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Last week's commemoration of Mission Sunday is always very special in the Archdiocese of Boston. However, there's also reason to celebrate the immigrant and first generation Catholics from distant lands who strengthen the archdiocese as a result of the missions.
Religious missionary communities recognized Boston as fertile ground for missionary vocations. In fact, we really do have a particular admiration for missionaries. People here have always dipped deep into their pockets to support missionary activity. Little wonder then that, as travelers are quick to tell you, people all over the world know about Boston and hold a special affection for Bostonians.
Still though, who would have thought that such zealous missionary spirit would heap such handsome rewards upon us. For example, let's consider Hispanics, who have become such a significant part of our population. The fact that Boston was especially prepared to welcome these newcomers is a tribute to missionaries, and particularly to the over 300 priest from the Archdiocese of Boston who are "alumni" of the magnificent Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle.
That story began on the balcony of the papal residence in Vatican City when Pope Pius XII issued "Fidei Donum" calling the entire Church to share their priestly resources with places where there was a serious need of clergy. That encyclical inspired Boston's Archbishop Richard Cushing to establish the unique Pious Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle on July 25, 1958. This innovative approach invited diocesan priests to volunteer five years of their priestly lives to missionary activity in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. These countries, despite the vast number of nominal Catholics who lived there, and who were often considered the poorest of the poor, suffered spiritually because of the sparse shortage of native clergy.
The priests of St. James Society, as it came to be called, would serve under the local bishop with a mission within the mission. First, they would organize a parish community and then build a church. Once the parish was stabilized, they turned it over to the local bishop and moved further on to more remote areas to begin their work all over again.
The St. James Society's 'alumni' generally shy away from praise, but if the truth be known they were champions for Christ in so many ways that their accomplishments defy adequate description. For what possible courses in their St. John's Seminary studies could have prepared them to build schools, hospitals, clinics, and social work centers all over Latin America? Literally, everywhere they went, miracles seemed to happen with amazing regularity as churches flourished in places where faith had been dormant.
A new emphasis was placed on love and hope. Dark and gloomy mission churches became remnants of the past as the architecture, thanks to the dollars from so many people in Boston, focused on hope with the light of the Resurrection.
Others came to help. Religious communities like the Marist Missionary Sisters and Boston's own Sisters of St. Joseph worked from dawn to dusk. They established schools and food kitchens and worked with families in slum areas where the poverty levels were beyond belief.
When this writer first travelled to the missions over 50 years ago, I remember coming upon a man standing on a bull dozer directing laborers building a road to a remote village high in the Peruvian Andes. In the best Spanish I could muster, I asked for directions to the local Catholic church and that I was looking for a priest named Father Jerry Pashby. "Jerry Pashby? That's me!" he said as he wiped the dirt and sweat from his forehead. The legendary Father Pashby of Revere remained a missionary for the rest of his life. To mention just a very few things, Father Pashby managed to get electric power and water to isolated areas, set up television for entire regions, and built highways as well as churches. Before his death, he even built a hospital.
There are so many mission stories that their telling would take volumes. The important point is that when Latinos made their way to places like East Boston, Cambridge, Framingham, Haverhill, Lawrence, and other cities throughout the archdiocese, there were priests here who understood their language and culture. Their missionary experience enabled them to reach out and easily assimilate them into the parish. That special touch assisted Latinos with learning English, finding jobs, and motivated their children to school and college. Indeed, Hispanic immigrants are quick to acknowledge their gratitude to the archdiocese and to Cardinal Seán O'Malley who places high priority on their well-being and on their future.
So perhaps there needs to be a special day after Mission Sunday that recognizes the fruit of such missionary labor as evidenced by our newly arrived fellow Catholics from Latin America, from Africa, from India, China, and Japan, and from virtually all over the world.
Indeed, we should be grateful to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, to the "alumni" and current members of the St. James Society, and to all religious missionaries as well as those who support them. For as God works in strange ways, these new Catholics have strengthened the Archdiocese of Boston with their presence and with the firmness of their faith.
Frank Mazzaglia is associated with the Missionary Alliance, which is comprised of religious missionary congregations of priests, sisters, brothers and lay people whose members toil in the vineyards for Christ all over the world.