Missionaries' stories in the spotlight
A new set of DVDs explores the experiences and reflections of 144 missionaries of 27 congregations, who have worked in 57 countries.
Missionary Stories, produced by the Irish Missionary Union (IMU) was launched on Thursday (October 13) at Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin.
Three Irish Jesuits are featured, viz. Frs John Fitzgerald, Conall Ó Cuinn, and John K. Guiney and in the Jesuit AMDG newsletter, Fr John Fitzgerald’s contribution has been printed.
He recalls his time in Zambia and how the demonstrative piety of the people was an eye-opener. Fr Fitzgerald says that Zambia and Northern Rhodesian bush was a completely new world in sharp contrast to his native Killiney. In the mission station in Chikuni, Zambia in 1953 he worked as a teacher at St. Canisius College secondary school, and Charles Lwanga Teachers’ College. There he saw students take the path to better career prospects.
“You didn’t give them very much, but they’d gobble it up. They were good, eager students, even though I wasn’t a good teacher,” he said.
Dusty and barren land during the dry season, wild flowers with the rain but also dangerous thunderstorms and lightning, venomous snakes and poisonous spiders were ever present dangers in sharp contrast to Ireland. Fr. Fitzgerald also found that Zambian Catholicism was expressed in ways that would be unfamiliar to Irish Catholics.
“They sing, they dance, they participate. Kneeling in silence, as we do, might be completely foreign to Tongan Christians.”
New and innovative ways of expressing Christian worship were devised to accommodate Zambian culture. One such method involved using local hunting songs as templates from which to create Christian hymns. This allowed people to experience a message, which was unfamiliar, in a format that they recognised.
“These hymns are still sung in Zambia today,” he says.
Development is a key part of the missionary project and there was a great emphasis on promoting development to fit in with African culture. However, some cultural practices were found to be difficult to integrate with Catholicism. For example polygamy was prevalent and seen as an economic practice that was necessary for subsistence farming.
In the early days Fr. Fitzgerald and his colleagues had to find ways of communicating and with the locals and bridging the cultural divide. They even had to produce dictionaries.
Nowadays the locals run the mission. Vocations have been successfully promoted, and studies for the religious life, from first interest up to ordination, are completed in Africa. Returning Irish missionaries are happy to pass the torch to their African brothers.
“It’s a healthy looking, locally-grounded church. The Jesuits will continue to do excellent work there, just as they do here in Ireland and in our other foreign Provinces. All indications are that it will become stronger,” says Fr Fitzgerald.
In all, Fr Fitzgerald spent 48 years abroad, living and working in Zambia, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Seychelles, before returning to Ireland in 2001.
Anne Marie Foley - Catholic Ireland