News / Europe

Catholic Missionaries Work in a Changing World

Priests with the Roman Catholic Foreign Missions Society of Paris. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
Priests with the Roman Catholic Foreign Missions Society of Paris. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
Lisa Bryant
The work of missionary priests and nuns seems more dangerous than ever, at least from statistics showing killings of missionaries doubled last year. Christian missionaries have faced danger for centuries, but the nature of the threat they face is very different today, as is the context in which they operate. These changes can be seen in the challenges facing one of France's oldest Catholic missionary societies.

In a small church in downtown Paris, family and friends have gathered to bid goodbye to the latest graduates of the Roman Catholic Foreign Missions Society of Paris. The young priests are heading off to challenging and sometimes risky assignments in Asian countries like China and Vietnam. Unlike other jobs, this one is for life.
 
Will Conquer, 24, is training to become a missionary. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)Will Conquer, 24, is training to become a missionary. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
x
Will Conquer, 24, is training to become a missionary. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
Will Conquer, 24, is training to become a missionary. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
Will Conquer, 24, still has a few years of training before he can join the departing missionaries. He's one of 27 seminarians in training at the Missions Society.
 
"I spent a year in Vietnam three years ago, working for the Catholic Church there. I saw a church that is on fire for Christ, on fire for the mission, on fire for freedom and justice [in] this world. ... My call is to go back to Asia and to live with the church in Asia," said Conquer.

But serving that calling can be risky. The Rome-based Fides news agency reported that 22 missionaries - priests, nuns and laymen - were killed last year, nearly twice as many as in 2012. Most of the deaths took place in Latin America, during robberies and other petty crimes that turned into murder. Other missionaries have been abducted in places like Syria and Democratic Republic of Congo. Their whereabouts remain uncertain.
 
Reverend Georges Colomb with priests from the Roman Catholic Foreign Missions Society of Paris. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)Reverend Georges Colomb with priests from the Roman Catholic Foreign Missions Society of Paris. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
x
Reverend Georges Colomb with priests from the Roman Catholic Foreign Missions Society of Paris. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
Reverend Georges Colomb with priests from the Roman Catholic Foreign Missions Society of Paris. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
Missionary work has always been dangerous. Hundreds of Catholic and Protestant missionaries were killed preaching the gospel in the Americas, Africa and Asia in years gone by, and others died of disease. The Mission Society's superior general, the Reverend Georges Colomb, said that until the 20th century, a missionary priest usually died before reaching the age of 40.

The society has a special "hall of martyrs" honoring its priests who died in violent circumstances.
 
Colomb said his priests face problems today in many countries. Getting a visa as a missionary is difficult if not impossible in places like Malaysia, China and Vietnam, so many priests travel as students, teachers or even tourists.
 
Young people join knowing they will live in countries where the Catholic Church and community are sometimes persecuted, where poverty is dire, and where other religions and traditions dominate. They want to prove themselves.
 
Founded 350 years ago, the Foreign Missions Society is one of the oldest missionary groups in France. Its 240 priests work in more than a dozen countries, mostly in Asia. They are among the estimated 3,000 priests, nuns and laypeople who serve the French Catholic Church overseas - a number significantly lower than in the past, reflecting Europe's secular trend.
 
The Reverend Jean Forgeat, deputy director for missionary activities at the Council of French Bishops, said the missionary task is unique. Missionaries have always promoted faith and the gospel, Forgeat said, but they also work for human development.
 
Professor Dries Vanysacker said missionaries today face new hazards that underscore the dramatically different context in which they now operate. Vanysacker, an expert on missionaries at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium, said missionaries today are in greater danger than those in the past.
 
"I would not say it's less dangerous to be a missionary today than 100 years ago. To the contrary. I think they're more involved with other people than before, and I think that's a more dangerous way of living than 100 years ago. Because then they were much more protected, by more powerful means, than today," said Vanysacker.  
 
In the past, Vanysacker said, missionaries were closely associated with the colonial powers dominating the countries where they worked. They often lived in big, well-guarded compounds. They were often seen as instruments of colonialism, and targeted as such.
 
"Nowadays, they have a more humble presence within some regions... They are living in the villages, they are living in a simple house. They are not living in a protected, big building," said Vanysacker.
 
Last year Reverend Georges Vandenbeusch, a 42-year-old French priest, was kidnapped from his parish in northern Cameroon by Islamist militants. He was held for six weeks before being released in late December.

French missionaries who served in Algeria during the civil war there in the 1990s were not so lucky.  Eighteen of them died during a bloodbath that killed upwards of 100,000 people. Among them were seven Trappist monks living in the Algerian village of Tibhirine.
 
Forgeat at the Bishops' Council said the monks chose to stay in Algeria despite the danger. They were brutally slaughtered. Their presence has not been forgotten. Many Algerians continue to visit their abandoned monastery to pay their respects to the monks' memory.
 
Despite the killings, experts have said today's missionaries are in general better adapted to the challenges facing them. The Catholic Delegation for Cooperation in Paris, for example, conducts training programs for missionaries that cover political, cultural and security issues.
 
Charles Le Gac de Lansalut, who heads the organization, said missionaries a century ago were not well prepared to adapt to new cultures. That's not the case today.
 
The Foreign Missions Society in Paris also prepares its priests for their new lives. Three years of in-country language training, for example, is mandatory.
 
Pierre Nguyen at the going away ceremony. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)Pierre Nguyen at the going away ceremony. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
x
Pierre Nguyen at the going away ceremony. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
Pierre Nguyen at the going away ceremony. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
At a going-away ceremony for new missionaries, Pierre Nguyen, a 34-year-old priest heading for South Korea, said he is aware of the political and cultural context he will work in.

Nguyen sees his task as helping to build bridges between his flock in Korea and Catholics worldwide. He said he will face the challenges ahead with serenity.
 
At the end of the farewell service, the priests file into the mission's vast garden. They carry small candles to light their way in the night, just as they hope their faith will light their way later on.

You May Like

Republican Majority in Congress Off to Rough Start

Standoff over Homeland Security funding exposes philosophical, tactical problems within party More

Pakistan Blocks Baloch Activist from US Trip

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan slams Islamabad officials for stopping people from leaving country to attend human rights conference More

Video Muslims Long Thrived in North Carolina Before Students Killed

Idyll shattered February 10, when three Muslim university students living in Chapel Hill were gunned down by a neighbor More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Sierra Leone Ebola Orphans Face Another Crisisi
X
March 06, 2015 12:28 AM
There's growing concern about the future of an orphanage run by a British charity in Sierra Leone, after a staff member and his wife died this week from Ebola. The Saint George Foundation Orphanage in Freetown is now in quarantine, with more than 20 children and seven staff in lock-down. The BBC has agreed to share Ebola-related material with Voice of America because of the difficulties faced by media organizations reporting the crisis. Clive Myrie reports from Sierra Leone.
Video

Video Sierra Leone Ebola Orphans Face Another Crisis

There's growing concern about the future of an orphanage run by a British charity in Sierra Leone, after a staff member and his wife died this week from Ebola. The Saint George Foundation Orphanage in Freetown is now in quarantine, with more than 20 children and seven staff in lock-down. The BBC has agreed to share Ebola-related material with Voice of America because of the difficulties faced by media organizations reporting the crisis. Clive Myrie reports from Sierra Leone.
Video

Video Growing Concerns Over Whether Myanmar’s Next Elections Will Be Fair

Myanmar has scheduled national elections for November that are also expected to include a landmark referendum on the country's constitution. But there are growing concerns over whether the government is taking the necessary steps to prepare for a free and fair vote. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman was recently in Myanmar and files this report from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.
Video

Video Nigeria’s Ogonis Divided Over Resuming Oil Production

More than two decades ago, Nigeria’s Ogoni people forced Shell oil company to cease drilling on their land, saying it was polluting the environment. Now, some Ogonis say it’s time for the oil to flow once again. Chris Stein reports from Kegbara Dere, Nigeria.
Video

Video Winter Weather Strikes Eastern US...Again!

A new wintry blast has hit more than 20 states in the U.S. Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region, adding more snow to the piles from previous storms. Tired of shoveling snow, breaking the ice and dealing with accidents, flight delays and property damage, most Americans hope this is the last bout of cold for the season. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Students

The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Fuel Shortages in Nigeria Threaten Election Campaigns

Nigeria is suffering a gas shortage as the falling oil price has affected the country’s ability to import and distribute refined fuels. Coming just weeks before scheduled March 28 elections, the shortage could have a big impact on the campaign, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA.
Video

Video Report: Human Rights in Annexed Crimea Deteriorating

A new report by Freedom House and the Atlantic Council of the United States says the human rights situation in Crimea has deteriorated since the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March of last year. The report says the new authorities in Crimea are discriminating against minorities, suppressing freedom of expression, and forcing residents to assume Russian citizenship or leave. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video 50 Years Later African-Americans See New Voting Rights Battles Ahead

Thousands of people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights march on March 7th in Selma, Alabama. In 1965, dozens of people were seriously injured during the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” after police attacked African-American demonstrators demanding voting rights. VOA’s Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights pioneers who are still fighting for voting rights in Alabama more than 50 years later.
Video

Video Craft Brewers Taking Hold in US Beer Market

Since the 1950’s, the U.S. beer industry has been dominated by a handful of huge breweries. But in recent years, the rapid rise of small craft breweries has changed the American market and, arguably, the way people drink beer. VOA’s Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Myanmar's Traditional Fashion Choices Endure

The sartorial choices of Myanmar’s men and women quickly catch the eye of any visitor to the tropical Southeast Asian country. But at a time when Myanmar’s political and economic opening is bringing affordable western fashions to the masses, will the country’s unique fashion trends endure? VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Yangon explores that question.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More