A New Focus on Justice, Peace and Ecology
The editor of the Columban magazine The Far East, Sarah MacDonald speaks to Columban lay missionary, Kevin Sheerin, about his journey from Operations Account Manager with Microsoft to helping the marginalized of Valparaiso in Chile and Columban lay leadership in Hong Kong.
In 2010, Kevin Sheerin was working in Dublin for the high profile computer software giant Microsoft, earning a good salary and living a comfortable life. That was the year he decided to do something about a thought which had been niggling away at him – he wanted to have a lay mission experience. Faith had always been part of his life, but he wanted to be something more than a "Sunday Catholic."
"I'd heard that there were congregations that allowed lay people to participate as lay members, but I didn't know who they were, so I did an internet search. The first congregation that came up was the Columbans. I had no knowledge of them – I just found them on the internet." Originally from Moate, Co Westmeath, the 47-year-old was educated by Carmelites and brought up in a family of "strong faith."
"I've always had an interest in faith. I did a night course over two years in Milltown (Institute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin) because I was interested in theology. As a practicing Catholic, I went to Mass on Sundays, but I always felt that there was something more I could do. I wanted to try to put my faith into practice, but when you are in a place like Microsoft, it is a very secular environment and so most of my friends would be very secular in their outlook, they wouldn't have much interest in religion or faith."
His decision to become a Columban lay missionary was not rushed, he took his time. Along the way, little indicators were making themselves felt. "I remember one of my reviews in Microsoft went okay, but I was expecting it to be better. Afterwards I started asking myself if this was really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I had a good job, I was very well paid, I used to travel the world – I remember going to a meeting in Dubai and I was staying in a hotel for five days and it cost $4,000 – so it was a nice life. But I just felt there had to be more to life than this."
He consulted a life coach who challenged him with the scenario, if you were on your deathbed, what would you like to have done with your life, regardless of how impossible it seems. Kevin told her he always wanted to go on mission to South America. "Why don't you?' she challenged him and told him to research lay mission opportunities. That is when he "found" the Columbans.
He took his time before he sent the Columbans an email to inquire about the possibility of becoming a lay missionary. "I think I had the email ready for about a year before I sent it. When I finally sent it on a Monday, I got a reply saying there was a discovery weekend on the following Friday and so I said I would go."
He attended discovery weekends to better understand who the Columbans are, what their charism is and why they are looking for lay people to work in partnership with them. "I was very impressed with what the Columbans stood for, particularly in the areas of justice, peace and ecology—those were areas that I was very interested in. I found that it was a congregation that was very progressive and was looking to reach out to lay people and that attracted me. Eventually I decided that this was what I would like to do before it was too late. By that stage I was 40; I felt that if I didn't do it now I would never do it. I signed up and joined the program."
Having undertaken the orientation course, studied faith and mission, and participated in a Clinical Pastoral Education placement as a hospital chaplain, he was ready to hand in his resignation letter to his employers and as luck would have it, Microsoft was offering voluntary redundancy packages, "I managed to get a good redundancy and that took away the worry about money, because I was thinking if I didn't like it, that I'd have to start all over again."
He went to Chile in August 2011 for three years. The first thing he did was a language course in Spanish, and then he was assigned to a parish in Valparaiso on the coast. The parish priest had just changed, and so he and the new priest were both finding their feet. But it is easier for a priest to find a foothold in a new parish than a lay missionary. Priests have a readymade role through saying Mass and providing the Sacraments. For a lay missionary, according to Kevin, it is more difficult. "What do you do? There is nobody there to tell you about projects or anything else. It took me awhile."
But he did find a foothold, initially through providing catechism classes, which helped him to get to know people in the parish. Later he joined an ecology center which had several affiliated groups with whom he linked up. He also ran a school club for kids on a Saturday at the ecology center providing the children with breakfast and lunch, and he was also involved in an outreach to the elderly and the poor, bringing food to their homes.
Last year, Kevin was elected to the Columban Central Leadership Team during the Lay Mission International Meeting in the Philippines in October 2017. "I took up my role in August 2018 when I moved to Hong Kong." There are three people on the leadership team. Vida Amor Hequilan from the Philippines who worked for many years in Taiwan and Catarina Son from Korea who worked in various mission areas including Peru and Myanmar. "My role is to support over 50 lay missionaries who are on mission with the Columbans, deal with any issues they have, as well as implement and revise policies." Kevin and Catarina also have a part-time pastoral ministry in Hong Kong. "I am looking into prison ministry as there are many Spanish and French-speaking prisoners in various prisons in Hong Kong, and there is a lack of people who speak those languages to visit them."
Sarah MacDonald is the editor of The Far East for the Missionary Society of St. Columban in Navan, Ireland.