Homily of Archbishop Eamon Martin for the Columban Centenary Mass

09 Sep 2018

Celebration of Mass at 11.00am in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, Sunday 9 September 2018

“Columban missionaries are at the forefront of teaching about reconciliation and justice, caring for the earth, our common home, and pointing out how the poorest peoples of the world suffer most from the throwaway culture of greed and waste” – Archbishop Eamon Martin

On 8 September 1916, the young Cork priest Father Edward Galvin left a meeting with Cardinal Logue, delighted to have received his support for the foundation of an Irish Missionary Society for China. A month later, the Irish bishops formally backed the proposal, saying they were thankful to God “for this new and striking evidence of the continued life of the ancient Irish missionary spirit.” With the help of Father John Blowick, a professor of Moral Theology, and several others, people from all over Ireland joined together to raise the funds for the Maynooth Mission to China. It took almost another two years, and further persuasion by Cardinal Logue and others, before Pope Benedict XV gave approval for the Society of Saint Columban – this year celebrating one hundred years of missionary endeavour.

The first new missionaries arrived in China in 1920, with people speaking of “a million souls in China to be won for Christ”! But others, including Father Galvin, the co-founder, thought at times it was “a bit of a mad thing to do”! God’s grace blessed their efforts – the Columban missions in China continued until they were expelled in the early 1950s. By then, the Columban Sisters had been founded, and new missions opened in the Philippines, Korea, Burma and Japan. Eventually Columban missionaries – priests, religious and lay women and men – would proceed to Latin America, Australia, Fiji, Pakistan and Taiwan, Brazil, Jamaica and Belize and Myanmar.

“Go out to the whole world”, Jesus said – “proclaim the Good News to all the nations”. Sometimes we tend to think that this commission was only for “special” disciples, that the call to mission is only for the chosen few. Pope Francis, on the other hand keeps reminding us that every baptised person is a missionary. “Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples” (EG120).

At our Eucharistic celebration today we are giving thanks in a special way for those men from the towns and countryside of the Archdiocese of Armagh who heard the call of God’s word to become Columban priests. The motto of Saint Columbanus was “Christi simus non nostri – Let us live for Christ and not for ourselves”, and that is exactly what they did, by leaving their native counties of Armagh, Louth, Tyrone and Derry to bring the message of God’s love to the ends of the earth.

I welcome members and representatives of their families who have gathered with us this morning. In a personal way I also add the name of my own cousin, Father Eddie McColgan, a Columban priest from Iskaheen in Co Donegal, who ministered for forty five years on the island of Fiji.

In his letters home, and in the pages of the Far East magazine, my cousin Father Eddie spoke of learning an entirely new culture and language, of horrific hurricanes which flattened their homes and church, of fragile politics and a mixed welcome for the Gospel and the work he was doing. Many missionaries who left these parts had to carry heavy crosses along with their people, to cope with the ravages of conflict and climate, hunger and disease, persecution and imprisonment; some even gave their lives for the faith. Over the past century twenty-four Columban missionaries laid down their lives for Christ. May the Lord reward them.

In sending His disciples out on mission, Jesus was clear that they were to bring the Good News especially to the poor and downtrodden, to the marginalised and the suffering. And this has been a consistent characteristic of the good work of Columban missionaries throughout the world – they have worked for justice and peace; witnessed against oppression; stood up for human dignity – often putting themselves in danger by doing so. Today, Columban missionaries are at the forefront of teaching about reconciliation and justice, caring for the earth, our common home, and pointing out how the poorest peoples of the world suffer most from the throwaway culture of greed and waste.

Two weeks ago in the Phoenix Park, Pope Francis reiterated, “How much our world needs this encouragement that is God’s gift and promise!” He accepted however that the task of bearing witness to this Good News is not easy nowadays. People are easily distracted by the allurements and passing fashions of our secularised culture. There are so many contradictory messages competing for their attention and allegiance – in some ways our ears are blocked from hearing the voice of the Lord gently calling us back to solid, sound values – the message of the Gospel challenges our contemporary, “throwaway”, individualistic culture. Pope Francis put it well during that special Mass in the Phoenix Park:

“Let us also humbly acknowledge that, if we are honest with ourselves, we too can find the teachings of Jesus hard. How difficult it is always to forgive those who hurt us; how challenging always to welcome the migrant and the stranger; how painful to joyfully bear disappointment, rejection, betrayal; how inconvenient to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, the unborn or the elderly, who seem to impinge upon our own sense of freedom”.

No one ever said that being a disciple of Jesus was easy! Pope Francis drew our attention to Saint Columbanus, the patron saint of the Columbans:
“I think of Saint Columbanus, who with his small band of companions brought the light of the Gospel to the lands of Europe in an age of darkness and cultural dissolution … It was their daily witness of fidelity to Christ and to each other that won hearts yearning for a word of grace and helped give birth to the culture of Europe … Of course, there will always be people who resist the Good News, who “murmur” at its “hard words”. Yet like Saint Columbanus and his companions, who faced icy waters and stormy seas to follow Jesus, may we never be swayed or discouraged by the icy stare of indifference or the stormy winds of hostility”.

My brothers and sisters, let us be inspired by the example and power of Jesus in today’s Gospel story, who was able to open the ears of the deaf man to hear His word – by Jesus who can make the blind see, who can set free those imprisoned in their sinfulness, who can say to any faint heart: Courage! Do not be afraid!

As we celebrate and give thanks today for a centenary of missionary courage within the Columban Missionary Society, let us be inspired by this century of commitment to renew our own baptismal calling and our determination to be missionaries ourselves, bringing the joy of the Gospel to everyone that we meet. Amen.


Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland

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