Any vocation in the Catholic Church is a gift; it is an honour offered to us by God himself. It is not a merited right. Moreover, as gift, we are expected to have a positive response to it. Missionary vocation, revealed and expressed in the ministry of a priest, brother or sister, is part of the range of vocations, which are present and honoured in the Church. As we well know this is not a job. It is a call, a specific and particular vocation (Cf. Ignatius A. Tambudzai and Chikere C. Ugwuanyi (eds.), The Priestly Ministry in Africa, p. 204). “No one takes this honour upon himself but only when called by God” (Heb. 5:4). When we look at priesthood in the letter to the Hebrews, we find that it harkens back to the priesthood of the Old Testament leading us to an understanding of the mystery of Christ the Priest. “It was not Christ who glorified himself in becoming high priest, but rather the one who said to him: … You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:5-6).
Missionary vocation, therefore, is not a profession. It is a call. People in the secular world, conduct themselves professionally, but may not consider their work a calling. Missionary life as a vocation derives its dignity and honour from an inner motivation that allows the shaping of its roles rather than merely occupying them. It does not look for public recognition, greater autonomy and reward. The dignity and honour in missionary life finds its expression in an obligation to be with and serve the people of God. Therefore, the Church sends us missionaries forth normally as members of a missionary congregation. We are to become Eucharist to the people entrusted to us. We are to be eaten in the sense that we are to truly and sincerely make ourselves available to the people of God. Visiting the sick and aged, being at the disposal of those who need our ministerial service and sharing the little we have with those in need cannot be taken for granted. It is sad and disheartening to see a priest or a confrere doing the minimum in his ministry waiting only for his monthly stipend or allowance allocated to him by his bishop or his superior or as, in our case, by our Society. However, it can happen that a confrere may be only interested in material things. As Bishop Kukah of Sokoto Diocese in Nigeria strongly stated, “God knows what you profess and certainly people know what you profess, but undoubtedly today, people question your way of living it. While many people in Nigeria today suffer poverty and want, Church leaders and men of God who have taken a public vow of poverty enjoy at least adequate material well-being and often have very comfortable houses, cars, and top technology in phones and computers” (Talk at symposium honouring the work of Archbishop Charles Heerey, 1st Archbishop of Onitsha, Nigeria).
However, missionary life as a call or a vocation is a mystery. Therefore, it is open to discussion. It is a necessity. We can never stop a discussion on a mystery, any mystery – whether it is a mystery as lofty as the Trinity, the Incarnation, or Salvation, or a somewhat lesser mystery like the Church, Holy Eucharist, human life, suffering and death. The expounding of a mystery brings clarification and can make its content relevant to the contemporary world. The recounting of the mystery of missionary life, priesthood in particular, will remain open until the coming of the Parousia. Furthermore, the dignity and honour of this vocation is realised and concretised in a missionary who is a leader, a “presbyteros,” an elder in the sense of a good shepherd who is ready to share his leadership with the faithful. He is not an ‘omnipotent’ leader or a demi-god. This is very different from political or worldly leadership with its awards and rewards! A good shepherd has to embrace collaborative ministry by encouraging his people to take initiatives in the Church since the faithful share the common priesthood by their Baptism. Though we as elders of the Church have authority, we are not to claim or amass domination or power for ourselves. In fact, we are to be credible and accountable in our pastoral leadership and ministry based on love and service following the example of the High Priest, Jesus Christ, and our original leader. What sense does it make for a missionary to leave his own country for the mission Christ entrusted to him through the Church and make life tough for the people of God whom he is to care for.
What joy or good news can a missionary, who is always lamenting, complaining, seeing everything negatively, bring to his venture as a missionary? Is he truly an instrument of ‘The Joy of the Gospel’?
It is obvious that any priest, any missionary, motivated by a desire for power is inclined to emphasise his authority rather than his service to the flock entrusted to him. In this scenario, decisions are easily made without understanding and compassion especially when “presbyteros” is viewed as a personal title and ignores its original sense as a vocation and a responsibility given by God. That ends up equating it with the political leadership, which promotes the spirit of ‘selfishness, greedy, possessiveness and materialism.’ That is the spirit of I, ME and MYSELF. It is an honour appropriated by the missionary himself and not by God. This spirit eradicates the dignity and honour of missionary life or priesthood. Mind you, Jesus was angry with the Scribes and Pharisees because they were concerned too much with honour, being a celebrity and status (cf. George Manalel, Priest as a Man: Counselling for the Clergy, pp. 64-70). The sacrament of Holy Orders communicates a “sacred power” which is none other than that of Christ Himself. The exercise of this authority must therefore be measured against the model of Christ, who by love made himself the least and the servant of all.
All in all, any vocation needs to be positively sustained by the responsibilities and duties allocated to us. It has to bring out to the full the ‘Joy of the Gospel.’ Otherwise, that dignity and honour is undermined and therefore underused. In other words, as missionaries or priests we should be happy and proud of our pastoral ministry. Miserable missionary, miserable ministry; hence, miserable mission! We are called to be and to bring good news.
Fr. James Ngahy