WelCom April 2020:
Fr Tom Rouse
In 1920, 16 priests gathered in Ireland to prepare for their journey to China. They were the first Columban missionaries to go overseas on mission. They would have made their oaths of aggregation and signed their membership agreements. They were probably aware that they were travelling under the cloud of the devastating flu epidemic of 1918‒1920.
One hundred years later, on 19 February, 2020, we gathered to celebrate the commissioning of the first two Columban lay missionaries in Aotearoa New Zealand – Sophia Ting and Chuah Hui Ling. They were preparing to take up their overseas mission to Britain. The commissioning took place during the celebration of Eucharist in Ss Peter and Paul Church in Johnsonville – a church that is very special to Columbans because it was the home parish of Francis Douglas, the first New Zealand Columban to die overseas. Fr Francis was tortured by Japanese soldiers and died in the Philippines in 1943.
A few years later in 1946 when Bishop Edward Galvin was reflecting upon the founding of our Society and the journey of the first group to China, he remarked, ‘It was a mad thing to do’. But I imagine that initial group that went to China, and Francis Douglas also, would have been amazed by our commissioning celebration in February.
As priests within a highly clerical church, how could they have imagined the Society would one day include lay members, called to mission by virtue of their baptism. What is more, the commissioning took place in Johnsonville parish which is now under lay leadership – surely an appropriate place to recognise a new way of living out the call to mission.
Sophia and Ling chose to keep to the readings of the day, the Saturday after Ash Wednesday. The reading from the prophet Isaiah speaks of the call to free oneself from all that holds us back from living out the call to mission, the call to be a light in the darkness.
And then there was the Gospel Reading of the day about the call of Levi. It is not about our choice. It is about the Lord’s choice. Sophia and Ling had chosen to enter into accompaniment and formation to discern whether or not it is God’s choice that they follow the call to become missionary disciples. So, they came to know what these words of Jesus meant, ‘It is not you who choose me but it is I who choose you – to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last’ (cf Jn 15:16).
The commissioning ceremony was a wonderful and memorable occasion. Please remember Sophia and Ling in your prayers as they complete their preparations for their missionary assignment to Britain.
Fr Thomas Rouse ssc is Columban Leader New Zealand, at St Columbans Mission Society, Lower Hutt.