For many Catholics, the word missionary brings to mind a centuries-old image of a priest planting a cross in a foreign land and teaching, baptizing and celebrating Mass for its people. Or it may conjure up the slightly more modern image of women religious running a school in Africa or Latin America. One of the last images to come to mind, however, is that of a young family living and working with the poor. As the number of priests and religious in ministry around the globe declines, the number of lay people doing mission work increases.
The development should not be new to Catholics in the United States, where lay people distribute Communion at Mass, staff Catholic schools, even lead Sunday Communion services in thousands of communities without resident priestsroles traditionally filled by priests and religious. Yet because lay missionaries work in other countries and continents, the average American Catholic does not see them.
Meet Joe and Becky Sherman. The Shermans are raising their two children, six-year-old Josh and three-year-old Celia, in a rural area near Cochabamba, Bolivia. Having spent nearly two years in Uganda with a program through Johns Hopkins University, the couple knew that after they had children they would return overseas, preferably with a faith-based organization. They learned all they could before making a commitment to serve with Maryknoll Lay Missioners.
Life in Uganda was hard, says Becky Sherman. Maryknoll has experience with familieslots of experienceso we wouldnt go through it alone as a family. Maryknolls values of accompaniment, living out Gospel values and living in community were amazing to us, she continues. We could live abroad, with a ready-made Catholic community who would walk with us through the difficult times we knew we would have. Joe Sherman, 47, now a medical doctor with a degree also in bioengineering, works as a pediatrician and Becky, 38, as a child clinical psychologist, while their blond-haired, blue-eyed children attend a neighborhood school.
Although they realize they are different, there is no value judgment, Becky says of her children. Their best buddies live in very impoverished conditions, and our kids are fine with that and in such a beautiful way.
The Shermans commitment with Maryknoll expires in 2009, at which time, says Becky, they are not likely to renew for another three years. The familys future plans include settling back into their house in the United States and perhaps serving short stints in Africa during the childrens summer vacations. It is very important for me that my kids know where they are from and where they will move back to, she says. I want them to know that they have a home. Seattle is our home. (You can read more about the Shermans experience at www.familysherman.com.)
Communicating the Lay Mission Experience
As they seek funding and new missionaries, the people involved in sustaining the missions say, Some give by going to mission, others go by giving to mission; and without both, there is no mission. The problem scores of Catholic lay missionary organizations are facing, however, is that Catholics cannot support a ministry they do not know exists. The goal is to get the word out. Today Catholic lay missionaries serve as educators, health care workers, counselors and administrators around the world. Yet a lack of fundsnot a lack of peopleprevents the organizations they serve from growing. To support these new missionaries, the Catholics in the pews must exchange their old image for a new one: that of laypersons living in solidarity with non-Christians and fledgling local churches in all parts of the world.
As Pope John Paul II wrote 17 years ago in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, It is necessary to recognizeand it is a title of honorthat some churches owe their origins to the activity of lay men and women missionaries. Whereas the foundation of a new church requires the Eucharist and hence the priestly ministry, he continued, missionary activity, which is carried out in a wide variety of ways, is the task of all the Christian faithful.
Lay mission work actually has ancient roots. Pope Pius XII recalled the essential role of early Christian lay missionaries and encouraged his lay listeners to do the same: All know that the Gospel followed the great Roman roads and was spread not only by bishops and priests but also by public officials, soldiers and private citizens, he wrote (Evangelii Praecones, 1951).
The Holy Spirit spoke, and the laity listened. Fifty-six years after Pius XII wrote those words, the lay groups founded by religious communities and affiliated with them are thriving. Maryknoll Lay Missioners counts 137 now working in 17 countries, plus scores who have served previously. Franciscan Mission Service has sent more than 200 missionaries since it was founded in 1990. The St. Vincent Pallotti Center, an organization that assists Catholic lay missionaries, also publishes Connections, an annual directory of more than 100 faith-based volunteer programs with placements in the United States and overseas. The centers director, Andrew Thompson, recalls that in the 20 years he has spent working for the Pallotti Center, the number of Catholic organizations supporting lay missionaries has more than doubled.
The Catholic Network of Volunteer Services publishes Response, a booklet that lists hundreds of volunteer opportunities for lay people. By the networks estimate, more than 10,000 volunteers and lay missioners serve in these programs throughout the United States and in 108 other countries, though many of the organizations support short-term programs (often less than a year). By contrast, groups like Maryknoll Lay Missioners ask for a commitment of at least one to three years.
Diedra Barlow teaches physiotherapy at the Dhulikhel Medical Institute, affiliated with Kathmandu University in Nepal. Her journey in the mission world began with a four-week volunteer program in Calcutta in 1993. After additional short-term volunteer experiences in Nepal and India, Barlow began to realize that her short-term volunteering was becoming long-term. When two lay missionary organizations accepted her, Barlow chose Maryknoll because it was looking for someone to work in Asia. I have often said that while I made the right decision, I may have done so for the wrong reason, Barlow says. But it was indeed the right decision. I believe in Maryknoll Lay Missioners stated mission, vision and core values.
A physical therapist by training, Barlow finds educating the Nepalese challenging. Very few students have good study habits and seek to memorize facts in preparation for exams, she says. Convincing the students that that is not how we operate at D.M.I. is indeed a challenge. But, like most missionaries, she says the rewardswatching the students grow over the years into mature physiotherapists who will reach hundreds of Nepalisfar outweigh the challenges.
Barlow has been with Maryknoll Lay Missioners for seven years, four of them in Thailand and three in Nepal. The 62-year-old missionary does not know whether she will continue when her contract expires in two years. Returning to active clinical practice upon my return to the United States is probably not in the cards, but I have not seriously considered what other options might be available, she says. I have always said that as long as there is a need that I can fulfill and as long as I remain in good health, I would consider remaining in mission. Certainly, being in mission is transforming.
Purpose and Challenges
While the attitude of missionaries, both lay and vowed religious, has shifted in the last 50 years from what one may call paternalism to solidarity, the overall goal remains the same, at least in theory. The proper purpose of this missionary activity is evangelization, and the planting of the church among those peoples and groups where it has not yet taken root, states the Second Vatican Councils Decree on the Churchs Missionary Activity. But missionary work is not confined to non-Christian parts of the world. The decree acknowledges that churches suffering from a lack of priests and material support are badly in need of the continued missionary activity of the whole church to furnish them with those subsidies which serve for the growth of the local church, and above all for the maturity of Christian life. This mission action should also furnish help to those churches, founded long since, which are in a certain state of regression or weakness.
Lay mission organizations are much younger than most religious communities, and they are also smaller. But increasingly, and not always by choice, they are beginning to stand on their own, a difficult feat after having been supported by religious communities for decades. As health care and retirement costs increase for aging religious communities, their ability to support separate lay organizations declines. While some call this unfair, because in many cases the religious communities sit on millions of dollars in real estate and investments not yet being fully used, others call it a reasonable challenge.
Were facing the challenges most typical nonprofits face, said Kevin Mestrich, executive director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. The fact that weve never faced them before made us a privileged organization. Weve had to restructure ourselves into a more sustainable framework for operations. That means adding marketing and communications. The fact that we didnt have to do it for a number of years didnt mean it wasnt being done. It wasby our parent organization. Now were responding to a changed environment.
The environment has indeed changed. According to its 2005 annual report, $2.2 million of Maryknoll Lay Missioners $8.2 million budget (less than a quarter) came from a grant from Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, and Maryknoll Sisters. Ten years ago the lay missioners were fully supported by Maryknoll Priests and Brothers.
Much of the lay missioners revenue goes directly to mission work. Maryknoll offers lay missioners an orientation program in Ossining, N.Y., travel expenses to the mission destination, health insurance, housing and a personal allowance (usually $200 per month). Like many businesses, Maryknoll also provides its volunteers with a retirement plan. Financial constraints have limited each years outgoing class of lay missioners to 12. Though Maryknoll Lay Missioners has not had to turn away qualified missioners because of its financial situation, it has significantly decreased its recruitment efforts to prevent such an eventuality. And Maryknoll is one of the larger, more established organizations of lay Catholic missionaries.
Good Shepherd Volunteers
Compare Maryknoll to Good Shepherd Volunteers, a 16-year-old domestic and international lay mission program affiliated with the Good Shepherd Sisters. Though much smaller in size (Good Shepherd Volunteers sends two to four lay missionaries each year) they face many of the same challenges.
After graduating with a degree in religion, philosophy and Spanish from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, Abbie Kretz pursued an opportunity to serve in Peru with Good Shepherd Volunteers. She arrived in Lima in August 2005 and spent her first months working at a home for teenage girls. The girls swear, yell at you, hate you one day, love you the next, ask you very personal questions, manipulate you, rob you, whatever they want, she says. Honestly, I had no desire to work with adolescentsand I still dont think thats for mebut they started to get under my skin. I learned how to work with them and manage them, and we learned a lot about each other. They still had their attitudes and everything else, but I just became used to them.
A year later, Kretz joined Good Shepherd Sisters in ministering to sexually exploited women in an area of Lima filled with prostitution, gangs, poverty, drug addicts, pimps and police, she says. Kretz, 24, ventures out to talk with the women and invite them to a center run by the sisters. Sometimes they dont want to hear a thing from you as theyre working, or they may open up to you and share their life stories with you, says Kretz. The environment in those areas is completely ugly and most times unsafe. But I feel more apt for this job. Its something I like and that I think I have a gift for. Kretzs term with Good Shepherd Volunteers expires in July. Her plans may include graduate school in law or economics and perhaps working abroad for a nongovernmental organization on womens issues or education.
Good Shepherd Volunteers is headed by Michele Gilfillan, who notes that the organization was founded not as a way to recruit new sisters, but by forward-thinking women religious who saw their own numbers shrinking and wanted to ensure that their work and their charism survived. Though not a trained fund-raiser, Gilfillans résumé includes marketing, community development and advocacy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphias Office for Human Relations and Catholic Relief Services. When she took the reins three years ago from the programs founding director, Gilfillan was charged with three tasks: to strengthen the international lay mission program, to develop the board of directors and to diversify revenue sources. Good Shepherd Volunteers receives 65 percent of its $250,000 annual budget from the Good Shepherd Sisters. Volunteers are asked to raise close to $5,000 to help defray costs. Gilfillan is working to diversify revenue sources through direct mail appeals, developing relationships with former volunteers and seeking grants from foundations.
A Hard Sell?
As grant money from affiliated religious communities dries up, some in lay mission organizations wish the church hierarchy at all levelspriests, diocesan mission office directors, bishops, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vaticanwould do more to promote awareness of lay missionaries.
In an ideal world, American Catholics would be very interested in their connection to people around the world and more supportive of those able to help, said Stephen Price, part of the leadership team of S.M.A. Lay Missioners, an organization affiliated with the Society of African Missions.
At the diocesan level, the task of promoting the value of lay missionaries typically falls to a missions office director. Sometimes a part-timer, sometimes a full-timer, the director typically coordinates the Society of the Propagation of the Faith and Holy Childhood Association on the local level. For most mission office directors, promoting lay missions is not a high priority, especially since many directors must juggle the mission office job with a parish pastoral assignment and other responsibilities. For some, though, promoting the laity is a priority and a passion.
A former Maryknoll lay missioner now working on his doctorate in missiology, Michael Gable has headed the Archdiocese of Cincinnatis missions office for six years.
Five hundred years of one image of missionary doesnt turn around overnight, he said. It is harder to sell, Gable said of lay mission work. These people only make a four-year commitment. Part of my job is to say that these people have made contributions and continue to make contributions when they come back to the United States. They bring expertise into their parishes, schools and workplaces.
One of the easiest ways for mission office directors to increase parish awareness is to bring lay missioners to speak at parishes. Every year, missionary groups apply to dioceses around the United States for a chance to speak during the summer and receive a special collection at Mass. Of the 175 to 200 applications Gable receives every year, approximately 70 are from communities of vowed religious, 70 are from overseas dioceses and 10 are from lay organizations. Fewer applications come from lay groups, because not many of them have a budget to send speakers across the country, Gable explained. Out of the 100 groups who spoke in 2006 at 283 parishes in Los Angeles, the nations most populous archdiocese, only five were lay missionary groups.
It is clear from any set of statistics one examines, from the rising age and declining number of priests, to the hundreds of Catholics willing to be missionaries even without being actively recruited, that the future of missionary worklike the future of Catholic education, health care and social ministrylies with the laity. If the ministry is going to thrive, Catholics in the pews must understand and respond. The Propagation of the Faith office can be a powerful means for helping people in the pews recognize that laity are responsible for doing the churchs missionary work, said the Pallotti Centers Andrew Thompson. Theyre not just little helpers for priests and religious groups. Most missionaries would agree.
Missionary work would be more fruitful, said S.M.A. Lay Missioners Stephen Price, if our church could formally recognize the value of lay missionaries as they have with clerical and religious missionaries, if that could be made more prominent in church documents or its arrangements for financing. Price noted that though S.M.A. Lay Missioners are funded by S.M.A. fathers, the priests have warned the lay group that their grants would be diminishing. Priests have been quite generous, but when all of that is on our own shoulders, it will be hard. All groups are facing this and trying to address it together, he said. I dont think weve come up with an answer yet.
Read an interview with Vincent Gragnani.