God’s Entrepreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Change the World

August 1, 2011

By Joe Humphreys. Dublin: New Island Books, 2010. Pp. xviii . 246; paperback $24.95.

Joe Humphreys, an Irish Times staff journalist and author of God’s Entrepreneurs, has worked in Africa and around the world. He is a keen-eyed observer of Irish missionaries, unburdened by any discernible acquaintance with academic theological or missiological studies, and he is clearly taken with his subjects – Irish missionaries – whose twentieth century experience he examines as it appears to a perceptive layman.

The result is a book that provides insights into the members of Irish-founded orders and societies of apostolic life founded in the first quarter of the 20th century, such as the Columbans and Medical Missionary Sisters. Their members are both the products of ordinary Irish life and culture and possess traits common among Catholic missionaries I personally know from the generations that went into mission from 1920 through about 1970, many of whom were still active in 2010. He has interviewed dozens of them, including men and women who knew their orders’ founders, and they have opened themselves to him. Their practicality and tales of unceremoniously discarded ineffective fellow missioners stand out, sometimes shockingly.

Humphreys brings into relief the attitudes of missionaries in the pre-Vatican Council II era, the radical changes introduced by the Council, and the withering of the missionary movement in a nation that at its height provided the highest per capita number of missionaries of any national Catholic church (7,081 overseas missioners from a church numbering 2.5 million in 1965; 1,981 rapidly ageing missioners in 2008 from a church of 3.8 million).

William R. Burrows, a contributing editor of IBMR, is research professor of missiology in the World Christianity Program at New York Theological Seminary and managing editor emeritus of Orbis Books. He has worked in Papua New Guinea (1972-77) and inner city Chicago (1979-83).