Full circle for Columban mission as Chinese ordination looms

Fr Peter Hughes is the Regional Director of the Columban Missionary Society in Britain. 

Fr Peter Hughes is the Regional Director of the Columban Missionary Society in Britain. 

By Fr Peter Hughes

“This is a Mass of Thanksgiving for 100 years of great missionary work and we pray that it will continue in the years ahead”   said Archbishop Peter Smith at the recent celebration of the Columban centenary at Southwark Cathedral.  The congregation numbered more than 850 people from around the country. It was the biggest ever gathering of the Columban “family” in Britain.

Our understanding of Mission has changed over the years.  Unlike earlier generations younger Columban missionaries build bridges not just between east and west, or north and south but all around the world. In earlier decades all of our priests were from English speaking countries. They spent their lives proclaiming the good news in East Asia,  Oceania and Latin America. Thanks to their labours.  and the efforts of so many,   including the local people,  the Church became firmly established in those places. Not only that but in recent decades, Christians in those countries have developed a deep sense of their own missionary responsibility. Consequently the majority of young Columban missionaries today - both priests and lay people - come from Korea and the Philippines, Fiji, Chile and Peru. Indeed since the last century we have travelled a full circle since there are plans to ordain the first Chinese Columban missionary priest during this centennial year.

Hailing from the west coast of Ireland, I studied for the priesthood in St. Columban’s Seminary  and was ordained priest in April 1977.  That same year I went to work as a missionary in Chile. There, I mainly worked in poor parishes in the city of Santiago and for a brief period in Valparaiso on the Chilean coast. I was founder and parish priest of the first parish in Chile named after St. Columban. 

I worked in Chile during most of the dictatorship of General Pinochet which lasted from 1973 until 1989. Like all the Columban missionaries during that period in Chile,  I was involved in the defence of the poor against the oppressive policies of the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Because of this work with the poor I witnessed at first hand the abuse and hardship that they suffered. Some of my Columban colleagues were expelled from Chile during that time because of their work for human rights. A French priest in a neighbouring parish was shot and killed by the security forces as he read the Bible in his bedroom.

I served as Regional Director of the Columban missionaries in Chile for seven years. During that time the Columbans in Chile began to welcome local Chileans as members of the Society of St. Columban. They also welcomed the first Lay Missionaries to Chile.   After having spent 27 years in Chile I was recalled to Britain to help in mission promotion and fundraising. As well as Regional Director I am also the Justice, Peace, Integrity of Creation (JPIC) coordinator for the Columbans in Britain. 

Our centenary Mass in Southwark had the theme ‘Sharing Gospel Joy.’  A special Offertory procession saw the presentation of symbols reflecting key areas of Columban work.  A swaying red Chinese lantern was presented by the Chinese Chaplaincy in coordination with Cultural Exchange with China, representing Columban beginnings as the Maynooth Mission to China. Columban priest Jim Fleming, who worked for several decades in Pakistan, presented a mat and shoes from that country representing Columban commitment to interfaith dialogue. Filipina and Fijian partners celebrated Columban commitment to caring for creation with a plant and a copy of Laudato Si, the environment encyclical of Pope Francis. A Lampedusa Cross was carried by Waling  from a migrant domestic workers organisation that the Columbans support.  Especially moving was a photo of Columban martyrs over the past 100 years – 23 priests and one Columban sister – and carried up the aisle by members of the Tierney family whose relative Fr Cornelius Tierney died at the hands of communist bandits in China in 1931, alongside Fr Ray Collier whose uncle, Fr Anthony Collier, was killed in Korea in 1950. The bread and wine were carried by Nathalie Marytsch, a Columban lay missionary from Chile and two Columban sisters, Kate Midgley and Anne Marie Smith.

Pope Francis is a rich source of inspiration, encouragement and challenge as we respond to our missionary call today. He reminds us that the message we proclaim is joyous Good News. The message is basically about the unconditional love, compassion and forgiveness of God reaching out to everyone to become a basic principle of all our exchanges. Pope Francis is very emphatic in saying that our missionary call is rooted in baptism.

“Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are 'disciples' and 'missionaries,' but rather that we are always 'missionary disciples'”. (Evangelii Gaudium, para 120)

As we look back on 100 years of Columban Mission here in Britain, we give thanks to God for all the gifts and challenges which have been showered on us. At this important moment in our history we commit ourselves with renewed energy to what the future may bring, confident that the God of Mission will continue to inspire and guide us.  We are very grateful to the British people who have supported us so well over the years. You are part of our Mission and you are  part of our Centenary celebrations and our discernment on what God may be calling us to in the future.