Thursday, October 24, 2019

Coming to America
The [Hidden] History of the Comboni Missionaries
(This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Comboni Missions)

It is September 14, 1957. Early dawn. The majestic Italian ocean liner Giulio Cesare is slowly drawing closer to its dock in Midtown Manhattan. I’m standing on deck together with a few hundred other passengers. Through the early morning mist, we see the blurry silhouette of Lower Manhattan in the distance and, standing majestically to our left, the Statue of Liberty. This is what got us out of our bunks at dawn and made us rush topside. It’s like being on a movie set and it’s all very, very real. Too real even for words.

I had turned twenty the day before, still at sea, while the Comboni presence in the United States, which eventually developed into the North American Province (NAP), was just shy of eighteen. The first Comboni Missionaries, then called Sons of the Sacred Heart and known as Verona Fathers, had arrived in the USA in November 1939.

I was stepping into a world I knew nothing about, except for what I had seen in movies while growing up in Italy. I did not know English, I did not know the culture, the customs, the patchwork of Christian beliefs, differing church buildings, and traditions. I soon realized that most of the Comboni Missionaries I met at the time had started out just like me. Somehow, they survived, thrived, and become movers and doers for God’s Kingdom in this new world.

We were not sent to the US just to study, but to establish a presence here. Tossed into a community of American-born novices, I started the never-ending process of integrating the old and the new. I want to tell you what I call the “hidden story” of the Comboni Missionaries in North America. I hope that faithful old friends across the country will appreciate the effort.

In 1939, as we were looking to gain English-speaking members for our African missions, Archbishop John McNicholas of Cincinnati needed ministry in the black communities of Cincinnati’s West End. We adapted to a totally new culture, a new church, and even faced a new evil: segregation. 
How could we cope with these new challenges? Just as we always do. We listened. We learned. We adapted. 
Comboni Fr. Dominic Ferrara, later bishop in Sudan, was pastor of Holy Trinity, located roughly where the middle lane of eastbound Pete Rose Way is now. He took note of a musically inclined altar boy by the name of Clarence River. Recognizing River’s gift, Fr. Dominic fostered the kid’s talent and, eventually, his priestly vocation. Liturgical music in the USA would never be the same. In those days we also gave new life to the inner-city parishes of St. Henry and St. Anthony. In time, cement and warehouses took over and people were flushed out by business interests.

In the 1950s, Louisville, Kentucky, needed a presence in its West End. It was not what “respectable people” of the time would call a desirable assignment. Comboni Fr. Alfio Mondini went there, said Christmas Mass in a barn, and opened what would become a very successful parish and school, Immaculate Heart of Mary. Fr. Giles Conwill, a nationally known Afro-American priest and preacher, grew up in it and so did notable lay Catholic professionals. As children and teenagers, several of them belonged to a Christian theater group under the direction of ever-cheerful, always smiling, and long-suffering Comboni Fr. Sam Baiani.

Were we then typecast as ministers to the black community? Not so fast.

In Monroe, Michigan, where I was a novice in 1957, people are still connected with Comboni Missionaries down to this day. Why? Because they cannot forget our poor beginnings, our untiring help in the parishes, the night calls at the hospital, the countless missionaries they have met. We found a settled community of faith and adapted to it, filling it with the missionary flame.

If you were a Catholic in the 1950s, rural Georgia was not the place you wanted to be. One missionary group labeled it “No Priest Land USA”—part of a vast stretch of 3,000 counties where only a thousand had a priest in residence—and founded a congregation specifically to minister to places like that. Yet, when the archbishop of Atlanta looked for help to cover the most depleted areas in the farthest corner of the state, four Comboni Missionaries settled in eight counties to minister to the flock—which was just .01% of the population.

Crosses were still being burned on Catholic lawns and Martin Luther King was still marching in neighboring Alabama when Comboni Fr. Walter Mattiato, by being his kind and adaptable (albeit unbendable) self, became the first Catholic priest to be admitted to the Ministers Association in his county. Some of those small communities, where a dozen Catholics met for Sunday Mass, are now thriving, multi-ethnic parishes.

The popular slogan “Go West, young man” did not escape the notice of early Comboni Missionaries. Back then, poor migrant workers from Mexico ensured our nationwide supply of fruit and juices, but who could speak to their unique pastoral needs? The Comboni Missionaries adapted to a farming migrant routine to turn places like Irwindale and Hermosa Beach into thriving, large, living Christian communities. Plush upscale neighborhoods have since replaced those luscious, rural orange groves of Southern California.

There were also Native Americans out West. They lived in reservations and no one seemed to be particularly interested in them. Brave Comboni Missionaries, once again, adapted to the situation. People like Fr. Januarius Carillo and others took over San Antonio de Pala, an adobe chapel of the old Camino del Rey that had been reduced to a pile of mud. Carillo needed help and was not ashamed to beg, encourage, and cajole. When it helped, he played on the guilt complex of concerned Americans when faced with what we did to the indigenous population. He concentrated on the Hollywood crowd—several stars had ranches in the area—and enlisted the likes of Frank Capra, Raymond Burr, Ramon Novarro, and Jack Haley (the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz) to build a school. Joseph Kearns (aka “Mr. Wilson” from Dennis the Menace) even rode his horse to San Antonio for Mass. Then Father had some cedars cut down on Mount Palomar, talked the Marines of Camp Pendelton into moving them to Pala for use in building a school. Brother Jerry Charbonneau launched a national campaign to collect Green Stamps (remember the Green Stamps?). He got enough to buy a school bus.

At one point we thought French Canada, a bedrock of Catholicism, would fill our seminaries, so we opened a French-speaking presence. Ontario, some old timers were saying, was “too Protestant” for us! But, when Church life crumbled in Quebec, we relocated successfully in Ontario and we are still there today to serve and share.

By the 1960s, the picture had changed in Cincinnati as well. People from Appalachia were streaming north in search of a better life and Cincinnati was the first stop for many of them. Several families settled in Lower Price Hill, an area that had once been a thriving old German neighborhood, with St. Michael Church at its core. Old anti-Catholic feelings ran deep among the new residents. Was the parish going to die? The Comboni Missionaries—Fr. Val Saoncella and Fr. Louie Gasparini among others—adapted to the challenge and turned St. Michael into a model of a “missionary Church,” just like we do on other continents, with evangelizing teams, neighborhood outreach, and empowered lay leadership. And that is how we returned it to the local Church a generation later: small, unique, alive. (Unfortunately, it did not fit the “maintenance Church” system prevailing in the United States. But you cannot say we did not try.)

Now it is the turn of the Hispanics. In the early 1980s, when high chancery officials were stating openly that freshly arrived young Guatemalans were a big question mark, it did not take long for the Comboni Missionaries to forge a new path in the Church that once took us in as immigrants in 1939. Fr. Bill Jansen became the leader of the new flock and pioneered what is today the Archdiocesan Hispanic Ministry, still in the care of the Comboni Missionaries down to this day.
We are smaller now, and we are older: This year the North American Province turns 80 and I turn 82. It has been a long, exciting, life-giving ride through the life and mores of the United States and Canada. Godspeed to the newcomers: listen, learn, act, be adaptable, be creative.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Hard Road Back
 For Returned Missionaries, Home Is a New Assignment

One September I traveled to Denver to spend ten days with a group of priests, religious, and laypeople with whom I share a common life experience. We were all missionaries who served abroad and then “returned home.”

Well, you may say, what’s the big deal about returning home? And I say: It’s a bigger deal than the process of actually “going to the missions”! Let me explain.

When I went to Uganda in 1967, I expected things to be different over there —and they were very different. When I came back home, I expected things to be the same as I had known them—and they were not.

The country had changed, I had changed, my friends had changed, the Church had changed, the language had changed (when I left, the word turkey only described what we ate on Thanksgiving Day!).

It has been said that you never return home, but rather you rediscover home. It’s a shock and there is a name for it: counter-culture shock (CCS for short). The folks I met with in Denver were having a serious case of it. To make things worse, many of us witnessed enough violence to give us at least a minor case of PTSD.

Let me describe to you some of the symptoms of CCS. I returned to Cincinnati with the bare minimum. After all, I was returning to the land of plenty. So the next day I went to the mall. I spent most of the morning there and…bought nothing. I was overwhelmed by the variety of choices, by the abundance of everything. How could I possibly pick a shirt, a sweater, or anything out of a thousand? I had to go back with a friend the next day.

I stopped at a gas station to fill up. Surprise! Gone were the attendants. They had the do-it-yourself thing now. I parked in a corner and observed customers for a good ten minutes before risking to make a fool of myself.

I visited friends. Grandpa had died and Grandma’s memory was a little blurry. With whom was I going to discuss world problems now? The adorable little kids I once knew had grown into pesky teenagers who hardly gave you the time of day. On the plus side, the pesky teens of years gone by were now reasonably well-adjusted young adults.

On my second mission tour I spent five years surrounded by indescribable violence. Safely back here,
Uganda 1979: Idi Amin's damaged tank
friends took me to a huge fireworks show. I hated it. Bang-bang noises made me jumpy and zip-zip noises made me want to duck. I still don’t particularly enjoy hearing fireworks, if I can’t see them. And I hated military uniforms with an irrational passion. I had my own near-death encounters with them and saw the mayhem, destruction and horror they left behind wherever they interacted with local people.

Returned missionaries face a lot of disappointments. We have stories to tell about the wonderful people we lived with, about the plight of the poor and the dispossessed, how they cope and survive, about what makes them poor and what could be done about it. Above all, we have stories of faith and hope, stories of human solidarity that defy belief. But most people, even friends, don’t really care that much. You are in the middle of the story and someone calls them on their cell phone. Your saga just went down the tube.

Perhaps you lived in a Church where laypeople are in charge and you are their shepherd, where human touch, friendship, and affection are the rule, where everyone knows everyone, where anyone who wants to talk to “father” gets to talk to father. And now you are back in a stiff medieval Church run by clerics, stuck in a mega parish where you have to dial six digits before you can talk to a human being.

Add to this the inevitable hurts of living anywhere —mission lands included. Add your own doubts and fears. The picture is rather dismal.

So it was that in the early 1980s a group of missionaries decided to do something about it. We founded a group which is now a national Catholic organization called From Mission to Mission (FMTM). As a first step, we devised a ten-day workshop on “Transition: A process of Death and Resurrection.” Experts in psychology, social sciences, and theology are called upon as resources, but they themselves must have been missionaries abroad.

We spend almost two days listening to individual stories. It’s a draining experience where things come out that you never even told your mother (especially your mother!) or your best friend. It is sacred ground where people can make peace with the past. It’s so overwhelming that we take a half-day off, just to catch our breath.

Then come the experts to tell the group where we stand today as a country and as a Church. It’s a primer on social analysis. Finally we bring in resource people who will help our charges figure out how they can redirect their skills and use their past experiences in the here and now.

We want these returned missionaries to contribute their wider worldview to their home Church and society.

They are now missionaries to their own people. We like to think of ourselves as the thorn in the side of our society’s and of our Church’s complacency.

That’s what happened in Denver all those years ago, when just two of us “old hands” ran the program with the help of local experts. Now, the organization has grown and adapted to better serve the changing face of mission and to reflect our expertise in dealing with all kinds of transition, not just reentry. No matter how often you do it, every workshop is always a unique experience. Do we have all the answers? No, but we like to think of ourselves as wounded healers. God will do the rest.■

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

This column first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Comboni Missions
Joy or Humbug?
Pope Francis and the Missionary Church

Recently a dear, old friend of mine, a “good Catholic” who deep down in his American soul thinks I am a little bit of a heretic, but loves me anyway, told me over a good shot of single malt Scotch that he had just become a great-grandfather. We celebrated. New life is a source of joy.

Not everyone agrees. Joy? “Humbug!” groaned some other, more “realistic” acquaintances of mine later that evening. Will this child remember 2019 as a good time to be born? Look at the state we are in!

I did look. And I cringed. We live at a time when it seems to be perfectly OK to lie and insult others, when the poor, the sick, and the elderly are persecuted by the privileged; when defenseless refugees are treated as invading aliens; when Church leaders are less than prophetic; when white privilege is raising its ugly, racist head; when we hold the record on the sale of weapons and toxic fuel; and ridiculing science is a political game. Humbug, is it?

Not for a second! For one thing, great-grandpa and I have survived some pretty horrible times ourselves over the last 80-plus years and we still think that a new life is a joy forever. But, above all, didn’t Jesus, with the signs of his wounds very visible on his resurrected body, say: “I came that you may have joy, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11)?

As the rigors of Lent make room for the joy of Easter— and you can’t have one without the other—I find solace in the presence of Pope Francis at the helm of the Church. If there is a theme that stands out in his teaching, it is the reminder of the “joy of being” and the delight we find as missionaries in taking this joy to the periphery, the outer limits of the world. Francis is a constant reminder that if the Church is not missionary, it is not the Church. That mission is called the Good News and that, as Sirach says: “The fear of the Lord (namely, faith) will bring you hope and joy.”

Just take a look at the pope’s writings. The language is simple and brimming with Christian optimism. Read
the titles of his main documents:
The Joy of the Gospel, on our common Christian mission
The Joy of Loving, on the wonders of family life in all its diversity
Laudato Si’ (St. Francis’s hymn of joy) on the wonders and beauty of creation as it was handed over to us to protect it and improve it
Rejoice and Be Glad, on our path to holiness.

In these documents Pope Francis reminds dour Church legalists that “we shouldn’t throw the laws of the Church at people as if they were stones.” Get it? Be gentle, understanding, patient, and merciful. After all, our faith is a joy, not a test of endurance. The Church is a “field hospital” rather than a refuge for the elect. The Eucharist is a healing intervention of God rather than a reward for the perfect. Wow! If we were beginning to gasp for oxygen, our lungs are now bursting with it.

Now, some of you will say: “It’s funny you should mention these documents, because, mostly, we never even heard about them. Do we live in the same century, or even in the same Church?” Good question. It was the question that whirled through my mind when I came back from Europe not too long after the election of Pope Francis. Why so much enthusiasm, interest, and praise over there and an almost total ignorance and indifference over here in the United States? When was the last time you heard a sermon on Pope Francis’s teaching on welcoming the stranger, on climate change, on the various facets of a pro-life stance (it’s all or nothing), on getting away from a 9-to-5 pastoral routine and being shepherds 24/7? Why do we close churches in poor areas, the “peripheries” next door to us, in favor of megastructures run like businesses in comfortable, middle- and upper-class surroundings?

One day, while crossing the lake of Galilee, Jesus reminded his disciples: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the leaven of the Herodians.” Of course they did not get it then. I worry that some Catholics do not get it today.

The leaven of the Pharisees is the sum of poisonous words, or activities of members of the Church, hierarchy and laity, who shout humbug at the Pope of Joy. These are the Catholics who would like to turn the Church into a museum of Christian antiquities. By 2019 indifference to Pope Francis has turned into open hostility, often sponsored by rich and very white conservative institutes, by “new” religious congregations with dubious backing and medieval customs, by some seminaries’ rigor mortis where one would expect youthful enthusiasm, by nostalgic moaning over past popes, who were great, of course, but are...past. The Spirit, we should remember, lives in the present and was sent into the world “to make all things new.” Rejoice!

The leaven of the Herodians includes those politicians who poison the table of the poor, of the meek, and of the peacemaker to gorge themselves on the ill-gotten harvest of the seeds of division they have planted. This kind we will always have with us, just as mosquitos during the summer. Joy-killers, one and all. As my friend’s great-grandbaby grows up, we will need to provide youthful, honest, forward-looking politicians who will concretize joy by implementing our pope’s prophetic message. They may not do it because of the pope, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Some see similarities between Laudato Si’ and the New Green Deal recently introduced in Congress. Can we see the similarities, or are we blinded by prejudice? Life on the planet is at stake. Life is Joy.

Fear not, little child. Some of us socially minded Catholic “heretics,” living Pope Francis’s legacy, will have your back, teach you to live by mercy rather than by the law, and practice the joyous wonders of Matthew 5:1–12 and Matthew 25. This is and will always be the mission we have been called to.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of COMBONI MISSIONS magazine

“Church Mice” are not the Church
Comboni Fr. Filomeno Ceja visits parishioners in San Luis Peten, Guatemala
I have been writing for mission publications since I was 25. That’s 56 years ago. Lots of things have changed since. There has been, however, one constant factor. All through, every time I wrote about the human condition (Jesus’s condition, by the way) and what to do about it, I have received letters labeling me a “commie,” a heretic, and worse. In Uganda, in Idi Amin’s days and under the goons that followed upon his demise, I even received death threats. Not that it changed anything! 

That people adverse to the Christian message would launch these attacks is to be expected. Surprisingly, however, some of these letters and social media messages come, to put it in St. Daniel Comboni’s words, from “the crooked ideas of good people.”  The general advice from these tunnel-vision Christians can be summed up in: “stick to religion and keep out of politics.” 
“Politics” meaning anything that does not smell of incense. This type of advice comes from what I like to call, Church Mice. And evidently they are here to stay.

Let me explain. A Church mouse is the Catholic who believes that our Mission is to “convert” people, baptize pagan babies, give handouts to those “poor people down there,” and love them as long as they remain “down there.” Above all, stick to Churchy stuff. Don’t you dare get out of the sacristy or go one step beyond the “Thou shall not” approach to life so universally enshrined in the Ten Commandments.  Keep the law and play it safe. 
But I say to every Church mouse: you may have missed the boat. God does not really care about your $5 million church building and all that goes with it. God cares about what you do when, having performed your religious duty there, you go out into the wicked world. That’s where the living Church has always been in the course of history pioneering health care, education and, in more modern times, even workers unions and independence struggles.

You were told, but I tell you…”
Jesus came to set the captives free
Two thousand years ago, Jesus, the son of God became an earthling like you and me. There were no clanging bells, lighted candles and burning incense holders when he came. In fact, it all took place away from the temple and the hypocrites who lived there. He was born among shepherds, who occupied the lowest rung in Israel’s society’s ladder. The event was so low-key that God himself had to provide the music: “Glory to God in the highest,” God’s angels sang. THAT was the beginning of our salvation. Meanwhile, where the Law ruled, the king was plotting how to murder a bunch of innocent children.

Jesus began his public ministry as an itinerant preacher by changing water into wine to save a young couple’s wedding feast. Then he started curing people, at times even on a Saturday. Scandal, heresy, unlawful, that’s what it was! It didn’t fit into any of the mental categories of the Temple mice. They were puzzled, so Jesus explain what he was up to. 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18) Then he added that he came to “make all things new” and kept on telling us: “You were told, but I tell you…” And in case there were any doubts, Jesus left us the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). Faith means new life for all, not moldy rubrics for the perfect.

The Field Hospital
Jesus came to redeem the world by standing with the poor, by fighting oppression and opening our eyes to the wonders and dignity of all created things. No incense, no choirs of angels, no pomp and circumstance, no earthly power. Even our prayer will be sterile if it is not backed up by our actions. In Pope Francis’ words, there is no room for clericalism or privilege, because the Church is not the castle of the elect, but “a field hospital” for a wounded humanity. 

So, if you consider yourself a Christian, stop grumbling about missionaries who are endeavoring to live like Christ by being out in the market place, on the battlefields of humanity, in the gutters with the oppressed. Pope Francis never ceases to remind us that God calls us “to go out to the margins of society.” It may not always be a pretty place, but that is where the gift of hope and solidarity are most needed. This is not doing politics. This is Christianity 101. How do we do it?

Integral development
Forget about the handouts to the poor as a permanent solution. We preach the risen Jesus by engaging in anything that restores the dignity of human beings. So instead of dumping frozen turkeys on the poor at Christmas, it may be more effective in the long run to identify and oppose the causes of poverty in our economy, our society and governments. The children starving in Yemen, victims of a bloody war we fully support, may be a case in point. And again the desperate masses crowding our borders because of how we have helped to create their poverty, come to mind. As Christians we have to stand by them. So opposing wars, the sale of weapons, and bans on desperate people wanting to stay alive are very Christian endeavors. Fighting toxic fumes and toxic policies are Christian endeavors.

God’s gifts are not for keeping, but for sharing. Promoting human dignity, namely God’s image, by following the Beatitudes is one such gift. True Christians plunge into the world well aware that we do not have the monopoly on goodness. We, therefore, are more than happy to join forces even with people who may not share our views/beliefs 100% and would feel uncomfortable meeting in our sacristies. We must go out and embrace their share of goodness. They may be the “thousand points of light” the late GHW Bush was talking about, social workers in our inner cities, Islamic charitable clubs, Buddhist pacifist groups, Jewish organizations, youth groups, UN humanitarian agencies, the little church down the street, neighborhood organizers. 

Don’t be jealous, share your light with the light of believers and atheists alike. God is good, all the time. God does not do politics, but God requires justice, not just your baptismal certificate.