The last couple of articles I have written for the Prairie Messenger have been informative, but this time I thought I would get a little more personal and share some of the reasons why I have come to be a missionary in the Canadian Arctic and what it is that I hope I can do while I am here.
I belong to a missionary order and one of the things we do and are known for is parish missions. As a Redemptorist I was formed by the stories of St. Alphonsus Liguori and our early founders who would seek out the places in their world where the Gospel had not been heard or where people just did not have access to the life of the church in a way that most of us take for granted.
I guess it is only natural then that when I received an invitation to come to a remote village on the east coast of Canada to celebrate the Easter Triduum, I jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to be a true Redemptorist missionary. It was during this journey, my first real experience of working with Aboriginal people, that I received the most amazing blessing to my own priesthood. In seeing the devout faith and spiritual hunger of so many people, who rarely had a chance to celebrate the eucharist, my heart was touched by a desire to explore this type of ministry in a deeper way.
After that experience, as often as I could I would volunteer to spend time, at Christmas and Easter, in small communities where a priest was seldom available. Over time my desire to do this as a full-time ministry grew and I began to make inquiries about where that could be done. Canada’s northern dioceses seemed a likely place.
To make a long story short, after much prayerful discernment and discussion with the local bishop and my own Redemptorist community, I now find myself the pastor of a region in Canada’s North where I can live out my Redemptorist and priestly vocation in a way that fills my heart with joy. But what does a missionary do?
Saving souls and bringing people to Christ was the old battle cry of the missionary, but I think our approach needs to be very different today. I do believe that Jesus offers plentiful redemption (our Redemptorist motto), but as a missionary I am only human. There has been a great deal of hurt caused by over-zealous evangelization and to believe that I am the one bringing salvation would be arrogance on my part.
Rather, I see the role of the missionary as a presence that helps bring awareness to what God is already doing. In my homilies and pastoral outreach, I point out the goodness that is present and, where there is suffering, I remind people that they are not alone, that God is with us always.
That might seem rather simplistic, but if we look to the scriptures I believe we find that this is the way Jesus shared the message of his Father’s love for us all. He took the laws and the stories of the scriptures and distilled them into a simple message of love for God and for neighbour to share a message that everyone could understand and appreciate.
For me this approach also changes the idea of who can be a missionary. We might picture a missionary as a robed priest in some exotic, foreign land but really, we are all called by our baptism to be emissaries of Christ as priests, prophets and kings, bringing the Good News to all those we meet. We don’t have to go to some remote location to find people who are spiritually hungry when so many around us are longing to discover the meaning in life that comes from knowing God.
I am truly grateful for my vocation and for my call to be a missionary priest in Canada’s North. People often ask, “What are the biggest problems you face?” I don’t see problems but, rather, challenges and opportunities.
Others will say they can’t imagine what it must be like to live in such an isolated place. To that I respond that Jesus told his disciples to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, but I don’t see where I am as earth’s end but as the centre of the world for the people who live here and at the centre, God already is.
Hansen is a Redemptorist priest and pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish, Inuvik. See his website: www.jonhansencssr.com