Not long after celebrating my Golden Jubilee with my fellow Columban Sisters in Magheramore, Ireland, I found myself on the plane back to Pakistan. The Jubilee was a different celebration to the usual as we could not invite family and friends due to the Covid pandemic. Nevertheless, we gathered the graces and blessings, successes and failures, light and darkness of the combined 200 years in service to the Mission of Jesus Christ to go to the ends of the earth.
As I look at the picture of the four of us at this celebration, Kathleen Melia, (Philippines) Roberta Ryan, (Korea, Pakistan, Britain, Ireland) Kathleen Geaney (Philippines, Britain, Myanmar) and myself, (Korea, Scotland, Ireland, Pakistan) not forgetting our companion Ann Rita in the Philippines (Chile, US, Philippines) and of course Kathleen O’Riordan (Chile, Ireland) who already knows the secrets of the Kingdom, as she has gone before us, RIP.
I am specific about stating whose mission we are on because there are all kinds of missions nowadays with their own specific mission statements and vision, all for the greater good. As I was coming to terms with leaving Ireland recently, I was attracted to two topical stories: James Bond and Greta Thunberg. I saw both on YouTube. The premiere of the latest James Bond film, with all the glitter and excitement, was breathtaking even though Daniel Craig had already announced his retirement as James Bond. At the other end of the spectrum was Greta Thunberg challenging the Youth4Climate summit in Milan saying: “This is all we hear from our so-called leaders... blah, blah, blah. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. We hear many fine words, but science does not lie as we know by living through this Climate Change.”
You will notice that I am stealing the title of the Bond film for this story: “No Time to Die.” That’s it! When we entered in 1967 the world was in turmoil – not too unlike our current state of affairs, which makes one question why so, more than 50 years on? Violence and the fear of violence was omnipresent in 1967 – the war in Vietnam, the ongoing conflict in the Middle East of the Arab-Israeli war, race riots in the U.S. and protests against the Vietnam war, Martin Luther King’s nonviolent stance, unrest in Ireland and the threat of nuclear annihilation everywhere. An extraordinary movement was underway. There was not a trace of a mobile phone not to mention Wi-Fi but the Spirit was our Wi-Fi, and it was moving!
The Church experienced its own kind of turmoil - the Vatican Council had ended in 1965 - but the change called-for had just begun - sweeping liturgical reforms, ecumenical efforts towards opening windows to dialogue with other religions, and the universal call to holiness that turned everything upside down. Within Congregations, the total renewal of religious life as it was lived was underway causing great confusion. At the time, when people began wondering about the relevance of religious life, this small band of five of us came to the Columban Sisters. Three were from the civil service, and another followed us later as we joked about giving up a good pensionable stable job! As we came to religious life, many left because of the challenges of Vatican II. It was a gloriously challenging, confusing time which became an asset to us for survival “on the missions.” Here we met with both welcome and opposition. In new cultures, where we were welcomed and made our home, we also encountered fear, attack, joy-filled liturgies full of soul, learned different languages, depended on people of other cultures and creeds to make our mission work. There were also floods and earthquakes.
One quality of the missionary is to always feel “a stranger in our Father’s house.” We belong nowhere, only to God. We know that we are standing on the shoulders of those who went before us, and their courage showed “James Bond-like” stamina in the early days of mission. The outbreak of war in 1939 did not stop the call to mission as Mother Mary Patrick, Congregational Leader at the time, travelled to the missions in the Philippines, China and the U.S. to meet the Sisters. She and her companion were shipwrecked in 1940 when the ocean liner they were travelling aboard was torpedoed, but they survived the wreck, huddled for nine hours on a lifeboat 400 miles west of Scotland. The survivors were rescued by a passing coal boat and 67-year-old Mother Mary Patrick was hauled on board in a coal bucket. Others came from Cumann na m Ban (volunteers during the War of Independence in Ireland) bringing a fighting spirit for mission and others were on the run in China and were told to take nothing with them spoke to all our experiences.
Will you come follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name beknown, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare? Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name? Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen, and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around?
The world is opening up after Covid. On my flight, students were returning to Pakistan from Italy and Switzerland after two years of Covid restrictions on travel. Another was returning from Central Africa where he is working for the U.N. But there was a buzz in the air in spite of the current travel demands and a longing to meet their loved ones in a changed world. There is “No Time to Die.” The summons’ continues for each of us, you and me. Greta and the youth of today do not want words but actions. “Let us use the faith we have found to reshape the world around’ and ‘then the world will never be the same! Let us turn and follow you and never be the same.”
Sr. Rebecca Conlon is a member of the leadership team of the Columban Sisters. After profession, she trained as an occupational therapist in London before she was sent on mission to Korea where she worked with the St. John of God Brothers in Gwangiu at their psychiatric day clinic. She was one of the first group of Sisters to go to Pakistan in 1990.