When I joined the Columban Lay Missionaries (CLM), I was 24 years old. My first mission assignment was in Taiwan and my ministry work was in the field of HIV and AIDS. I journeyed for six years with people living with and affected by this illness in shelters run by a non-profit organization. Afterwards, I worked in the HIV and AIDS education and outreach ministry in the Hsinchu Diocese.
My experiences in mission have truly been a blessing, because, until I met the Columbans, I had not fully understood my baptismal call to live out God’s mission.
Although I was raised a Catholic, which has imbued my way of life with Christian values and traditions, I grew up treating the Church as a place where I can go to get my spiritual needs met, a place where I can expect people of authority, mostly priests, to provide certain services. At a young age, I also learned not to ask questions about the bible or about religious practices or traditions. I grew up feeling it was my place to just receive what was offered by the Church, to fulfill my obligations, and not to question matters related to the Church. These were some of the things ingrained in me that I unconsciously accepted in living out my Catholic faith.
In saying this, I also recognize that many of my faith experiences were necessary for my spiritual growth as a child and on into my youth. But, as I grew into adulthood, the comfort of the familiar and the convenient role of a passive recipient member of the Church stagnated my spiritual growth and limited my participation in the life of the Church.
I believe the Holy Spirit was guiding me in my journey growing up. And, I am grateful God led me to discover the Columban missionaries. Cross-cultural mission has allowed me to grow in my faith, own my identity as a member of the Christian community, as well as understand that the Church is much more than a place to get spiritual services or replenishment for the laity.
With Pope Francis’ decision to move towards a synodal renewal of the Church, the message is clear that “the whole People of God is an agent of the proclamation of the Gospel… every baptized person is called to be a protagonist of mission since we are all missionary disciples.”
We need to create conditions that enable people to recognize and respond to their baptismal call and allow them to own their role as “protagonists” – the principal and active participants in mission. It is important to facilitate and guide people in their journey until individuals are able to truly find their voice in the life and mission of the Church.
If we see ourselves as facilitators, we can bring people together, learn from one another and be enriched by our encounters of different cultures and experiences. This can bring about new possibilities for mission. We need to be creatively and faithfully responsive to the changes brought forth by our journey together, especially when these changes lead us closer to people in the peripheries amidst these challenging and uncertain times.
When I arrived in Taiwan, I recognized how structures in our mission unit invite members, lay and ordained, to live out the values that reinforce and inform the life of Columban missionaries, that is, a full participation that fosters partnership and shared responsibility and accountability among ourselves. I had to make a choice to let go of my past conditioning that influenced my dynamics with the ordained and my view on my role as a lay woman in our community. It was not easy, but I gradually understood that my opinions and my contributions would be received and respected by others.
The encouragement young members received from fellow missionaries helped build our confidence to contribute in discussions, take initiatives and accept responsibilities. Of course, with our diverse cultures, personalities, and personal histories, it is to be expected that we have experienced resistance, tension and conflict. And, although we would rather avoid these, they are part of our reality, and overcoming them is necessary for our growth individually and as a community.
With God’s grace, environments or conditions such as I have experienced can bring about an awakening in an individual, leading to a deeper understanding of one’s calling and a sense of ownership of our shared responsibilities in the community.
Synodality also calls us to address clericalism and exclusion in the Church. From what I have witnessed and learned in my ministry about confronting stigma and discrimination, behavioral and attitudinal change is just as critical as finding a cure that would end HIV and the realities brought about by this illness.
The same sort of thing is true for the Church. It is vital that we honestly examine negative or false narratives, religious and cultural misconceptions or taboos, and any other structural or ideological components of the Church that perpetuate clericalism or justify acts of exclusion.
Only when we are aware of these attitudes and behaviors, and take steps to counteract them, can we ensure that we are not blocked from responding to, and relating with, people around us. Then, we can be catalysts of change for inclusion and diversity, bring healing in the Church, and truly move forward in the spirit of communion with one another and with God.
May our encounters with people in the margins teach us the meaning of witnessing to the truth that every person has innate value and dignity, and deepen our understanding of what St Paul meant when he described the Christian community as “one body with many members, so it is with Christ. We are the body of Christ, and individually members of it”. May the Holy Spirit guide us to remain faithful in welcoming others to share in God’s mission as disciples of Christ.