionary Church, welcome for many reasons, is especially welcome to us when we reflect on the manner of our origin. For, quite simply, we came into being through the missionary initiative of Ireland’s bishops. It is easy to see the human factors that led to this rather than some other mode of foundation: the fact that the pioneers were secular priests; the fact that all were Maynooth men; the fact that, because of their close Maynooth associations, it probably never occurred to them that any other manner of foundation was possible. But beyond these human factors which were, after all, only the bearers of God’s providential grace, surely one can discern, humbly, gratefully, and yet with confidence, the Holy Spirit at work in all and responsive to His impulse. At any rate the fact is plain. Almost fifty years before the missionary vision of Vatican II, so closely linking bishops and missions, the vision was a reality in Ireland. It is one instance, but not, I suggest, the only one in our country, where the living of Christianity had anticipated the subsequent vision. In these days — when our Irish Catholicism is more often perhaps criticized than admired — that, I respectfully suggest, is something to keep in mind. There may be things to be changed; there is much to be cherished.

This 1916 fusion of Irish bishops and missions has been immensely fruitful, and not only for us of the Maynooth Mission. If four new missionary institutes came into being within a decade or two; if older missionary congregations found, in increasing numbers, the youth of Ireland knocking on their door; if other religious bodies, not specifically missionary, are entering the field; if our laity is taking an increasing share in the work — in a word, if the miracle of modern Missionary Ireland is a reality, not a mirage, all this must be traced back in devious ways, but in substantial measure, to October 1916. Not because we were concerned, but because you were. When the Irish bishops sponsored a missionary society, when Maynooth and Maynooth men preached this new mission in practically every pulpit in Ireland, something new and unforeseen happened almost overnight. The foreign missions, up to then a peripheral activity of Irish Catholicism, suddenly became the nation’s business. The seed was that October day, 1916. The harvest is almost as wide as the world. It is a reminder, if reminder were needed, that our missionary work can continue to prosper only if it recognizes itself as authorized by and dependent on the successors of the apostles.

Missionary Ireland owes more than can easily be said to Ireland’s bishops. But none are so hopelessly in debt to our bishops, and the flock they guide, as we of the Maynooth Mission. In the wear and tear of daily life, in the unending struggle to make missionary ends meet, it is easy for the realities of debt and dependence to become a little obscured. Let me at the risk of underlining the obvious, recall some headings.

Above all, a mission means missionaries. Missionaries mean vocations. Vocations come from homes and parishes with deeply Christian standards and a vigorous Catholic life. Our 1,175 members are simply the overflow of such parishes and homes. The vigorous fruitful Catholic life depends on your Lordships and on those with whom you share your fullness of ministering priesthood. We, thank God, get many missionary vocations. You, under God, give them.

Give them — and nurture them too. Here I am thinking chiefly of your diocesan seminaries and other similar colleges. We train our missionary students for some seven or eight years. But you, indeed in your primary but chiefly in your secondary schools, train them for twelve or thirteen. For this training and for the opportunity to put the missionary ideal before the pupils, we are deeply grateful to you and to the priests and laymen busy in this demanding apostolate.

I have written at some length of our dependence on you in this vital matter of vocations. This same dependence extends to other fields. We need abundant prayers bringing God’s blessing on our work; we need money to finance it. All this, in practice, comes to us through you and makes our dependence more complete. We would not have it otherwise. This structure, in addition to having proved itself viable and fruitful, is also clearly close to the mind of the Church. And however grave our problems or agonizing our difficulties, it is a consolation to be reminded by Vatican II that these problems and difficulties are yours before they are ours.

Many of these problems and difficulties are closely related to the world convulsions of the past fifty years. I cannot dwell in detail here on this half-century of human writhing which has been the background to much of our ministering. But I must speak briefly of China where our work began and whence, with all Catholic missionaries, we have been driven.

Driven, not by something deep and ancient in Asia, but by an atheistic idea born in the west and now garbing itself with dubious grace in the garments of the east. Communism has driven us from the first land of our election; has sought also to banish Catholicism from what may soon be the greatest nation on earth. Much Irish toil, prayers and money have gone into China. Sometimes we are asked, sometimes indeed we are tempted to ask ourselves, has all this been waste?

We do not think so. The world in which we have been asked to preach the Gospel is a world of just such convulsions where the welcome of to-day unexpectantly can turn into the banishment of tomorrow. To preach the Gospel only where a benign future is assured would to-day be not to preach the Gospel at all.

Besides, Communism is changing. Chinese Communism seems for the moment an intransigent exception. But even Chinese Communism can hardly escape the slow attrition of time and reality. Our reports from China, pitifully meagre, are nevertheless encouraging. They tell, for example, of Chinese priests heroically faithful under very difficult conditions, some of them faithful unto death. I have no wish to exaggerate the scope of our reports, and certainly no wish to paint a roseate picture. But the little we hear is far from discouraging.

So we are not despairing about China. For the moment we can only wait, hope and pray. Too much is at stake; too many of our dead, some their blood shed for the faith, are buried there for us easily to lose interest or lose heart. If it is God’s will and providence, we shall return.

Looking to the future, we naturally turn to Vatican II for guidance in our many missionary perplexities. From this guidance, rich and many-sided, I pause for a moment on two themes specially relevant to our times and tasks. I do so in the belief that I should keep your Lordships fully informed about the broad policies of our Society and any fresh emphasis therein.

In any age, Christ’s apostles should not be of the world. But Vatican II has emphatically reminded us that we are in the world and must take our ‘stand in the midst of the anxiety of this age.’ (2) In many countries we live very close indeed to the anxieties and agonies of contemporary man. Poverty, disease, hunger and anger we know well; we see in them only too clearly the fertile breeding ground for Communism and a most grave threat to world peace. And we are deeply grateful to the fathers of Vatican II for reminding us that in all this we must compassionately see, human misery indeed, but more than that: ‘it is as if Christ Himself were crying out in these poor to beg for the charity of the disciples…the Father wills that in all men we recognize Christ our brother and serve Him effectively in word and deed.’ (3) We must serve not merely needy individuals. Our mandate extends to a social order ‘founded on truth, built on justice, and animated by love.’ (4) All this, I profoundly believe, is something on which we Irish missionaries may well examine our past and reconsider our training.

Hunger, poverty, population problems, race discrimination, dangers of war, avenues to peace — all these, hitherto often regarded as the province of the secular city, the Church has now urged us to make our own. We should like to respond generously. We do indeed live close to some of these problems. What or how much we can wisely do about them is a perplexity still with us.

Already individual members of our Society are busy with varied social ventures, especially in Korea, Fiji and Latin America. In other areas, wherever we educate, this educational effort is, we believe, a vital if long-range contribution. The emphatic language of Vatican II suggests that this is not enough. But whatever more we attempt will be wisely attempted only if it respects the facts.

One such fact is this: in the developing countries genuine experts in the social and allied sciences are growing more numerous. Increasingly the role of the missionary will be to encourage, not to initiate or supervise. Indeed, being a foreigner, he would sometimes be very unwise to take a leading part.

Besides, the missionary is there to serve the local hierarchy. His concern must be to advance their social policies, not to pursue his own. These facts suggest what our immediate contribution can be. It will be our aim to equip missionaries with whatever skills and expertise seem desirable to the bishops whom we assist. In so equipping them we shall, doubtless, be greatly helped by the new educational opportunities opening up to us in Ireland. For these opportunities we are deeply grateful.

Wherever we can do something concrete and immediate about the gaping wounds of society, clearly we must try to do it. But we believe that our most valuable contribution, even in this social field, is our basic job of forming Christians and a Christian community. Ultimately, the big problems come from what people are like. If they are Christlike, there will be fewer problems.

On this, our duty to the city of man, the Council has given us a timely reminder. On a second crucial point, under discussion of late, the Council has given us missionaries welcome reassurance.

Nowadays one sometimes hears the view expressed, or half-expressed, that actual preaching of the Gospel, attempting thereby to win new believers to Christ, is faintly reprehensible. This view is associated with several well-known names and perhaps I distort it by simplification. But, if I understand it alright, this view tends to regard traditional missionary preaching as a slightly un-Christian proselytism; tends to contrast it unfavourably with charity, Christian or humanitarian, which will preach by itself almost without need of words.

So we missionaries are very grateful to Vatican II for the clear and reassuring directive: ‘Wherever God opens a door of speech for proclaiming the mystery of Christ, there should be announced to all men with confidence and constancy the living God and He whom He has sent for the salvation of all, Jesus Christ.’ (5)

In bringing this report to an end, I pose a question. Now, as the post-Conciliar age begins, what do we Irish missionaries most insistently ask from Ireland?

Of silver and gold Ireland has little enough. Yet Ireland is immensely rich. Were I to choose one phrase to sum up that richness, I should say that Ireland is a Eucharistic community. Clearly, not a perfect Eucharistic community, either in the celebration of the sacrifice or in penetration of life and institutions. Yet for all its blemishes Ireland is a Eucharistic community as are few places in the world. It is embedded in our history; the Mass rocks are there to testify. It is engrained in our more recent traditions; only a few years ago we were being reproached for a ‘sacramental’ Catholicism, its only test whether people went to Mass. It is another example of Catholic life anticipating theological insight.

Of silver and gold we have little. In the Eucharist, Ireland is immensely rich. That is what we have to give. So, in answer to the question, ‘What is it primarily that Irish missionaries ask from Ireland?’, I would simply say this: if you continue to give us a deeply Eucharistic community, all else will follow, and we Irish missionaries shall continue to have wealth to give to the world. As Vatican II puts it: ‘The Eucharist shows itself to be the source and the apex of the whole work of preaching the Gospel.’ (6)

There are bright omens for the future. The recent volunteer movement among diocesan priests for Latin America is encouraging, fruitful and very welcome.

To the priests who have come, to the bishops who released them, I can only offer the profound gratitude of our Society. Please God the number of volunteers will grow. It is hard to exaggerate the need.

There are omens less bright. I mention only one. In recent years the numbers of Irish boys receiving secondary education has steeply increased. To judge from the figures available, there has been no corresponding increase in vocations to the priesthood. Virtually, then, there appears to have been a notable drop in vocations. A serious drop in vocations would be, inevitably, the prelude to a tragic shrinking of Ireland’s missionary role in the world. But everything comes back to the Eucharist. If Ireland remains and even deepens as a Eucharistic community there is no doubt at all about the future of missionary Ireland.

I conclude with a simple but very sincere word of thanks to your Lordships for fifty years of kindness to the Maynooth Mission to China. We hope that this kindness has never been, and will never be, abused. In looking for vocations and help in Ireland, we continue to have only one policy: to be guided by the bishops who brought us into being half a century ago. The year was 1916. The place was Maynooth. It was a good year and a good place to be born.

I have the honour to remain,

Your Lordships’ obedient servant,

Superior General,
Maynooth Mission to China.

(1) Decree on missions
(2) Church in Modern World, 82
(3) Church in Modern World, 88
(4) Church in Modern World, 26
(5) Decree on Missions, 13
(6) Church in Modern World, 44

Posted on October 17, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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