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Inadvertent missionaries

October 25 completes Mission Week, the only celebration in the liturgical calendar that runs for a full eight days, from Sunday to Sunday.

With the major exception of Korea, where local people received the faith in China and brought it home, Churches across Asia were founded by missionaries, mostly from Europe. Stories of their heroic deeds abound and indeed they punched well above their weight, often at great cost, for some—their lives.

But missionaries do not cast themselves as heroes, nor are their lives glamourous. They achieve with hard work, patient persistence and dogged determination, often clinging to only a tentative trust in the one who called them.

How to measure the value of their lives and work can be a challenge. If it is quantitative, the number of baptisms would be a guide, but missionaries know that is a misleading criteria and can die wondering.

The former bishop of Hanyang, Bishop Edward Galvin, told his colleagues, “We are not here to convert China, but to do the will of God.” In the face of scant results, comforting, but prompting a bigger dilemma—discerning the will of God.

These are the missionaries we know well; sisters, brothers and priests who left their homes to travel into the unknown, with just their faith to give reason to their voyage.

But in today’s world, another type of missionary is on the move. They are not priests, sisters or brothers, they are lay people in search of jobs. Domestic workers flood to Hong Kong and, mostly, like the missionaries of old, dive headlong into the unknown.

They cling to their love for their families and, for the bulk of the majority group, the Filipinos, as well as some Indonesians and Thais, their Catholic faith, which they live out in the homes of non-Christians, as they nurture their children, tend to their aged and, again like the pioneer missionary, without status, financial clout or political leverage.

They too come not to convert, but to do the will of God in their lives. This they do in the grind of the daily service of others—the bottom line of the missionary life.

There is nothing glamourous about this missionary life and often no tangible result to hang hope on, but its value in terms of faith witness is judged against divine criteria, not human.

There is no decision to be a missionary, they are inadvertent missionaries, as it is the only way they can sing their songs in a foreign land. The challenge is to understand.

As a migrant worker of several years, Angel Cabuga, said, “I came without even thinking of where my walk in faith would end up. I learned that standing up as a Catholic in Hong Kong is not easy and, I think, impossible without an encounter with God. But this is the faith I want to hand on to my family. It is not easy to convince even those close to my heart by mere words, let alone strangers. But now I understand; my life is my witness, my actions my evangelisation.”

The Philippines has two saints. Maybe it is no accident that they are both lay missionaries and both not much more than boys in the lowly service of priests. And significantly, both are martyrs, as are many migrant workers. JiM