Q: Why did you decide to be a Columban missionary?
A: I had a cousin who was a Columban priest who had spent six months in solitary confinement in China. I was greatly impressed by his story and felt that I too could make a difference. I joined the Columbans in 1961 and was ordained in December 1967.
At that time there was a strong plea by Pope John XXII for missionaries to work with the poor in Latin America. My goal was to be ordained and to serve in one of the Columban missions. At the time, I saw myself in the traditional role of a priest, going out to bring God’s good news to the poor.
Q: You were assigned first to the Philippines. What were your first impressions?
A: It was my first time outside Ireland, and it was a huge culture shock for me. My first impression was of a very friendly people, and this impression only deepened over my first five years of parish work. I quickly became aware of not only the poverty of the people but also their great dignity.
Initially I thought I was the one bringing God to the people, but over the years I became very conscious that God was working in these people long before my arrival. That period also coincided with Martial Law under the Ferdinand Marcos regime, and there was much unrest and organizing by radical groups.
Q: What did you learn in those early years?
A: The most important thing I had to learn was that I was not in control. I was an expatriate and if real change was to come about in the Philippines, it had to emerge from the Filipino people themselves.
I remember one Sunday when, as the priest on duty, I had to do three funerals all of which had arrived in the church at the same time. One of the funerals was that of a small child. The parents and friends had walked a long distance in the grinding heat. They placed the little coffin at the back of the church.
The other two coffins were placed closer to the altar. I was expected to pray first over those closer to the altar because they had paid more. I couldn’t stomach the contradiction, so I prayed first over the small child. Of course, all hell broke loose afterwards, but since then there have been many times when I have gone against traditions.
Q: Did this change your understanding of mission?
A: Yes. My years in the Philippines helped me to see work for justice as an integral part of the Church’s mission and vocation. On returning to Ireland in the late 1970s and ’80s, I worked in Columban Mission awareness. I was convinced that raising awareness of the harsh injustices that people suffered was central to the proclamation of the Gospel. The work for justice, which is at the core of ministry, needs to be integrated into every aspect of our lives.
Q: Next you were asked to go to Pakistan. Was that a new challenge?
A: I knew that Pakistan would be very different from the Philippines as its people were predominantly Muslim, and the Church and the Christian community were a tiny minority. I was excited to be part of a new Columban venture in Pakistan.
The challenge of Christian-Muslim dialogue was assuming a new importance in the Church. The Christian communities in Pakistan felt very vulnerable. Many felt they were treated as second-class citizens. During my years in Pakistan, my efforts were concentrated on a dialogue of life, particularly on concrete projects such as outreach to the poor and working for human rights.
Q: For the past 13 years, you have been working in Ireland on the issues of justice, peace and mission awareness. Is this really missionary work?
A: When I was asked to return to Ireland, it certainly was a huge upheaval. I had always seen myself as a missionary called to work in cross-cultural situations. It took time, but I feel that working in the Ireland of today is in tune with my own missionary calling.
Although I may no longer be at the front line of mission, it is important to continue to build on the networks of solidarity across many sectors of society: to make links between issues of injustice such as being involved in the call for debt cancellation, advocating fair trade, highlighting the challenge to end the trafficking of women and children and the huge increase in human migration.
There is a huge need to unmask the negative aspects of globalization and an economic model that tends to reduce all values, even that of human life, to market values.
Q: What do you see as the main challenges for people of faith today?
A: I believe that all are called through their baptism to be missionary. It is an extraordinary gift. Whether we are in the Philippines, Pakistan or Ireland, our mission is to journey with people on the road to freedom and fullness of life, to encourage resistance to whatever hinders this search, and to promote life-giving alternatives.
The gift of mission is from God, and we are empowered to witness to Gospel values and to create a new missionary story for a new generation.
Q: Have you any regrets for the life choice you made 40 years ago?
A: That is not an easy question to answer. As I reflect back on the past 40 years, I can say that I have been fulfilled as a Columban missionary. Our Society has been very open to me and has encouraged me to plow new furrows. There were certainly times over the years when I questioned whether I had made the right decision, but then I feel that must be true of any walk of life. It has been a humbling experience for me to have worked in the Philippines, Pakistan and Ireland.
The passage of Scripture that has most resonated with me over the years is John 10:10: “I have come that all may have life and have it to the full.” What is important is to look to the future and to continue to be a ray of hope to people in their search for God. I would hope to continue my involvement in justice and peace issues and to witness to a new moment in history.
As the late Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote, “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work … we plant the seed that one day will grow.”