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By Father Thomas M. Priela
The author is a diocesan priest of the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan, comprised of the province of Oriental Mindoro. The Society of the Divine Word (SVD) has been working in the island of Mindoro since before World War II.
The Philippines, being the only major Christian country in Asia, (East
Timor’s population of 825,000 is 93 percent Catholic, compared to 83 percent of more than 82,000,000 in the Philippines) has a unique missionary responsibility. John Paul II made a call in this regard. Though these are part of my reasons for becoming a missionary, my motivation is a little more personal. Within living memory we in the Philippines, especially Mindoro, have experienced the benefits of mission work. By a historical accident, the missions to China benefited us greatly.
When I was growing up I kept hearing, often in subdued tones, that this or that missionary then serving in or around Mindoro had been forced to leave China in the early 1950s. I was told that they were waiting for their chance to return. I doubt if any of them did. But I am sure that their waiting immensely helped the Church in Mindoro and the Philippines. Mission areas throughout the country came to be manned by these missionaries. Many reputable Chinese schools were established. Seminaries were endowed and strengthened. In the end, their long provisional stay directly helped the growth of the Philippine Church.
Somehow their work with us has made their waiting ours too. Now that China is beginning to open up, it is payback time – time to resume the unfinished venture.
With the thawing of the Cold War, the waiting dulled by frustration became an expectant one. In 1991, when I heard of Filipino missionaries going to Mongolia, the waiting began to feel like an invitation to get involved.
Even then I did not see myself going. I saw my limited social skills as a contraindication of a call to direct mission work. I felt then that my calling was to be an animator and to raise home support. Thus, I tried to float the idea among priests of the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan (AVC). Many were moved, even up to the level of looking at the challenge under the aspect of responsibility. But none would personally own it. It remained merely a common ecclesial responsibility. After a few years of this I got suspicious that I was deflecting to others a call meant for me. I discerned some more.
In 1994 I applied to go. Bishop Warlito I. Cajandig voiced his support. He even offered to look for openings in China during his ad limina visit to Rome that year. My fallback was Africa. On this I received favorable word from the SVDs of Botswana during my exploratory visit that same year. But neither materialized. The policy was declared that one had to be at least ten years in the ministry before he could be sent on mission work. I only had five years then.
Again I applied to begin preparations in 1996 and looked for openings. That gave me just enough time if I still had to take some studies. This time I relaxed my focus on China and worked also through the Mission Society of the Philippines (MSP). But the priest who was to lead the establishment of our college seminary left and I was asked to take his place. I accepted but asked in return to take the shortest possible preparation to get the job done – Christ the King Seminary graduate studies. It was local and I was already familiar with the people there, factors that would allow my year-long studies to double as a base for securing the needed contacts in the academe and getting work on the college seminary moving. But, in the seven years that followed, the long, heavy work of building up the seminary did not leave any space for mission preparation of any kind. And it was just as well since not a single mission opportunity came my way then (or perhaps I just did not notice).
I thought mission work might not be God’s will for me after all. I pushed the venture out of my mind but somehow the seed had been planted.
Then, all of a sudden, I was relieved of seminary work! Despite my application in 2005 to begin work on the final phase of the academic program, I was transferred. Just when I was relieved of my seminary duties, two unsolicited offers for mission work came, from friends who were not even really close, within two weeks of each other! I prayed over it, exploring the offers, one for Sweden and the other for China.
The fact that I took as my own the AVC’s mission responsibility and that no one else would go, coupled with this recent series of events, led to my discernment that I must go. I figured that the Holy Spirit would just have to work overtime on my social skills.
I have been asked more than once, ‘Why go when we ourselves are in need of priests?’ In a way, the extent to which this question still has to be answered is a clear indication of how much we need to grow as a Church and how much we need to go into mission work in order to grow. The answer is not so much the Great Commission (Mk 16:15) but the Great Commandment (Mk 12:29-31). Foreign mission is not so much because of the command to evangelize the whole world. After all, there is more than enough evangelizing work to be done close to home. Rather, mission work is based more on the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Thus, while it is true that we are in need, other people are also in similar or even greater need. If we are to respond to their needs as much as we love ourselves, then surely we could not set the ‘me first’ precondition of waiting until we have some surplus to spare.
The question that bothered me more about mission work was that of effectiveness. Certainly, I would be more effective closer to home, where dialogue is easier, than in a foreign culture. Thus, if I were asked where I personally preferred to do my ministry, it would certainly be my home diocese. But then, the ministry is not a question of personal preference or effectiveness. It is a question of God’s call, of allowing oneself to be an instrument in God’s hands, of trying to do good the way God wants it done.
Doing good for a Christian is very different from that of a non-Christian. For a Christian his good works are a continuation of God’s goodness, the Missio Dei – God’s Mission. It is God who does good, who saves and the Christian seeks to cooperate in it. Therefore, a Christian’s efforts to do good must be in accord not only with God’s principles but also with the mode of God’s goodness. In simple terms, the principle is the Great Commandment of Love and the mode is revealed in the way God saved us – the Incarnation (and the Paschal Mystery).
In the mode by which Christ saved, doing good for a Christian is going forth, not waiting around for a summons or an appeal. It is seeking out the needy. Just as the Father sent the Son into the world to save it, just as the Trinity is so because of fully going forth from Itself in love, so does a Christian do good. He goes forth, from his father’s house and from his own land and people if need be. It is not important at all what result he can effect on his own. It is God’s work, not his. His is only to participate, to go where he is sent. Whatever effectiveness there might be is grace – God’s grace.
I have long believed that a diocese that does not take its missionary (ad extra) responsibility seriously cannot fully mature. If it actively shirks this responsibility, it would have its own growth stunted and even suffer a setback. Just as a Christian’s love for the other is a key test of the health of his faith life, so also with a diocese.
I go because I am a diocesan priest – because I take as my own the gratitude of my diocese, and of the Philippine Church, for the mission work we have received - because the local Church will not lose but even gain and grow by giving in response to God’s call for the local Church to send.
You may email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org