By Dubravka Kolumbic-Cortese, EmmaLee Italia, Christina Leslie and Lois Rogers, Correspondents
As a boy growing up in Ireland, Father Damian McElroy enjoyed watching movies and reading books about missionaries.
“Missionaries and heroes don’t just belong to the movies,” the pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorestown, told parishioners after the 5 p.m. Vigil Mass Aug 5. “They don’t just belong in novels and books. They are real men, and we have one of them here tonight,” he said in describing Father Martin Keveny, a missionary priest in the Amazon who serves in the Diocese of Miracema do Tocantins in Brazil.
Father Keveny, who visited Moorestown that weekend, gave one talk among many as part of the annual Mission Appeal hosted by the diocesan Missions Office. Each summer, priests and religious men and women from around the globe visit the Diocese’s 107 parishes, informing the faithful about the challenges their brethren worldwide face and offering them the opportunity to provide financial and spiritual support. Mission Appeal funds are used in many ways, such as seminary formation, formation of catechists, children and youth, and providing food, medicine and shelter for those in war-torn territories.
Father Peter James Alindogan, director of the diocesan Pontifical Mission Society, stressed that the appeal benefits Catholics close to home by teaching them about different cultures and the joy in simplicity.
“Ultimately, we are all connected as a Church,” he said. “Whether you are from Africa, Asia or the United States, we are all part of one mission: to follow the call of Jesus Christ to spread the Gospel.”
In his appeal, Father Kevney spoke of how it is his home Diocese’s goal to evangelize and build a chapel in every district so the faithful can maintain a connection to the Church. His vast and remote area in Brazil makes it difficult to achieve those goals, he said, noting that at age 77, he has been serving 35,000 people within a 100-mile radius, including two parishes, 12 rural communities and six urban centers each week for more than 20 years.
“It’s been a wonderful experience to be there,” Father Keveny, a native of Ireland, told parishioners.
Moorestown was just one stop in a months-long missionary trip to the United States for Father Keveny, who hopes to raise awareness and support for the plight of his Diocese, which was founded in 1966. Only 20 priests serve close to 170,000 people in the 17,375 square-foot area.
Rebuilding a Country
Parishioners in St. Justin the Martyr Parish, Toms River, got a glimpse of life in a country some 4,600 miles away when they heard the witness of Father Patrick Kroteh of Liberia the weekend of Aug. 5-6.
Noting that his home country, with a population of 4.5 million, lies on the western coast of Africa and is similar in size to Tennessee, Father Kroteh, who hails from the 12,267 square-mile Diocese of Cape Palmas, described the suffering of Liberians during the country’s violent civil war.
“Everything shut down,” he said of the conflict, which raged from 1989 to 1996. “There was no government, no schools. When, by the grace of God, it was finished, 15 years had gone by without children being educated.”
The Diocese of Cape Palmas established schools and a commission “so we could protect the rights of those who have no one to defend them,” Father Kroteh said. “Our interreligious dialogue began so we could live in peace with those of other religions.” He added that the diocese’s Caritas organization helped find livelihoods for those not in schools to keep the former students away from crime.
On the heels of the civil war was the Ebola epidemic, which “broke down our economy and left behind many consequences,” Father Kroteh said, noting the significant number of widows and orphans.
However, he also described the joy he and the community still experienced under conditions most would find formidable. “I had three hours a night of electricity by generator, and then it went out. There was no running water, no care, but we were joyful.”
Issuing a call to action to the Toms River congregation, Father Kroteh said, “All of us are called by our Baptism to be missionaries and part of the missionary life of the Church. That is why I appeal to you. … That is why I have come.”
A Desire to Teach, Learn
In St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, Father Leo Awojinrin injected both humor and song into his homily during Mass celebrated Aug. 6, entreating parishioners not only to focus on the Feast of the Transfiguration but also to consider assisting his diocese with funds for education.
Now a priest of the Ijebu-Ode Diocese in Nigeria, Father Awojinrin said that as a youth, he knew he was called to vocation, but he was told by his parish priest that the cost to educate a seminarian was too great.
Ultimately, his education was funded by a couple from Maryland, who donated more than the entire amount needed, he said. He was happy for the opportunity to meet the couple a few years ago and continues to remember them in his daily prayers.
Father Awojinrin spoke of how missionaries came to Africa many years ago, bringing with them health care, education, the English language and the Good News to native Nigerians. When the diocese of Ijebu-Ode was founded in 1969, Pope Paul VI told the newly appointed bishops of the continent, “Africans, you are missionaries to yourselves now.”
The Ijebu-Ode Diocese is 50 percent Muslim and 20 percent Catholic and serves about 10,000 Catholics in the region. Father Awojinrin’s parish alone serves 250 to 300 Catholics. However, the biggest challenge remains educating the youth – both the building, maintenance and running of schools.
“Sometimes the mission gets really tough, and I get discouraged,” said Father Awojinrin, who is on a six-week U.S. trip. He added that in those times, he likes to sing the words of a familiar hymn: “Here I am, Lord, send me; I come to do your will.”
Handing on the Faith
In Farmingdale’s St. Catherine of Siena Church, faithful gained insight into the vast mission fields of the Indian subcontinent from Father Daison Areepparampil, who is the newly assigned parochial vicar of St. Mary Parish, Bordentown. Father Areepparampil hails from Kerala, the ancient seat of Christianity in India, where the Apostle Thomas is believed to have begun evangelizing the new faith in 52 A.D.
Father Areepparampil, who was incardinated as a priest of the Trenton Diocese in 2008, gave the presentation on behalf of his brother, Father Sebastian Areepparampil, a priest of the Syro-Malabar Diocese (Eparchy) of Faridabad in the area of Delhi, who was unable to attend.
In his mission appeal, Father Areepparampil presented a compelling glimpse into the needs of a community of nearly 20 million Catholics in India, many of whom cling to their faith despite great odds. He shared that the funds raised through the appeal will go toward formation of catechists, children and youth and help with building vitally needed schools.
He shared that though the overall Christian population of India is estimated at 40 million to 50 million adherents – seven percent of the population – contemporary witness there is not without its perils. Among the challenges, he said, is bringing Christ to people whose greatest concern is that conversion may result in economic hardship and persecution.
Father Areepparampil also spoke of how he served as a priest among the poor in the Philippines for 22 years before arriving in the Trenton Diocese, working among the faithful there who “had to walk two hours each way to hear Mass and experience the joy of having Christ in their lives if only once a month.”
Stories such as Father Areepparampil’s are what speak to the hearts of the faithful. Father Alindogan said he is gratified by the response of the faithful in the Diocese of Trenton each year, noting donations during the mission appeal can be take many forms.
“I am always humbled by the little things people do, which are actually big in spirit and generosity and sharing,” he said. “There are other donations, not just money. Some priests give the missionaries chalices, vestments and pray Mass intentions.
“The bottom line is: it is more about sharing,” he concluded. “The challenge and call we have as Catholics is to share what we have. It is heartwarming to know of the support.”