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CSC panel discusses missions

Christian Myers | Tuesday, October 11, 2011

As Fr. Ken Thesing rode his motorcycle to a sub-parish center on Christmas Day in Tanzania several years ago, he said people were plowing their fields and scattering seeds in the fields he passed.

When he saw this, Thesing said he realized they were not celebrating the holiday because their religious communities did nothing to honor Christmas.

This story was only one example of the cultural differences between missionaries like Thesing and the people they serve. Thesing and two other missionary priests at a panel discussion Monday discussed their work in Latin America and Africa as part of the order of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.

The priests from the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers discussed their experiences as missionaries in Geddes Hall during a panel titled, “Going Where You Are Needed But Not Necessarily Loved.”

Despite cultural divides, the missionaries said their work taught them how to address the specific needs in the communities they served.

Fr. Robert Pelton, a former Notre Dame professor and a Holy Cross priest, worked with members of the Maryknoll order in Latin America. He said the work of Maryknoll ministers reflects the mission of the Church as a whole.

“Maryknoll has an awareness of the Church and the role of the laity,” Pelton said. “As [French theologian] Yves Congar said, ‘It’s not the walls, but the faithful who are the Church.'”

Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, a religious order of Catholic missionaries, began over 100 years ago, Pelton said.

Thesing worked in Tanzania, Mozambique, Nairobi and Southern Sudan as a Maryknoll missionary. He said his time in Africa taught him how to serve a community with both political and religious conflicts.

“Proclamation is one of the key elements of mission, but with that is the development of the human person,” Thesing said.

One religious problem in Africa lies in the lack of an organized church structure to organize and inform the local people, he said.

“Since 1973, the model for the Church in Africa has been small Christian communities,” Thesing said. “We need to respect their culture and simply offer an opportunity.”

On a political front, Thesing said the biggest problems are the lack of the rule of law and an excessive concentration of power.

“Africa faces the challenge of bringing power down to the lower levels,” Thesing said.

While Thesing witnessed a fair presidential election in Mozambique, he said he thought it was unfair that the president then appointed all lower officials. The local people did not have the chance to elect governors, district administrators and mayors in their provinces, he said.

Southern Sudan also tends to be more divided on ethnic lines than by its provincial boundaries, Thesing said. The area contains 42 different ethnic groups.

“Many Africans put ethnic group above nation,” Thesing said.

Fr. Stephen Judd spent his missionary career in Latin America, and his first missionary experience took place in Peru.

Judd said Maryknoll first entered Latin America in 1942 and operated with traditional notions of creating parishes and building churches.

However, when these missionaries entered rural areas, Thesing said they first needed to address the region’s poverty.

After building a longstanding relationship with the local communities in Latin America, Judd said Maryknoll missionaries do help build churches around the region as they move from town to town.

“Maryknoll was sensing a shift at that time in Latin America from people living in the country to living in cities,” Judd said. “Our mission is now generative.”

Judd also acknowledged that they have had some trouble with more conservative church organizations.

“We locked horns with Opus Dei and were thrown out of a place in Peru where we had worked for 70 years,” Judd said.

As these priests manage conflicts in their work around the globe, Pelton said the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers are a good example for other missionaries.

“They are not afraid to say what works and what doesn’t work,” Pelton said. “They are a wonderful example of the Church in mission yesterday, today and tomorrow.”