Fr. Brian Swords is the newly elected moderator of the Scarboro Missions. Photo by Michael Swan

Missionary orders try to maintain their relevance in the modern age

  • July 1, 2012

TORONTO - English Canada’s missionary orders will not go gentle into that good night without first issuing a warning.

“The missionary groups, are they the canaries of the Church? If they die out, do we cease to be Church?” asks Fr. Brian Swords, newly elected moderator of the Scarboro Missions. “If we cease to be, does that not suggest there’s something wrong?”

The majority of Scarboro priests are now past retirement age. The youngest ordained member is 53. There are two men in formation, with one just recently ordained a deacon and the other studying theology. The Scarboros also include a dozen lay missionaries.

Compared to some of the European missionary societies of apostolic life, the Scarboros are in pretty good shape. But the order knows it may not be around forever, said Swords.

The retreat of missionary societies from the frontlines of the Church has a lot to do with changes in Catholic culture since the Second World War, said Fr. Thomas Mooren, a professor of mission studies and interreligious dialogue at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University. People have come to see 19th-century missionaries as the helping hand of old colonial empires that undermined local cultures and pacified populations to pave the way for resource exploitation.

“One of the problems is the amalgamation people make between colonialism and mission,” said Mooren.

While Christian missionaries in the field have long ago separated themselves from empires and their military and economic interests, in the popular imagination there is no new image of missionaries that would negate the history that gave us Congo, Rwanda and the collapse of indigenous populations in the Western hemisphere.

“We feel guilty and we don’t know how to reformulate mission,” said Mooren, a Capuchin Franciscan who spends up to six months every year in Papua New Guinea.

Swords often finds distressingly outdated notions of mission in Canadian parishes — people who question the Scarboros’ commitment to interreligious dialogue or imagine missionaries’ main work as baptizing pagan babies. But he continues to hope for a revolution in Catholic understanding of mission and the Church.

“To be open to mission isn’t geographic,” he said. “Geography is not the main criteria for us to be on mission. Therefore, it permits and encourages us to be cross cultural — but cross cultural could be here in Canada.”

Besides electing new leadership, the Scarboros spent a week of meetings in June coming up with new ways to be on mission. One possibility will be to create short-term opportunities for lay missionaries.

Until now, lay missionaries have had to commit to three years abroad, a period that would allow the missionaries to get beyond visitor status and embed themselves in the local community. The lay missionaries who could make that commitment have tended to be middle-aged people who have taken an early retirement. Two-month to one-year commitments might draw in younger missionaries, said Swords.

“Once they wet their toe, they’re going to want more of it. Not all of them, but...”

Getting people out in the field doesn’t just change their mind about Christian mission, it changes them.

“When they come back, they’re new people, they’re changed people,” Swords said. “They come back caring people. Before they were caring people, but there’s a difference. They now appreciate people as people of God.”

The concept of shorter or intermittent overseas commitments will also extend to the priests.

Meanwhile the Scarboros in Canada will try to persuade Catholics of the centrality of mission to Christian life and their duty to look beyond their own horizon to other cultures where Christ is equally incarnate.

“There’s a huge intra-mission that has to be done before any extra-mission. The two have to go together,” said Mooren.

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