As a layperson, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend the dedication and commitment of the men who have given themselves and their entire lives to the calling of the missionary priesthood; sometimes it is even a little overwhelming to try. Traveling the world where Columban Missionaries live and work in solidarity with the poor and in the harshest of conditions, one may notice that many Columban priests work in active and physical ministry well beyond what most would consider a retirement age.
Whether it is a Fr. John Keenan who brings the light of hope to small children in a Filipino detention cell every Sunday by Celebrating the Eucharist with them and ministering to the sick and the dying in those very cells; a Fr. Denny O’Mara who diligently works in the difficult ministry of interfaith dialogue, or a Fr. Charlie Duster, who logs countless miles in an effort to personally thank our partners in mission, the indomitable spirit in which these men approach the work of building God’s Kingdom is more than humbling.
In recent months I have searched for an answer to define such commitment. These are the men that we have read about for decades in the Columban Mission Magazine. They have come into our homes and into our lives and connected our faith with action. Through the years, they have helped us all become a part of something much bigger than self, by asking us to think beyond the borders of our homes, our churches and our communities. Their calling is demanding, physically, emotionally and spiritually; it leaves me to ponder, why would one continue with efforts of such magnitude, beyond an age where most of us would simply say enough? Are the crowded and filthy shanty towns of Manila, the dusty streets of Rancho Anapra, the poverty stricken huts of Myanmar or the confused and dangerous villages of Pakistan a place for a 70 or 80 year old missionary priest?
The truth is that these are OUR priests and they always have been. They left their homes and families at a young age and never returned. They went to places that many of us would not want to physically go, yet they took us with them in other ways. They took us in prayer, in our support and in our thoughts. In turn, they taught us that Christ’s love is not something to be kept hidden away in privacy, but something to be shared with the world. They urged all of us to be more missionary and they helped us to fulfill our own calling from Christ. “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” Mark 16:15
Still my questions linger, why so long, why not more consideration to retirement? Why the commitment that moves beyond the ordinary? Who takes care of those who have taken care of so many? I turned to the scriptures for an answer and was met by the very words that these men have shared with me over and over: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8: 28) These lifelong missionaries, our priests, find deep comfort in these words and an understanding that moves beyond that of my own. It is an understanding that fuels a passion that transcends age and other limitations. While I still may not fully understand this commitment, I do thank God each and every day for the missionary priests that do.