There’s been plenty of discussion in recent weeks (and years) about the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The trauma stemming from clerical sexual abuse continues to cast a long shadow over Irish society. Indeed, the Irish Times’ Derek Scally has recently argued that the Catholic Church was as authoritarian and dominant as the communist regime in East Germany.
The humanitarian efforts of Ireland’s missionary priests, nuns and laity may have been well-known in the past. They were supported in prayer and financially by the ‘people in the pews’ who listened to their reports from the missions, read their missionary magazines, and gave what they could. But there’s a sense that this story is coming to an end, too. The decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland has included not just drops in public esteem and mass attendance, but a corresponding plummeting of vocations.
The first sentence on the back cover of a new book by Matt Moran, The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On (Onstream Publications, 2016, Foreward by Mary Robinson), puts it in terms of a stark question:
‘Is the missionary era coming to an end?’
Moran is a former businessman who managed the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Mission Support Centre in Cork for ten years. He also served as a board member and chair of Misean Cara, an Irish charity which supports missionary organisations.
So Moran is well-placed to document the work currently carried out by Irish missionaries and missionary organisations in the Global South. His new book brings together a range of short reports and reflections on the missions and their legacy, as well as historical sections which document how the example of Irish missionaries influenced the Irish state’s overseas aid programme, missionaries’ advocacy work at the United Nations, and so on. It explores new developments like ‘twinning’ between parishes in Ireland and the Global South, explaining how these initiatives empower laity in both locations to support and enrich each other’s lives.
Some of the reflections are written by Irish missionaries and those on this island that support them. Others are written by people from Africa, South America and Asia who have experienced the work of Irish missionaries. Some of those people have found their own religious vocations. They have been inspired to continue the humanitarian work started by Irish missionaries in their own countries – or to create their own initiatives.
The purpose of the book is not to debate the rights or wrongs of ‘mission’, or to explore the complex historical relationships between Irish missionaries and the European colonial powers who exploited the peoples of the Global South.
The book does not present mission as an attempt to convert people to Christianity. Rather mission is presented as a wider humanitarian project concerned with economic, physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual development. Faith is recognized as forming the basis of the values of the people who serve, as well as sustaining them amidst the difficulties and challenges of addressing poverty and oppression.
In short, it could be said that The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On portrays the patient work for social justice as faith.
This Irish tradition of ‘social justice as faith’ is a perspective that’s often missing in bitter public debates about the Catholic Church. Just as Scally argued that Ireland must remember and come to terms with the abusive dominance of the Catholic Church in society, it’s equally important to remember what was (and is) generous and humanitarian about the Catholic Church.
Moran’s book demonstrates how ‘social justice as faith’ can make a real difference in improving people’s lives. Could this alternative tradition within Irish Catholicism be what keeps the Church alive in the 21st Century?
When researching my own book Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland (Oxford, 2016), I found that the legacy of ‘social justice as faith’ was what attracted some young people to Catholicism – despite the legacy of the abuse scandals. One 25-year-old man said to me (p. 9): ‘I think to be honest if there wasn’t an element of social justice [in the church] I don’t know how relevant [church-going] would be for me.’
The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On also shows how important it is to embrace change. Rather than clinging to ineffective or out-dated models of mission where (European) providers ‘do for’ clients (if we can use those terms), the stories in Moran’s book demonstrate how the perspectives of locals are prioritized. Those on mission lend support rather than expect their views to dominate. [This is an approach movingly explored in Aidan Donaldson’s 2010 book, Encountering God in the Margins: Reflections of a Justice Volunteer. Donaldson is chaplain at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Belfast and co-ordinator of Project Zambia.]
In addition, The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On includes some profiles of work by missionaries from Protestant denominations, so it is not solely concerned with the Catholic Church. And the book is noteworthy for foregrounding the reflections of women – including lay missionaries and those from the Global South.
This book will of course be of interest to those who are already aware of and support this work. It also could be valuable reading for those who want to understand how Irish missionaries helped to develop good practices that are now reflected in the overseas aid approaches of the Irish state and the UN. Finally, it could be a resource for people – of all faiths and none – who are open to working together with people who cannot separate their faith from social justice.
Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com