Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
Missionary work is fundamental to the life of the Church. After his Resurrection, Christ gave his Apostles the Great Commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
I spoke with four Catholic missionaries, and I asked them to talk about what motivates them to be a missionary, and about the work they perform.
Fr. Michael Shields of the Archdiocese of Anchorage served many years as a missionary priest in Magadan, Russia, the site of a former Soviet slave labor camp.
I was one of the first Americans to go to Magadan in 1989. We celebrated an open liturgy, and about 300 attended, most of whom were not believers. I returned a second time, and saw how brutally cold it can get there, and that learning the Russian language was difficult, and that life there could be rough. I fell out of love with the idea of going there. However, after returning, I went on a 40-day retreat, and I felt the Lord was telling me “Go, pray in the camps” … my archbishop allowed me to go in 1994.
… we had a strong pro-life ministry. The abortion rate in Russia was very high. At one time, for every 10 births there were 13 abortions. So, we started a Rachel’s Vineyard program to help women heal from abortion. We also offered support to young families who were expecting a child. We might help them obtain medication, hospitalization, food and housing.
We had also had a ministry for the elderly. In Magadan, the elderly are “throwaways” — their relatives might be a long way away and they don’t have the ability to move. So, many elderly were poor and uncared for. They are faced with the choice month-to-month of whether to pay for medicine or their other bills.
We also had an outreach to young children who are “throwaways.” They may be born to a single mother who is an alcoholic or otherwise is inattentive to their needs. We had a Saturday kids’ club where they could come to the church and enjoy a nice lunch, play games and practice their English.
We were also involved in evangelization, directed by Catholic missionaries from Franciscan University of Steubenville. They’d have pizza nights for the young people and talk about the Faith. The best Gospel is spread through friendship. It gives visitors the opportunity to get to know the Church, and find their way to a relationship with God.
Fr. Bob Jalbert has served as a Maryknoll missionary for 46 years, 18 of which he spent working in the missions in East Africa.
I had felt called to the priesthood since I was a child, and in the 1970s, it became clear to me that I had a missionary vocation. I had served in the U.S. Air Force 1966 to 1970, and I came in contact with the missionaries while I was working as a Russian interpreter and translator at the National Security Agency.
While in Africa, I worked with the poor and marginalized. They were simple people with limited education. We’d do whatever we could to improve their lives … I worked as a parish priest, and also trained lay leaders and advocated for the rights of our parishioners before the local government. We’d help people speak up for their own rights.
… I worked in both Tanzania and Kenya. In Tanzania they were mostly subsistence farmers. They enjoyed a tranquil environment and relative stability. In Kenya, however, the poverty is stark. There are large slums in Nairobi and cramped quarters. There was lots of tribal violence. I appreciated that I was a guest there, and tried to learn as much as I taught.
Melody Doudna has served as a lay missionary in the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, leading youth groups, hosting retreats, conducting Bible studies, promoting Eucharistic Adoration and helping the poor. She works with other young people under the auspices of the diocese.
We feel called to be missionaries, and that God wants to use us to show his love and the truth of the Catholic faith. We do what the bishop asks of us, or work through a priest of the diocese.
We’ve been able to help many people. One young girl comes to mind. She came from a difficult family situation. We catechized her, helped her grow in her faith and prepared her to receive her first Holy Communion.
Or, one young man we worked with was a Buddhist. He came weekly to our Bible studies, asking many questions. We had deep conversations with him about happiness, love and our purpose in life. He now wants to become Catholic.
Fr. Myron Effing founded the Canons Regular of Jesus the Lord and worked as a missionary priest in the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok. He has worked hard to change the secular mindset of his parishioners developed after many decades of communist rule.
The culture here reflects the breakdown of the family. In fact, the family was outlawed for a time under the communists. [Due to the high abortion rate] Russia suffers from a lack of children. Many elderly must work because they have no children to support them. We’re in an end state for any country that doesn’t have kids. I always tell people, “Have kids, they’re your future. The government is bankrupt. It won’t be able to support you.” Children are raised by their mothers and grandmothers while the fathers skip out on their responsibilities.
… The communists taught people to hate. Charity was discouraged. So, the establishment and support of charities remains an open possibility.