Volume three completes the trilogy for Salvador Ryan; the title and contents certainly match in Treasures of Irish Christianity: To the Ends of the Earth published in the year that marks the 1400th anniversary of the death of St Columbanus, himself a great Irish missionary. As in previous volumes, the reader is given a veritable feast; a five-part work featuring 77 short articles, a few handy references for further reading, excellent and wellchosen photographs in an easy to read volume which has been beautifully produced by Veritas Publications. The book is a delight to hold and read. As Ryan mentions in the Introduction, the theme chosen for this volume considers the Irish abroad and their longstanding reputation for wanderlust and inordinate passion for travel. Throughout history the Irish have demonstrated the capacity to leave behind the familiar shores of the Emerald Isle and to carry within their hearts and souls so much of the history and identity of the country they have loved so much. After reading this volume, it seems that there is a little bit of Ireland in every corner of the earth.
The global reach of this collection is simply outstanding. Going beyond the wellknown shores of the Irish diaspora such as Continental Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, this volume takes the reader’s imagination to places such as Madras,Athens, China, the Caribbean, Pretoria, Bengal, Zambia, the Philippines, Ethiopia andPeru. The ecumenical breadth is also to be commended for we see the perspective, andwalk in the paths, of Anglican clergymen, Baptist Evangelicals, Presbyterians, the DublinUniversity Mission and the independent lay-led Brethren Mission. Catholic Ireland sentforth bishops, priests, brothers and nuns by the shipload but in the pages of this volume,other stories are told of clergy and laity who came from different traditions, brought differentgifts and lived out quite diverse spiritualities all for the sake of planting the seedof faith, winning adherents for the Gospel and glorifying the name of God.
These missionaries and travellers were poets and priests, missionaries and evangelists,saints and scholars, cultural ambassadors and carriers of a national story and identity.The stories are interesting and remarkable. Cork-born John England (1786–1842)was the first bishop of the diocese of Charleston. He founded America’s first Catholicpaper. His writings on the separation of church and state enabled him to address theUnited States Congress in 1826 on the issue of religious toleration. He was the firstCatholic clergyman to do so. Irish missionary sisters who travelled to the Kimberleyregion in outback Western Australia in the late 19th century were the first women religiousto minister to the Aboriginal people. They worked in primitive conditions, extremeheat, and extraordinary isolation, often travelling vast distances to what may have seemedto many of the sisters as the very edge of civilization. On seeing the stretchers that servedas beds with no mattresses or pillows, Sr Antonio O’Brien cried out, ‘Heaven be praised!We’ll not be tempted to be sleeping in!’ (p. 180). We are so used to the traditional imageof fervent missionaries, often in competition with each other, attempting to win overconverts ‘for the faith’ that we sometimes ignore the wider social and cultural implicationsof their ministry. Rutherford Waddell (1850–1932) was a Presbyterian Radical inNew Zealand who combined a radical commitment to justice and egalitarianism with astaunch theological conservatism. He defended women’s rights, established the first kindergartenin the country, and started a library, a credit union, a newspaper and numerousliteracy, literary and debating societies. He was influential in prison reform and helpedkick-start technical education in New Zealand. In an era when most of these things areorganized and funded by the state, this collection reminds us of the new and radical frontiersopened up by missionaries of various denominations, especially in the care of thepoor, the marginalized and the ones society forgot.
This volume at times was uncomfortable reading, especially with regard to a missionarystrategy that is no longer in vogue in these enlightened times. A mite card of theforeign missions shows three young Nigerian children and makes reference to the ‘Graceof God shining through those three pairs of merry black eyes.’ On the back of the card isan appeal for ‘Our immediate work is the evangelization of TWO MILLION PAGANSin Southern Nigeria.’ As embarrassing as it may be, it is important that such records arenot expunged or filtered-out of the historical record. Likewise in this volume we hear of‘troublesome’ clergy sent away by frustrated bishops and superiors, who sometimesengaged in fund-raising tours that seemed to extract from the poor in the Irish diasporaendless amounts of money for the post-famine, post-emancipation drive to build anextraordinary network of cathedrals and churches in Ireland. The built fabric of IrishCatholicism at home and abroad was becoming bigger, grander and more extensive.
In many respects, missionary styles and strategies have changed significantly, and yet they remain unchanged for those who hear the call to missionary service and social justice whether at home or abroad. In a very moving way, Ronan Scully shares his memories and reflections after facing the challenges of working in Calcutta, especially among poor children. He asked God ‘how can you let these children live in this poverty?’ God replied to him in prayer, ‘how can you?’ (p. 267). We are called to reflect on the fact that today in western societies there are the ‘new poor’ such as refugees and asylum seekers, victims of substance abuse and domestic violence, the reality of suicide and mental illness and those who fall through the cracks of rapid social and economic change.
Ryan is to be commended for this volume that completes the trilogy and for helping the reader to see how there is a little bit of Ireland in almost every corner of the earth.
- Max Vodola, Catholic Theological College, East Melbourne, Irish Theological Quarterly
This publication is one of a number of initiatives taken to honour the memory of the archetypal Irish missionary, St Columbanus, on the 1,400th anniversary of his death. Appropriately it is a collection of interesting stories about Irish involvement – Catholic and Protestant – in the foreign missions.
Pride of place is given to the Columbans. Established as the Maynooth Mission to China in 1917, they were re-named the Missionary Society of St Columban in 1921. Members of the Society served as heroic missionaries in China until 1953 when, with all other Christian groups, they were expelled from the country by the communist government of Mao Tse-tung.
They diversified across the world and in 1994 numbered 674 priests with missions in Belize, Brazil, Chile, Fiji, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines and Taiwan. At that time also their priests were ministering in Australia, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and the US.
Neil Collins, a fellow Columban, describes the challenges faced by Fr Hugh Sands in China.
In 1931, just three years after arriving in his parish, Sands was captured by the communists, then marauding around central China. On his first Christmas Day in captivity he was visited by Mao Tse-tung who told him that he did not believe in religion and that he expected to see communism spread over the world. On his release Sands returned to his parish.
Following the outbreak of war between China and Japan the Japanese forces in 1939 over-ran the region in which Sand’s parish was located, and in harsh conditions Sands remained a virtual prisoner in his compound until 1945. After a visit home he returned to his parish, where he was confined from 1949 until he was expelled in 1953.
The Columbans feature in a number of the other essays. Louise Canavan describes the early years of the Society at Shrule, Co. Galway, and later the acquisition of their head house at Dalgan Park, near Navan. Their capacity to adapt to local conditions is highlighted. This led them to pilot the ‘Option for the Poor’ in Peru and to imaginative ecumenical initiatives with Muslims in the Philippines and the Orthodox in Ethiopia.
Tom Davitt, the Vincentian archivist, profiles an early Irish missionary in China. Member of the Church of Ireland and like Hugh Sands, a native of Newry, Robert Hanna went to Paris to study mathematics and science in 1780.
While there he converted to Catholicism, joined the Vincentians and was ordained. Assigned to the mission in China he arrived in Peking in 1794. However, two and a half years later he died and lies buried in Tcheng-fou-se.
Michael Casey, abbot of Tarrawarra Abbey in Victoria Province of Australia, describes its establishment in 1954. It was set up by 22 monks from Mount St Joseph Abbey in Roscrea, which had already in 1948 sent other members of its community to join the new Abbey at Nunraw in Scotland.
Following both transfers the community at Roscrea still numbered almost a hundred! With the Cistercian Abbeys in Ireland today struggling to survive because of a lack of personnel, one is starkly reminded of the catastrophic decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life in Ireland in recent years.
Let us not forget that sisters stood side by side with the brothers and priests under foreign skies. Accounts of their experiences would make a further volume in the series, an appropriate acknowledgment of their contribution to Ireland’s Peregrinatio Pro Christo.
- J. Anthony Gaughan, The Irish Catholic, October 2015