Over the course of nearly 100 years, Columban missionaries have been caught up in major wars and insurrections in the countries where we live and serve. Columbans and other missionaries have grappled with the question to go or stay in times of crisis.
Columbans had been in the parish of Huasahuasi in the Andes (Peru) for some years; they knew the risks they were taking by remaining there. The Shining Path Maoist guerrillas operating in that part of the country had threatened to kill the priests. Two Columban priests were in the parish when they were given an ultimatum to leave or die. They chose to stay. Not long afterwards a local woman hurried to one of the priests and told him urgently, “Father, you must leave now. The guerrillas are coming to kill you.” How did she know? Her sister had risked her life to pass on the message; she was a coerced member of the Shining Path. The priest found his companion, they jumped in their truck and left. They never returned, but another Columban did return after a period of time.
In 1936 Columbans opened a new mission in Myanmar (formerly Burma). In the post-colonial feeling of the 1950’s the government decided to exclude any foreign priest from returning to the country for any reason. As a result the Columbans did not visit home, and they had no chance to leave for medical treatment. As their numbers dwindled they decided on a ten year plan which ended in a complete withdrawal in 1977. It was a hard decision to make.
Myanmar is now, thankfully, emerging from 50 years of isolation and repression. We are pleased that a small group of Columban priests and lay missionaries have been able to return to Myanmar this year. Now that we are back, we hope to stay. All of these decisions were difficult to make. They were heroic decisions affecting and changing the lives of and the people with whom they worked and shared their lives.
Today there are many people who make heroic decisions in their lives which affect them and the lives of their families. Like the missionaries in our stories, they too grapple with the consequences of their decisions. The ripples of unintended consequences run out for better or worse.
Ultimately, people of faith leave their decisions, once made, in God’s hands. Who knows where the decisions we make will lead us? The wind blows where it will…so it is with the Spirit. (Jn 3:8).
Fr. Gary Walker is the director of the Australian region of the Missionary Society of St. Columban.