I have the feeling that when the idea of the Columban Lay Missionaries (CLM) was being conceived in the late 1970s, the advocates of the Columban Lay Mission Program, as it was called then, had no inkling that lay missionaries would serve on mission for over ten years. I also have the feeling that most lay missionaries, when they applied to the CLM, never thought of staying for six or nine years. I guess that most of us were thinking of joining for three years only. But it seems to me that we are defying initial predictions.
For instance, four Filipino lay missionaries have been on mission in Peru and Pakistan for over 15 years. Indeed, for some, the initial commitment of four years - that is, one year in formation and three years on overseas mission, was not enough. The first three years are usually spent on learning the language and understanding the culture of the people. It gives us a taste of missionary life, of being on the missions. But ‘one serving’ seems not enough. As a popular Tagalog expression would put it ‘Bitin’ – meaning, the feeling is left hanging. And so for some lay missionaries, the three years then became six, and then nine, and then 12.
The Philippine Region has sent a total of 17 teams. These groups have been numbered as RP or Republic of the Philippines 1. Hence the groups from the Philippines are commonly referred to as RP 1, RP 2 and so on. This list No does not include the first group of women sent to Britain in 1987. This was before the setting up of a formal structure. Of the three, one continues to be involved in Columban mission in Mindanao. At the moment there are three women in formation. They comprise RP 18.
The 17 groups are composed of 68 men and women, including a family. Of the 68, 22 are still on mission. About a half of the 22 Filipino lay missionaries on mission are in a long term agreement, which means that they have been on overseas mission for more than six years. Filipino lay missionaries are currently serving in seven countries including Ireland, Peru, Taiwan, Korea, Pakistan and the Philippines. One is on special assignment. One, assigned to Ireland, sits as a member of the Lay Mission Central Leadership Team (LMCLT). Filipino lay missionaries have also served in Brazil, Fiji and Britain.
The Philippine Region has also been enriched by the lives of the lay missionaries it has received from other countries. So far, we have received 16 teams of single men and women, a couple, and a family. They came from Korea, Chile, Ireland, Britain, Fiji, Tonga, and Peru. Colubmans work in all of these except Tonga.
There are ten lay missionaries currently assigned to the Philippines – four from Peru, two from Fiji, one from Tonga, one from Korea and two from the Philippines. One of the two Filipinos serves as Coordinator and the other is on further studies. A third is discerning about a possible renewal of agreement.
It is astonishing to discover the breadth of the involvement of these lay missionaries. They are involved in ministry with migrants, in prison, with children with special needs, in Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), and in health and social services. Some are involved with the Deaf, with indigenous peoples, in the Columban vocations campaign, with children and the youth. They have brought with them their gifts - their cultural and religious traditions and, more importantly, their experience of God, which they hope to share with the people. They have brought with them their openness to embrace a people whose language, food, and customs may be different from theirs. They have also brought with them their willingness and humility to learn from Filipinos.
Lay missionaries all have to learn the language of the people. The first stop is usually the language school. Lay missionaries assigned to Luzon study Tagalog. Those assigned to Mindanao learn Cebuano–Visayan. Recently, communicating among ourselves has been an exciting and challenging experience. The Peruvian LMs have a limited facility in English and have studied Cebuano. The LMs in Luzon have a facility of English but we have no common language.
However the absence of a common language has been teaching us a lot on how to be more creative in communicating with one another. We have been trying to communicate with the help of interpreters, translations from the internet, with whatever little English, Spanish, Cebuano and Tagalog we have between us, and yes, very, very creatively through actions. However it is amazing how the little of everything can go a long way in reaching out to one another. We are also learning to be more patient, particularly during meetings, in order to give time and space for translation.
We have much to be proud of. For instance, we take pride in the many ‘firsts’ that happened in the Philippines or with Filipino lay missionaries overseas. The longest serving lay missionary, Columba Chang, served the Church of the Philippines for 18 years before she took up another mission assignment. Columba was a member of the first group of lay missionaries from Korea.
The Philippines received the first group of lay missionaries from Chile which included a family. It also received the first group of Peruvian lay missionaries in 2008. They are now assigned to two parishes and two institutions in the Cagayan de Oro and Pagadian areas.
One member of RP 1 remains and continues to serve in Pakistan. Gloria Canama has been in Pakistan since 1990, interrupted only on two occasions, when she went on sabbatical and when she was assigned to the Philippines for three years.
The first lay coordinator of the Lay Mission Central Leadership Team (LMCLT) was a Filipina, Aurora Luceño. The first long-term lay missionaries in four countries - Pakistan, Korea, Ireland, and Peru are all Filipinos. From the first group of Filipinos sent to Taiwan, one has recently renewed her commitment as a long term lay missionary. The first family on mission to Ireland was that of Roberto, Kris and Desi Mina. The first group of lay missionaries sent to Brazil were Filipinos – RP 2. Two of the staff members at the LM Office and the LM House have been working with us as long as RP 1 – 18 years.
There are many other significant happenings in the Philippine Region. There is tremendous goodwill and generosity shown by Columban priests, lay missionaries and co-workers work together as partners on mission. We lay missionaries are very much involved in the running of the lay mission. We enjoy tremendous support from the Regional Leadership, from the Lay Mission Leadership Team (LMLT) and from the Columban community in general – priests, Sisters, students and co-workers. Returned lay missionaries have been so generous with their support in vocations campaigns, fundraising activities and community celebrations.
We have regular community meetings and faith sharing. We join the Columban priests in area meetings and regional gatherings. We also hold annual meetings to discuss important issues affecting our lives as lay missionaries. We organize intercultural living workshops to foster better understanding among ourselves. We have a common annual recollection and individual retreats to deepen our faith and vocation. Every year we go on an outing to build teamwork and camaraderie. We attend summer courses as part of our on-going formation to ensure that we have adequate skills for our ministries.
And this is not all. We continue to discover, define, redefine, and articulate our identity and spirituality as lay missionaries. We continue to reflect on the challenges that threaten our commitment to a simple lifestyle because of the temptations posed by a consumerist society. As part of our individual and collective response to climate change and global warming, we try to change our attitudes and ways of doing things. Most of all, we continue to search for creative ways to bear witness to a way of being church - of priests, lay missionaries, co-workers, benefactors, mission partners, all working together, to contribute our modest share in the building of God’s reign of truth, justice, peace and love.
Since April this year I have been meeting with applicants for the June 2010 Formation Program. These are young professionals, including teachers, a person who works at a call center, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) and one with her own business. They have good jobs but they are also involved in so many good causes – with the Deaf, children who have cancer, farmers’ organizations, and with catechetical programs in a parish.
As I listen to their stories, I am amazed to discover what inspires them and what gives them the courage to even think of leaving their family and jobs and become lay missionaries. Some of them help in their family’s finances. Leaving a job may not be an easy decision. But yet I can feel the desire in their hearts. Some of them are inspired by the lives of other missionaries. Others say that they want to share the love of God, of their families and of other people which they have received so generously. Whatever their motivations are, I am simply overwhelmed by their courage, faith and desire to stand up and be counted.
Many people have asked us what keeps us on mission and with the Columbans. I remember the homily of Fr. Michael Mohally during a renewal of commitment ceremony last year. He put it so succinctly and so eloquently: ‘You have simply fallen in love.’ Yes, with the One who Calls!