On Sunday 22 October, we celebrate World Mission Day within the broader context of Mission Month, held annually each October. In his message for World Mission Day 2023, Pope Francis has chosen a theme inspired by the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, ‘Hearts on fire, feet on the move’ (Luke 24:13–35). When the pope writes in his message that ‘One cannot truly encounter the risen Jesus without being set on fire with enthusiasm to tell everyone about him’, and commends ‘those persons who have come to know the risen Christ in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist, who carry his fire in their heart and his light in their gaze’, he could be describing the Missionary Society of St Columban, who go out across the globe in the name of the Church to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Missionary Society of St Columban, also known as the Columbans, was founded by two young Irish priests, Fathers Edwin Galvin and John Blowick, in 1918. Its name was inspired by St Columban, a great Irish missionary who worked on the European continent in the sixth century. Rather than being a congregation, it is a society of apostolic life, made up of missionary priests, lay missionaries and lay people, called ‘co-workers’. Currently there are 375 Columban priests, 26 lay missionaries and many co-workers working in 15 countries around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Chile, Peru, the United States, the Philippines, Myanmar, Pakistan, China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Ireland and Great Britain.
Columbans are known for basing themselves in places where the Gospel has not been preached, and for standing in solidarity with the poor. They consistently fundraise to help those living in poor conditions, and develop and manage schools, hospitals and clinics in areas of need.
Fr Trevor Trotter SSC is based at the Columban Mission Centre in Essendon, in the north of Melbourne. He has been a Columban priest since 1970. He explains that the Columbans initially travelled to China, and soon moved into the Philippines and Korea at the invitation of various bishops. Their role was to build up the kingdom of God wherever they went but also, in those early years, to supply priests to churches in need. ‘Different people would hear about us and so, when they needed help, or if they needed priests, they’d reach out to the Columbans,’ he says.
Fr Trevor explains that Columban priests are more akin to diocesan priests than to those who join a religious order. They don’t take vows of poverty, chastity or obedience, though they do take oaths, which they follow. Being established this way allows Columban priests the freedom to serve on their own, often in very remote and rural parishes and ministries—which has often been the case where there’s been a shortage of priests.
‘When you’re appointed to a diocese in a country that doesn’t have enough priests, you might have one priest in one location, and then it’s a long trip to the next parish. If you’re in Myanmar, for instance, you have to climb mountains often to get somewhere, so it can be difficult to gather. And so these secular societies of priests who go out into the world were established, in order to serve where needed.’
There are currently Columban priests on mission in Myanmar. They manage education centres and boarding schools for the local population. The boarding schools are necessary because the students need to travel so far, and climb mountains, to attend. The Columbans have also established and manage a drug rehabilitation centre due to the impact of drugs on the local population.
‘It’s right up on the Chinese border, so there is a lot of drugs that come across,’ says Fr Trevor. ‘The people suffer because they’ve been persecuted. They are working in the highlands and the government of course is on the lowlands. And so the government is always trying to push these highland people off. As a result, the Kachin rebel army is growing and the people are caught in the middle, so they have a terrible life, and drugs are a way to cope.’
The Columbans have also established many disability centres, with Columban priests managing those in Peru, Taiwan and China. St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Pakistan is managed by Australian Columban Fr Robert McColloch, and a migrant centre in Chile is managed by Columban priests. Fr Trevor says these are just some examples, but there are many videos on their website, in a section called ‘Meet a Columban’, that showcase the many ways in which Columbans are on mission across the globe.
Within Australia, the Columbans have established a number of offices that speak to their missionary work here. In Sydney, there is the Columban Centre for Christian–Muslim Relations, which has been building mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims since 1997. Fr Trevor explains that he started the centre in response to seeing the many conflicts around the world between Christians and Muslims, and recognising that as Australia is neighbour to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world—Indonesia—this would be an important dialogue to foster and share. Fr Patrick McInerney SSC currently heads this centre, which Fr Trevor says ‘is a major part of the Church’s mission’.
Based on their commitment to solidarity with the poor and care and respect for all of creation, another important area of work for the Columbans is in the area of ‘peace, ecology and justice’. Their work has been inspired by Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ and the more recent apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum. Maha Shawky is a co-worker and chief executive office of the Columban Mission Centre in Essendon. She explains that as part of their peace, justice and ecology missionary work, they engage with schools across Oceania, along with parishes.
She says, ‘Each year we run a competition for schools based on a theme in the Season of Creation, which helps to engage students with issues around climate and care for creation. We also run workshops and programs in Australia through our regional director, Fr Peter O’Neill SSC, and Sr Caroline Vaitkunas RSM, who runs our local programs.’ Every quarter, supporters of the Columbans are able to stay up to date with quarterly newsletters, which boast a subscriber list of 18,000 people.
‘Our supporters are so important,’ says Maha. ‘Fundraising is an important part of our missionary work. Through our Columbans in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, we raise money to support the work we do in those poorer countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan, Chile, Myanmar and Peru.’ To help spread awareness for their missionary work and their causes, Columban priests can often be found sharing their stories in local parishes, and helping to raise funds from donations and through sales of The Far East Magazine and the annual Columban Art Calendar.
‘This is the great thing about having these guys working on the ground in all these places,’ says Fr Trevor. ‘These priests come home and share with their local parishes real stories about what they’ve been doing overseas. So they tell their people in Ballarat what they’re doing in Peru, and how the people are living in Chile and Myanmar, and it builds awareness and helps raise funds. But it also provides communications and linkages across these distant places, which helps build that connection of Church. Afterall, it’s not just the Columban mission, it’s God’s mission, and a mission for all of us.
Reflecting on what it means to be ‘missionary’, Fr Trevor says he has ‘two sentences’ that sum it up for him: ‘I pinched it out of The Tablet: God is always at work everywhere. And the purpose of the Church is to promote true human flourishing for everyone.
‘Jesus has been sent by the Father, the Spirit has been sent by the Father, to promote human flourishing.’
These words were just as important to Fr Trevor more than 50 years ago when he was ordained. The Scripture chosen for his ordination card was from John 10:10: ‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.’
‘That’s human flourishing, and that’s what we hope and work toward for every person,’ he says. ‘And how we do that “on mission”, how we build up the kingdom of God, takes many forms and meanings. Just as no two people have the same fingerprints or irises, God has a distinct plan for each person. What God calls me to do is different to what he calls another person to do. So I think to be missionary is also to be ourselves.
He also says, ‘While mission is often “being sent” by somebody, on the other hand it is also to be invited. We are guests in those places that we serve and work. The people who receive us are receiving us as hosts. This is important to keep in mind.’
Maha adds that through her work with the Columbans, she’s clearly seen that being a missionary ‘has no age limit’. She is inspired daily by a local 94-year-old Columban, Fr Chris Baker, who still enjoys swimming in the local pool, and who can often be found walking around the Columban Mission Centre praying the Rosary and offering words of encouragement to staff.
‘Fr Baker is half blind, but he’s still writing articles for us, offers prayers and gives us strength and guidance by his presence. He walks around praying peacefully and is always cheerful and thanking God for everything around him. He is an inspiration for all of us. This is mission!’