Scarboro Missions at 90

  • October 10, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - The church doesn’t have a mission. Christ’s mission has a church. For 90 years the Scarboro Missions have been convinced the mission comes first.

At 10 a.m., Nov. 9, at the mission society’s main chapel, 2685 Kingston Rd. in Scarborough, Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins will lead a Mass of thanksgiving for the 90 years Scarboros have been serving Christ’s mission. The missionaries will give thanks for the likes of Scarboro founder Msgr. John Fraser, first North American priest to take on missionary work in China, and Fr. Art MacKinnon, killed in the Dominican Republic in 1965 for standing up against arbitrary arrest and torture of young men in his parish.
There will be a lot of grey hairs at that Mass. The last priest to be ordained for the Scarboros was Fr. Ron MacDonell 22 years ago.

Every year since the early 1970s the Scarboros have sent out a handful of lay missionaries who make a three-year commitment. But most of these also tend to be older Catholics, often embarking on a second career in retirement.

Is it all over for an institute that was founded as the China Mission Society and thrived for generations on pennies collected from school children to save the pagan babies? The Scarboro Missions have come a long way, along with the church, from a mission dependent on colonial empires at the turn of the last century and then its feverish fight against communism in the 1950s. But are we at the end of that road?

“The essence of the paschal mystery is written into it,” Scarboro superior general Fr. Jack Lynch told The Catholic Register. “Death is not the final word.”

Lynch is a glass-half-full kind of guy who will accept the end if it comes, but for now is too busy thinking of the future. In September Lynch hired 34-year-old ex-Salesian of Don Bosco Steve Aldorasi to find ways to connect the grey-haired Scarboros to young people.

Two weeks into the job, Aldorasi is far from convinced the fight is over. There are effective ways to reach young people through new media. If the Scarboros can combine a more appealing Internet presence with options for shorter missionary commitments and really listen to young people, Aldorasi believes there could be both lay missionaries under 35 and new vocations to the missionary priesthood.

“Let’s give it one last hurrah,” said Aldorasi. “There’s a certain season for each group. If they’re faithful to their call, and if God wants them to continue, then God will bless it. The results rely on the Holy Spirit.”

Fr. Brian Swords is a glass-half-empty kind of guy and a former superior general of the missionary institute who thinks he’s probably one of the last Scarboros. But that doesn’t  particularly bother him. He began October near the Thai-Myanmar border waiting for a visa that would let him into the paranoid police state that has punished Buddhist monks for protesting and kept Nobel Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest nearly 20 years. He’s been inside Myanmar (Burma) before, teaching English to Catholic seminarians — a natural extension of years he has spent under cover inside China teaching English at Chinese universities.

The Scarboros have a long history with police states. In 1950 they were thrown out of China along with all the other Western missionaries. Swords was one of the first back in when China opened up in 1978.

From the 1960s through the ’80s Scarboro priests were constantly at odds with the dictatorships of Latin America — siding with the Indians in Chiapas, Mexico, standing up to dictator Rafael Tujillo and oligarchic land owners in the Dominican Republic, decrying the generals in Brazil for their bulldozer invasion of the Amazon long before the world’s greatest river became a fashionable ecological cause.

It’s not a political agenda for Swords.

“What we’re trying to do is become catholic,” he said. “You see, we’re not catholic yet.”

Swords has no time for a shuttered faith with its white-knuckle grip on a static Catholic identity. Swords’ faith is lived out in the encounter with other cultures, other religions and other human beings — a Catholicism that takes the ordinary meaning of “catholic” seriously.

For MacDonell, baby of the order at 50, to encounter other cultures means more than noting or even praising their existence. In Brazil’s Roraima State, in the northeastern tip of of the country, MacDonell is fighting to preserve a disappearing native language.

In the context of a political, cultural and economic clash between the Macuxi Indians and non-native rice farmers on the Raposa Serra do Sol (Fox-Sun Mountain) Indian reserve, MacDonell is fighting to save the Macuxi Indian language.

“Only the old speak Macuxi. Everyone else speaks Portuguese,” said MacDonell.

MacDonell has worked with local Macuxi-speakers to publish a Macuxi dictionary this summer. With support from the Scarboros, he runs a weekly radio program which teaches the language.

MacDonell’s conviction that the Macuxi language is a gift from God which Christians should work to preserve is a big turnaround from half-a-century ago when missionaries were part of the vanguard that invaded Indian lands making Portuguese the language of education, evangelization and institutions.

“People were punished when they spoke Macuxi,” he said. “If in the ’30s and the ’40s one or two priests would learn Macuxi language, in the ’50s they just did their evangelical work in Portuguese. Traditional beliefs, like pages (tribal healers) were despised as being from the devil.”

Armed with a PhD in linguistics from Laval University, MacDonell has learned the language and become its champion with the help of his parishioners. Not only have the Macuxis taught their foreign priest the language, they have also evangelized him, said MacDonell.

“Discernment is the first step in mission,” said Lynch.

Though most of the Scarboros are collecting pensions, all but two men in a nursing home are still active in ministry and still discerning a future, said Lynch. Part of that future is a commitment to mission in Toronto’s multicultural setting, and in partnership with others.

The Scarboros are already one of Canada’s strongest voices in interfaith dialogue with their Golden Rule poster comparing the most basic ethical tenant in 13 world religions. The poster is available in six languages. That poster goes with a program in the schools which teaches interfaith dialogue to junior high school students.

The Scarboros lend their impressive building near the Scarborough Bluffs for a variety of purposes, including 95 to 100 high school retreats per year, an annual interfaith Zen meditation retreat, a group of 12 Franciscans studying the core of what it means to follow St. Francis, a constant stream of visiting priests and sisters from Africa, Asia and Latin America sent to study English and a new co-operative effort by 19 religious communities in Toronto seeking to reach out to ethnic communities called Becoming Neighbours.

In fact the old building has become an extension of the mission for the Scarboros. It has just been outfitted with solar panels, like the photovoltaic cells recently mounted on the Paul VI auditorium in the Vatican. And the Scarboro headquarters was one of the first Catholic institutional buildings in Canada to seek a complete energy audit.

“What we’re trying to do is articulate the new paradigms for mission,” said Lynch.  “The focus for me is new life.”

For Lynch the new paradigm starts with a willingness to be evangelized that comes before any insistence on evangelizing others. From his eight years in Peru to the years he spent promoting the missions in Canada, Lynch’s most powerful sense of the living church has been “new experiences of how we relate to God.”

“There will be a rebirth,” said Lynch. “What form it will take, I don’t know.”

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