THE IRISH:
LEADERS IN HANDING ON THE FAITH

By   Edmund Hogan, SMA Lecturer in Missionary Studies at St Patrick's College, Maynooth

FROM the 9th century, which marked the concluding stages of the great early medieval Irish missionary movement to continental Europe, Ireland played virtually no part in the Church's missionary endeavour. The principal reason for this inactivity, as far as the Irish Catholic Church was concerned, was that for most of the period the Church was preoccupied with problems of survival. Indeed for most Irish clergy, trained on the continent from the l7th century, Ireland was in the true sense a 'mission country'. It was only in the l9th century, when its problems had been finally overcome, that the Catholic Church was again capable of looking outwards.

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800 A.D. high Cross at Ahenny in County Tipperary

In modern times Ireland's first involvement in missions came from the Protestant Churches. 'The Irish Auxiliary' to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.) was founded as early as 1714. Members of the 'Auxiliary' were to work in the American colonies, in South Africa, India, Japan and West Africa. Perhaps the most notable Irish S.P.G. venture was the Dublin University Mission to Chota Nagpur (India) established in 1891. No less active was the Hibernian Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.) founded in 1814 which, in 1885, inspired the celebrated Dublin University Fukien Mission (China). Many Irish men and women were also involved in British based or international missionary agencies, such as the South American Missionary Society, the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, the Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society, the Moravian Missions, the Baptist Missions and the Methodist Missionary Society. Among the home-grown agencies were the Irish Presbyterian Missions and the Mission to Lepers. The story of these Protestant missionaries has yet to be properly told. But from a glance at the evidence it seems that the scale of their involvement in the work of missions was proportionately as great as that of their Catholic counterparts.

The Catholic Church's first involvement in missions in modern times must be dated to the 1830's when a number of Maynooth staff members went to India in response to a request from the Holy See. The Maynooth Mission to India eventually collapsed. Inexperience, lack of organised support from home and the diversion of many potential recruits to the Irish emigrant communities after the Famine were the main causes of the failure. Nonetheless, Loreto and Presentation sisters who accompanied the priests and could rely on their Irish convents for support did succeed in setting down roots. Their successors are there to this day.

The next phase of the movement began in the latter decades of the century when a number of French missionary institutes (chiefly the Holy Ghost Fathers and the Society of African Missions) established themselves in Ireland in order to recruit for their missions in British colonial possessions. The promotional work of these institutes did much to heighten awareness of the great missionary movement already underway from continental Europe. It also helped to convince Irish Catholic clergy and bishops that the time had come for Ireland too to play its part. Soon Irish recruits to these institutes were making their mark on the mission fields and their achievements received wide publicity at home.

The scene was now set for the extraordinary developments of the 20th century manifested most clearly in the formation of five indigenous missionary institutes - the Maynooth Mission to China, the Columban Sisters, the Holy Rosary Sisters, the Medical Missionaries of Mary and St. Patrick's Missionary Society. By the early 1930's many of the older religious orders, formerly indifferent or non-committal, had become infected by the enthusiasm and were taking on missionary commitments, to the extent that Ireland was now becoming a major partner in the Church's missionary activity.

The final phase which commenced after the Second World War saw the active participation of Irish laity. At first the lay volunteers went out to assist in projects organised by the established institutions, working mainly in schools and hospitals, but also assisting in the growing number of development projects. Since Vatican II however there has been a growing tendency among the laity to chart their own course, within the overall context of the movement. Organisations like the Viatores Chisti and the Volunteer Missionary Movement and development agencies like Concern, Trocaire and Gorta are now making their own unique contributions in line with the Church's insights into the role of laity as elaborated in the decrees of Vatican II.

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Daniel O'Connell addressing a monster meeting, Clifden. Co Galway, 1843.

The contribution of the modern Irish missionary movement to the developing nations is difficult to measure in exact terms. We do know that large numbers of personnel were involved. in 1982 Ireland had a total of 5,613 priests, brothers, sisters and laity working in some 86 of the developing countries, as well as thousands more at home engaged in providing support services. This total includes 142 missionaries from the Protestant denominations, working in l0 countries. These numbers had been building up since the early 1920's. We know also from the record of their activities that those who went abroad were not only men and women of high idealism but were among the more creative of their generation. In the field their impact was bound to be all the more notable because they rarely confined themselves to evangelisation in the narrow sense of that term. Almost everywhere and from the earliest days Irish missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, involved themselves in the work of education, in providing medical care, and in meeting a large variety of social and human needs. Perhaps the education offered was not always the most appropriate. But in a situation where the intrusion of modernity was inevitable, it did enable those at risk to cope better with the great changes taking place around them.

On the level of values, Irish missionaries have sometimes been accused of religious imperialism and cultural arrogance. But recent studies have shown such judgements to be superficial. In the early days the missionaries may sometimes have tended to implant a Church modelled on their own experiences in Ireland. But the people among whom they worked had their own expectations of what was required. And in the event the missionaries were compelled to make important adjustments. In practice the contact between Christianity and traditional societies was in the nature of a dialogue or dialectic. The traditional systems took from Christianity those ideas and attitudes which they found relevant to their spiritual needs and at the same time enriched Christianity with insights of their own. The best argument against the charge of religious imperialism is the fact that in the developing countries a quite distinctive model of Christianity is now emerging.

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4000 year old roadway uncovered recently in Co Tipperary bog.

One fact which worked very much to the advantage of the missionary movement was the social background of its personnel. Both in Africa and Asia the Irish worked in societies which were predominantly rural. Drawn themselves from a largely rural background, Irish missionaries were better able to understand the attitudes and values of those societies than missionaries coming from the great urban centres of Western Europe and America. The empathy of Irish missionaries with the people was greatly assisted by their capacity for adaptation. One would not have expected this from the products of a conservative rural society. However, much like the Irish emigrants to North America and the Antipodes, the missionaries seemed to relish the freedom and opportunity accorded them in their new environment. From the very beginning service became the keynote of their apostolate rather than a determination to impose a new Church. And they were sufficiently open to allow the terms of this service be dictated by the people among whom they worked. Thus, their involvement in education and medical work which characterised their contribution was more in the nature of a response than a considered pastoral strategy. In more recent times the involvement of Irish missionaries in the struggle against injustice and poverty must be seen as a new articulation of the same responsive attitude.

The modern Irish missionary movement was conducted at a price. During the opening decades of the century the mortality rate among missionaries in Africa was high, especially among those who worked on the west coast in what was then known as 'the white man's grave'. Yellow fever and blackwater fever claimed many young lives. Many more returned to Ireland in broken health. In Asia, and especially in China, missionaries were frequently caught up in revolutions and political turbulence. Some were asked to give their lives and many more suffered long terms of imprisonment for their beliefs. This pattern continues down to the present day as recent testimony from the Philippines, Angola, South Africa and from Central and Southern America shows. Nonetheless, one of the characteristics of the movement has always been its resilience in the face of persecution. This willingness to take risks for the sake of God's Kingdom continues to be a reality.

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Irish Round Tower.

One of the most striking differences between the missionary movement of modern times and those of earlier centuries has been the direct involvement of women. Women played a major role from the outset of Ireland's participation. The Loreto and Presentation sisters who went to India and those small groups of Protestant women who worked in India and China set a headline for others. Not only did Irish women join continental institutes in large numbers but they also formed three institutes of their own. The contribution of these women, Catholic and Protestant, to upgrading the status of their sex in societies where a role of subservience was often the norm has rarely received sufficient acknowledgement. Their role in reducing the infant mortality rate through the provision of proper maternity services and child care can never be sufficiently emphasised. In a whole range of other apostolates too Irish women have been to the forefront.

The modern Irish missionary movement has done much to make Ireland aware of the difficulties experienced by developing countries. In particular, it has focussed attention on the areas of poverty and injustice, providing an analysis which shows the role of the developed countries in creating and prolonging these problems. The effect of this has been to stimulate a response not only from the Irish government but also and more strikingly from the Irish people. This has ranged from financial contributions out of all proportion to per capita income to a willingness by significant numbers of Irish men and women to place their skills at the service of the less fortunate. It has also heightened awareness of social problems at home.

What of the movement's future? It is impossible to say what the long-term holds. Since the 1970's the number of Catholic priests, sisters and brothers has been declining and the complement of students in training has been reduced by almost 40%. Protestant agencies have suffered a similar decline in their ranks. At the same time the number of lay volunteers has risen sharply. Furthermore, in almost all of the countries where Irish missionaries have laboured the leadership of the Church is now in local hands and the number of local clergy and religious grows larger from year to year. Some 'mission' Churches have reached the stage where they are in a position to send out their own emissaries of the Gospel; and already the concept of 'reverse mission' (missionaries from the new Churches going out to re-evangelise the old) has become a reality. This trend is likely to intensify. At the same time there remains work to be done by Irish missionaries in supporting the naissant Churches, in nurturing missionary vocations within these Churches and in helping them to tackle the often endemic problems of injustice, inequality and poverty. It is probable that in the future the Irish missionary movement will be smaller but more specialised.

The future of the movement will require closer co-operation between the missionary institutes and the Irish Churches. In the past missionary agencies tended to operate at a remove and were encouraged to do so by the home Church. There was, of course, much encouragement and support but the relationship rarely went deeper. In stressing the missionary character of all Churches and calling for a greater mutuality in the work of missions, the Second Vatican Council has set new objectives. Already two-thirds of Ireland's Catholic dioceses have responded by making men available for mission work; while one diocese (Cork) maintains its own special mission (Peru). But the home Church needs to do more than provide resources. It must also become involved in the planning and policy decisions of the movement as a whole. The formation of the Irish Missionary Union in 1971, which for the first time involved the Catholic hierarchy formally in the affairs of the movement, represented a first step along this new road. The establishment of the development agency, Trocaire, two years later, confirmed the hierarchy's commitment to a more direct involvement. But the process will require further initiatives if the Vatican Council's objectives are to be achieved.


From "ANNALS AUSTRALASIA"   September I988

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