By FATHER JOHN KIERAN, Special to the Bulletin | Published October 4, 2018
From the beginning the Catholic Church has stressed its missionary mandate. In the l960s the Second Vatican Council debated and underscored and reaffirmed our essential purpose: “The Church on earth is by her very nature missionary.” That emphasis continues in our time.
The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome directs the Church’s missionary efforts. Pope Francis repeatedly asks us to reach out to all peoples, especially those on the fringes of society. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says, “Because she believes in God’s universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary” (CCC 851).
Mission Sunday, celebrated this year on Oct 21, is a call for all to renew active support for missionary outreach, a time to revisit Jesus’ foundational teachings on evangelization: “Let your light shine before others so that they may see goodness in your acts and give praise to your heavenly Father” (Mt 7:16) and “Go make disciples of all the nations. Baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).
The “light” of which the Master speaks is given to all the baptized and embellished by other sacraments and prayer. Thus the dedicated disciple is equipped by Jesus himself to be a beacon of faith to others.
The call to be a missionary priest swayed me in my early 20s. God’s call was an abrupt surprise back then. Now, in my mature years, I can detect God’s grace at work more clearly.
A former missionary priest and family friend greatly impressed me during my teen years. He had worked in Japan for several years and would have stayed there for life had he not gotten ill. It was a delight to hear Father Michael revel on his encounters with the Japanese people, whom he dearly loved, and give accounts of their unique customs. This joyous and spirited priest touched the lives of many people—and me.
Somehow, in my farm working days, I was drawn to priests. I once went to visit a priest from our home parish at an out-of-town hospital. I did not know him particularly well. Perhaps I went to see him because both of us were away from home. I remember a strong feeling on leaving the hospital. I, the visitor, received a much greater faith stimulus than the patient. His holiness and resignation to a painful condition was very inspirational. He radiated Christ’s compassion from the sick bed.
A few years later, while working on a St. Vincent de Paul project, a friend said, “I think you have the makings of a priest.” By the grace of God, seven years later, I was ordained a priest.
Early on in seminary I had signed on to be a missionary priest for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Our vocations director at that time was the famous Msgr. P.J. O’Connor, who is credited with securing 40 Irish priests for service in Georgia. He was a master hand in service for the church and in arm-twisting when recruiting seminarians. He repeatedly told us that Georgia was the best the U.S. could offer and the beautiful city of Atlanta had wonderful Catholic people who love Irish priests. And Georgia truly was the missionary heartland of America.
Now 51 years later and blessed with good health, I continue to be an active missionary priest. I work part time with the chaplaincy group at the VA Medical Center in Decatur and go out on weekends assisting at parishes when needed.
Being retired and serving as a sacramental priest is a true blessing, allowing me to continue an active priesthood. Relieved from the heavy duties of parish management, I have extra time for reading and homily preparation.
Once a priest, always a priest.
“The spiritual gifts received in ordination,” the catechism says, are “not for a limited and restricted mission, but for the fullest, in fact the universal mission, to the ends of the earth.” (CCC #1565)
Friends in Ireland ask me when I am coming home to retire. I have mulled over this dilemma extensively because home for me is two places. When I travel west from Ireland, I feel a great tug to stay in my place of birth. When I travel east, I feel an equal pull to stay in the U.S., my adopted land. I have had to make a pinpoint decision.
Because I have lived for 51 years in Georgia and served at eight locations, God’s grace and the dedication of his faithful people have honed me to be who I am.
Over the years I have received much from my sponsors and faith family. I want to give back, so I stay here and serve out my time as best I can—all done in his name.
Father Kieran is a senior priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.