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A reflection on being missionary in our present time

By Archbishop Murray Chatlain


The following is reprinted from the Winter 2015 issue of Catholic Missions in Canada ( and is reprinted with permission.

In our present day, the term missionary has a negative connotation. Daily, we are faced with the hurts and resentments that have surfaced from some of our previous efforts at missionary activity. Perhaps we will get to a point when people can be balanced in looking at the positives and negatives of past relationships. What I do know is that our morale is pretty low today. Having been shown where our good intentions have caused hurt, we are appropriately more cautious. So what does it mean to be a missionary today?

In this reflection I am using an address given by Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe to representatives of all missionary groups of the Catholic Church in 2000.

What are the key qualities of a missionary today?

Presence: When we are called to be in a new area it is first to be there, not to do there. Father Timothy states: “This is not easy, and, above all, it requires fidelity. The missionary is not a tourist. The tourist can go to exotic places, take the photographs, enjoy the food and the views, and go back home proudly bearing T-shirts. The missionary is only a sign of the kingdom in staying there. As one of my brethren said, ‘You do not only unpack your bags, you throw your bags away.’ ” I Call You Friends, p. 192.

We know that the question we are asked most often is: “How long are you going to be with us?” Rev. Jean Pochat, an Oblate priest who spent 40 years in Behchoko, Northwest Territories, often talked about his response: “They will bury my bones here.” Now his bones are buried there. People are watching to see if we are running from something or if we are choosing to encounter something.

Of course, not all of us are called to “bury our bones” there, but it does remind us that one of the most important gifts we can offer is a consistent presence. When we come to another community, do we really commit to being present there? Do we “throw our bags away”? How might we be holding back? Father Timothy goes on to say, “To be present for, and with, the other is a sort of dying, so as to be a sign of the kingdom in which we will be one.”

When an American missionary living in China was diagnosed with cancer, his community asked him to return to the United States. He responded, “Now I am mostly Chinese, I will not feel at home in the United States.”

One of my moments of satisfaction as a missionary was on a canoeing trip with some teenagers from Black Lake, Sask. They were telling me about an RCMP officer who used to be in the community that they missed. The young man said, “He was like you; he was part Dene.”

Part of this ministry of presence is not to just talk to the people about Jesus, but to help them recognize Jesus’ presence with their ancestors and how he is present with them today. As Rod Lorenz, a Catholic writer, states, “Those who believe in the Gospel and follow Christ need not abandon anything that is noble, good and true in their traditions. The good things in the old ways already reflect him.”

Mystery: The missionary is meant to be a mystery to the people. Cardinal Suhard wrote that to be a missionary “does not consist in engaging in propaganda nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would make no sense if God did not exist.” Celibacy, well lived, continues to be an important part of that mystery.

I remember when the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal went to Deliné, Northwest Territories, for Ehtse Ayah’s pilgrimage days. The people said in Dene, “See how much they have given up to work for God.” They had travelled from New York; they wore simple robes and sandals; and they relied on the generosity of others to feed them and the poor that they work with. Not all of us are called to that kind of ministry, but people should wonder why we try to live a life that is not based on money or power or prestige. We, like the people, are not always sure why we are in these isolated communities, but that God has called us to be there is enough for us.

Transformation: As missionaries we do not offer escapism but transformation. We do not provide prayer or healing services that seek to numb pain with religious fervour. We must first be present to the Good Fridays of our people. Our holy role is then to help them recognize the presence of the resurrection in these sufferings. There is resurrection. There are transformations. In little ways, sometimes in big, we see that the Spirit is active and working. Often it takes the objectivity of an outsider to see that positive things are happening. These movements are not cheaply earned. It is when we are immersed in the pain that we also see the grace.

Just the other night, I was at a meeting and a young fellow shared some of his frustration. He is trying to walk a sober walk in his own life, and he sees so many of his family and community struggling with addictions.

He complained, “Don’t they realize people are seeing them; they are giving a reputation to our community and to all our people. When I say where I am from this is what people think of me, too.” I think God uses frustration and even anger. These can be holy momentum producers to work at transformation with our Creator.

We are called to promote transformation in the leadership roles that the local people are taking on. We need to help people recognize and use the spiritual strength that is in our communities. There are some tremendous spiritual battles being waged and we try to help the people come together and trust the power of their prayer.

So as missionaries we are in a different time. We do not have the rousing speeches and the romance of a hundred years ago but that is OK. We are still important; we are still called. In presence, mystery, and transformation may we share in Jesus’ mission in his Northern land.

Archbishop Murray Chatlain is shepherd of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, which encompasses Northern communities in three provinces: Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.