CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 11 August 2018

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Columbans mark a century on mission

HONG KONG (SE): The centennial celebration of the official recognition of the Missionary Society of St. Columban by Pope Benedict XV on 29 June 1918 marks the placing of the official stamp of approval on a movement that began in 1912, when a young priest accepted an invitation from Canadian Father John Fraser to join him in China.
 
After his ordination in 1909 from Maynooth Seminary in Ireland, Father Edward Galvin, like many of his contemporaries, joined the flow of Irish migrants to the United States of America (US), but he always knew his heart was elsewhere and the chance meeting with Father Fraser was just the opportunity he was looking for.
 
He packed his bags and left his New York parish to begin an adventure in China. However, he soon figured that working as a lone hand with no one to bequeath the fruit of his labours to would not be the way to develop and sustain an energetic and viable Church.
 
He returned to Ireland in 1916 with the specific intention of founding a society to prepare priests, brothers and lay people for mission in China. With the assistance of Father John Blowick, a professor from Maynooth Seminary with the canon law skills needed to prepare an application for approval of such a society, he gained permission from the bishops of Ireland to begin promoting the venture.
 
During his few years in China, Father Galvin had thrown his lot in with the aging French Vincentians in Chekiang (now part of Zhejiang province), but in the Irish Church of the time, mission sending was almost exclusively confined to following its vast diaspora to the US, Australia and the far reaches of the British Empire.
 
An outreach to non-Christian people in what was considered to be foreign lands and cultures was still in its infancy in the English-speaking Church, but the insightful Father Galvin had seen the need for an injection of fresh blood, energy, imagination and personnel into the wearying European mission fields of China.
 
For two years Father Galvin and a growing band tramped Ireland collecting money and signing up volunteers, but even after the Holy See put its mark of approval on the new society it was to be two more years before the first group of 15 would walk on Chinese soil.
 
However, those early Columbans had used their time well availing of Father Galvin’s contacts in the US to drum up more support for the dream of a holistic outreach embracing education, medical treatment, livelihood training and care of the least, the lost and the despised.
 
But beginnings in Hanyang, the first territory assigned to the newly formed group, were not encouraging, as the Columbans were spurned by the incumbent European Franciscans, whom a local Catholic, Anthony Wang, describes in his recently published book, History of Hanyang Diocese, as regarding the new-comers as interlopers out to loot territory.
 
Smear campaigns designed to alienate them from the local Catholics were mounted, but the newly arrived missionaries, with their youthful ways and dynamic personalities won the favour of the people, and with the vigorous support of the first apostolic delegate to China, Archbishop Antonio Costantini, the newly established vicariate of Hanyang was given over to their care in 1922.
 
However, early days made a rocky road. Hanyang was virtually destroyed during a joint 1927 offensive by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists to suppress the power of the warlords; then extensive floods inundated the city in 1931; and in 1937, the Japanese occupation left it almost in ruins.
 
In addition, there was ongoing friction with the Communist armies and bandits, both of which at various times attacked Church properties and kidnapped some priests as well.
 
Nevertheless, the Catholic population grew significantly during the 30 years of Columban presence and despite the continued disruption to parish programmes, the medical care offered by volunteer doctors and later the Columban Sisters, as well as the educational work of the Loretto Sisters from the US and the Christian Brothers, the Catholic population continued to increase.
 
When the Columbans had arrived in 1920, there were some 44,000 Catholics in an area which two years later was divided into four vicariates, but when Father Galvin became the bishop of Hanyang in 1947, there were almost 56,000 in the newly elevated diocese alone. 
 
There were many frustrations and disappointments in the lead up to the forced departure from China of the Columban priests and brothers, as well as sisters from the Loretto and Columban societies.
 
But despite the demands of the China mission, the society had been able to make foundations in The Philippines, Korea and Burma between 1929 and 1936. Those too were to be disrupted by war, with priests taken prisoner, some killed or expelled and many churches destroyed.
 
However, as the last Columban left China in 1952 there was little time to mourn the loss, as a new commitment to a devastated Japan, followed by deadly conflict in Korea, a shattered Philippines and a tightening situation in Burma put great pressure on society resources.
 
Generous benefactors in the US, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand enabled them to be a significant presence in the post-war recovery across Asia, while still taking on new commitments in Chile, Peru and Fiji in the early 1950s.
 
The coming decades were a time of great enthusiasm for mission in western Churches and the Columbans were one of many societies with strong support bases and bulging seminaries.
 
But while things augured well on the home front, military dictatorships and security states were gaining ground across Asia and South America, leaving missionaries pitted with their people against brutal regimes.
 
This brought a new dynamic into mission in what had traditionally been regarded as the home regions of the Columbans, as returning missionaries began to lobby their own country people to support fair trade and challenge western interests that sought to profiteer from the offshore sweatshops and oppressive regimes.
 
It also brought the realisation that mission is not geographical. For missionaries, society can be a more immediate reality than Church, but both must be challenged to harness their noblest impulses and respond to dispossessed people with compassion, the abuse of God’s creation with care and suppression of human rights with courage.
 
As it marks 100 years of mission, the Columban society remains viable for the foreseeable-future. Over the years it has moved with changing times, fulfilling the dream of its founders by welcoming lay missionaries and volunteers from all places where it has a presence.
 
Today, it is sending people from Asia, the Pacific and South America on mission and promoting their support among Churches in those areas as well.
 
In his message to the society for its centenary, Pope Francis encourages its members not to glory in what has gone before, but to ever search for new ways of bringing the newness of the gospel to every culture and people.
 
He also expresses his gratitude for the society’s commitment to justice, peace and care for the earth, encouraging its members to build on what has gone before and witness “not only with words, but with lives transfigured by God’s presence.”
 
But success on mission cannot be measured only in numbers and physical achievements. As Bishop Galvin reflected later in life, “We did not come to convert the Chinese, but to do the will of God.”