A call to be missionaries by baptism in the Catholic faith was a belief that was strengthened during Vatican II in the 1960s.
And the idea that it isn’t necessary to travel the world to spread the Gospel to others in today’s world was the theme shared Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at the Maryknoll Affiliates’ Southern Regional Conference, “Mission as Accompaniment,” held at the Archdiocese of New Orleans Retreat Center in Metairie.
“Most mission theologians today are emphasizing that mission today must be seen as ‘being everywhere by everyone,’ as Pope Francis said,” said Matt Rousso, keynote speaker, on Sept. 30. Rousso has directed mission immersion programs in Latin America for seminarians, adults and youth as a Maryknoll Mission educator/animator and has been director of the New Orleans Maryknoll Mission Center in New Orleans for more than 25 years. Maryknoll is the first Catholic foreign missionary society in the U.S., founded more than 100 years ago.
Rousso highlighted two words that Pope Francis has used to describe being a current-day missionary.
The first is “dialogue” – following Jesus’ lead to propose an offer of love to others with an open heart by first being a good listener. The second is “accompaniment – being with rather than doing for,” Rousso said. He quoted Pope Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium: Joy of the Gospel,” in saying “the church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ (EG 169) at a pace that is ‘steady and reassuring.’”
A phrase that a friend shared with him on a Christmas card years ago summed up this line of thinking: “We’re all just walking each other home.”
“I have often been moved when I realize this is how God in Jesus has been with me all during my life – slowly and lovingly walking me home,” Rousso said. “And I have often thought how true this is of our call to mission. Are we not all called to walk each other home?”
Rousso made mention of a response a missioner to Haiti received when he asked how he could help: “We don’t want to be a project; we simply want to be known and loved.” Mission experience can be as simple as helping a day center in New Orleans if the missioners “get to know the homeless while they provide them service,” he said.
Bob Eilenfeldt, a member of the North Texas Affiliate chapter in Dallas, furthered that thought by discussing how the old notion of “to do something” has changed.
“Now we try to spend more time with the children we meet at the mission site and even go to the families’ homes,” he said. “Mission requires going outside one’s comfort zone when meeting people from other cultures.”
Sharing, quiet time
The Archdiocese of New Orleans Retreat Center in Metairie, located on the southshore of Lake Pontchartrain, provided the perfect place for quiet contemplation for the 26 affiliates and three priests, who shared mission stories from experiences in the United States and abroad.
Saturday keynote speakers Felicia and Jason Gehrig from Fort Worth, Texas, recalled their time and giving birth to three children as Maryknoll Lay Missioners from 2000-07 in El Alto, Bolivia. They remain engaged in mission.
“… They went through three changes of government during their time there,” said Maryknoll Father Gerry Kelly, southern region director. “They drew close to the people through these experiences and listened to the people and their needs. Jason initiated an extensive drinking water program which continues to this day. Felicia heard of the need for libraries in the area and initiated these.”
A panel discussion followed with Russ Feldmeier, Bob Short and Father Kelly talking about being affiliates.
Expand faith as affiliate
The regional conferences “build cohesiveness between affiliates and chapters in the region, especially as the life and goings-on of the chapters are talked about and shared,” Rousso said as an objective of the conferences. They also strive to connect affiliates with Maryknoll priests, brothers, sisters and lay missioners from other parts of the country.
Northeast Florida chapter affiliates John and Mary Moritz of Jacksonville, Florida, were looking for an “authentic place” in the church where there were no “outsiders or insiders,” and they found it in Maryknolls.
“We feel a sense of belonging, being part of something bigger than ourselves,” Mary Moritz said. “It’s broadened my outlook of the whole world. I really didn’t have that before.”
The couple, who is involved in marriage preparation and feeding the homeless in their parish, are southeast regional coordinators for Maryknoll Affiliates.
They said they are “constantly energized” when fellow affiliates report back about their trips, “encountering God in that which is different than me,” John Moritz said. “It’s taken me beyond the limits of a denomination; the recognition that God is right here. I don’t have to go to a church to find that.”
Awareness of the Maryknolls started at a young age for local affiliate Vivien Michals. She recalled her father sending $2 a month during the Depression and then $5 to support Maryknoll priests abroad. She is part of the local Maryknoll book club.
“By being part of Maryknoll, all these things from far away seem closer when you know people who have been there,” Michals said, adding she enjoys being united in prayer as well.
New Orleans Maryknoll affiliate Ben Gordon talked about his mission accompanying the Native Americans resisting the pipeline in North Dakota.
“I enjoy the focus on a lot of different issues happening around the world from global warming to taking a look at repressive governments,” he said.
Manny Hotchkiss from the Maryknoll Portland Oregon chapter said that a mission of accompaniment is a leveler.
“We are not coming in from a superior position to help, to do for, someone,” she said.
Christine Bordelon can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.