My main contribution to our mission in China is facilitating overseas study for priests, Sisters and laity from both the underground and the patriotic Catholic Church. I feel that in my present role in China I am more a missionary now than I have ever been in my 37 years as a Columban priest.
I was ordained on Easter Sunday 1973 and appointed to South Korea in August. At that time all the Christian churches were attracting lots of new members because the churches were standing up for those who were being harassed by the government, in particular the industrial laborers. I was there for four years: two years in language school and two years of parish work. We were kept very busy with programs helping catechumens understand and appreciate the Catholic faith, a variety of catechetical programs for Catholics, sacramental ministry and plenty of opportunities to be involved with parishioners. Most of our contact with parishioners was related to the Church. The language was difficult, but we had every opportunity to practice and plenty of people willing to help us.
After four years in Korea I was asked to go to Taiwan and spent seventeen years there, from 1979 to 1996. I found it a totally different scene, where there was little interest in the Church. There were large numbers of Catholics on the books, but not many people 6 June/July 2011 www.columban.org Becoming More Missionary The Life of a Witness By Fr. Gerry Neylon came to church. Many had come into the Church during the 1950s and 1960s when relief goods were distributed through the parishes. Once the goods stopped most of these so-called “rice Christians” ceased coming to church. On weekends we would have only 70 to 80 worshippers at Mass, so there was no way we could approach the mission as we had been doing in Korea. Another factor that affected Mass attendance was the work pattern of many parishioners. They did not, quite simply, have time to go to church. They often worked two jobs, one during the day and one at night, and had just two consecutive days off each month!
In these circumstances we had to ask ourselves how we might be relevant to the lives of those around us. After much discussion with parishioners and the local people, another Columban priest and I opened centers for the mentally impaired children in our parishes. Taiwanese society generally looks down on these children. They feel that they are useless, and many are kept at home because their families do not want the neighbors to see them. Without other options available, some children are sent to a huge, state-funded institution where conditions are often horrific, where many are locked up in cages like animals. Lay missionaries from the U.S. with expertise in special education came to work with us. They insisted on one teacher for each five children and emphasized helping the children to help themselves, so that they might be as independent as possible. The centers are still going strong, and the children’s progress and wellbeing are wonderful to behold.
This work made sense to me, but I was also challenged in other ways. On one occasion, while traveling on a train, a fellow passenger asked me, “Is your wife also American?” I replied, “I’m from Ireland, and I don’t have a wife.” He continued, “You’re not married? You know, we Chinese all marry.” I said, “I’m a Catholic priest, and Catholic priests don’t marry.” He was totally taken aback at this. Noting his reaction, I said, “What do you think of this?” He said, “I think you’re very selfish.” So I said, “Why is that?” He said, “We Chinese all marry because it’s our duty to produce grandchildren for our parents. You’re not doing that. You’re only thinking of yourself.” It was pretty clear that the value that I, and Catholics generally, put on celibacy meant nothing to him. However, my fellow passenger’s comments had a big impact on me and suggested a need to be more in touch with his way of thinking and the values of non-Christians in Taiwan. In Korea I had been immersed in doing obviously priestly work in a busy church, but in Taiwan they were not buying that.
My missionary journey in Taiwan came to an end when, in 1996, I received a phone call from the Columban leader asking me to go to China. Columban Fr. Ned Kelly, a fluent Chinese speaker, had died in 1994. He had spent the previous ten years researching possible openings for Columbans working in post-Mao China. The other Columbans who were in China at the time primarily taught English in Chinese universities as an effective form to witnessing to Jesus Christ in a country where non-Chinese are not allowed to be involved in religious activities.
By 1996, my emphasis had moved from parish work to outreach to mentally impaired children. The idea of moving to China did not sit well with me. I didn’t see the need for it. How could teaching English compare with working with children who were shunned and ignored at home or shut away in some large institution?
After much soul searching and discussion about my particular role I came to China with the intention of doing more or less what Fr. Ned had been doing. I arrived a month after the British handed over Hong Kong to the Chinese on July 1, 1997. In both Korea and Taiwan I had been free to do as I wanted, finding my way along with other missionaries as best we could. In China, as non- Chinese, we are restricted in many ways. My training as a priest and my experience of working with special needs children could not be used directly in China. Most of the props of my Irish cultural background, my seminary training and my experience as a missionary in Korea and Taiwan were effectively removed in my new situation.
My new mission forced me to put all my emphasis on witnessing to Jesus Christ by the very way I live my life as a Christian. There is no shortage of opportunity to do that in a country that attaches no importance to religion. My being in China is about forming relationships, interacting with the people here in as deep and profound a way as I can, and letting them see for themselves what a Christian is. My mission obliges me to adopt a low profile. I cannot talk about my Christianity, but I can witness to it as I relate to others. I would like to include a short story to illustrate this point.
On May 12, 2008, there was a massive earthquake in Sichuan Province which killed almost 90,000 people. It happened at 2:28 p.m. in the middle of a school day. Many local schools collapsed and thousands of children died in the ruins of poorly built school buildings. Because of the onechild policy, this meant the end of the line for many couples, which translates into unimaginable desolation for Chinese people.
A doctor was working her shift in a local hospital when the earthquake hit. She lived alone with her mother and wondered all afternoon what might have happened to her. She was so busy with the dead and dying arriving at the hospital that she could not contact her mother. After work, she returned home to find her house destroyed and then began frantically searching the area for her mother. To her great joy she found her mother alive but pinned under a boulder. They talked for a while, and then her mother died suddenly. The daughter was totally distraught and inconsolable. She had no religion of any kind. She was a convinced materialist. For her, her mother was dead and that was the end.
A few weeks after that, in the course of my work, I was asked to see this woman. I talked to her but, because I am not allowed to be involved in any form of proselytizing, I spoke to her about my own belief in the afterlife and what it meant to me when my mother died. I was able then to introduce her to the local Chinese priest. She is now taking instruction in the Catholic faith with him.
I am convinced that it is at the level of witness that we can make the most impact. I can facilitate, but I cannot instruct people in the faith. However, I can show others what my faith means to me, and they can decide whether or not to take the next step.
In fact, I have come to believe that witness by the way I live is the the most effective form of evangelization. I take very seriously the advice of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times – if necessary use words.”