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

In US, Still No Decision in Racially-charged Case

Missouri town, many Americans on edge over whether jurors will indict white police officer in August shooting death of unarmed black teen More

Corruption Fighters Want More From World’s Strongest Nations

Anti-corruption activists say final communique fell short of expectations and failed to fully address systemic problems More

Philippines Leery of Development on Reef Reclamation in S. China Sea

Chinese land reclamation projects in area have been ongoing for years, but new satellite imagery reportedly shows China’s massive construction project More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Faminei
X
Daniel Schearf
November 23, 2014 4:32 PM
During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video Law Enforcement, Activists in Ferguson Agree to Keep Peace

Authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, say they have agreed with protest leaders to maintain peace when a grand jury reaches its decision on whether to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of a black teenager. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, has been the scene of intermittent violence since the August 9 shooting intensified long-simmering antagonism between the police and the African-American community. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid