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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs