I’m not an overly religious person. I was brought up as a Catholic, but I no longer practice. I realised a long time ago that my religious upbringing didn’t sit well with my everyday experience. Being told at primary school that only Catholics would reach heaven, is one memory that springs to mind. So too was a Parish Council meeting I witnessed descend into acrimony, accusations, and downright spite.
Such unchristian and divisive behaviour taking place in a christian setting is something I look back on with horror. It perfectly highlights that people can be barbaric, hurtful, warm, or generous regardless of their faith, gender, skin colour, or political belief. However there is one branch of my ecclesiastical upbringing that I cling to.
As a youngster my Mother supported the work of the Missionary Society of St. Columban. Now that she’s unable to, I’ve taken on the mantle. The reasons are two fold. First, as an adopted child, I was for want of a better phrase, “sourced” through the Colomban Sisters. Secondly, one of my paternal aunts was a missionary in the Philippines with them.
The society started in Ireland in 1916, and was formally approved by the Vatican in June 1918. The world, and indeed Ireland, was a very different place back then. For a start Ireland was still governed by the UK, despite the brave attempt of the 1916 uprising, and the UK was still at war with Germany and it’s allies.
The society’s initial mission was in China. This wasn’t entirely safe, as China was itself in the middle of a bloody civil war lasting some 30 years, during which some missionaries were murdered. As time went on though, the society expanded into other far eastern countries. Post WW2 they went into South America and Pakistan. But it is their work in the Far East that always caught the eye of a young man living in London.
I remember getting the regular copies of their aptly named Far East magazine. As well as featuring articles from far off places I’d never been to, I was often drawn to the slightly unorthodox role of the missionaries. Not unorthodox in a theological sense, but socially and economically. Whilst they often worked with the poorest in society, they realised how they could campaign (with a small “c”) to improve the position of those under their care. It wasn’t uncommon to see them attending, or even leading, peaceful protests.
I mentioned my missionary aunt. I was one of her favourite nephews, and she took a great interest in my life. When she visited us, she’d always ask lots of questions about what I was up to. When In the early 1990s I became involved in Amnesty International, she showed a particular interest. I’d like to think this was because she saw my work in this organisation as an extension of her mission.
Maybe she was right. The Colombans have a strong focus on social and economic issues. Their website features work on climate change, justice and peace, refugees, food and water. Whilst back then Amnesty International members concentrated mainly on individual prisoner cases, it fitted fairly neatly with their general missionary work. Over the years as Amnesty changed to work directly on social and economic rights, it is more aligned with the society’s mandate.
Unfortunately my aunt is no longer with us. After she died I visited the Far East on many occasions. It is a fascinated region, full of smiles and friendly faces. The majority of those I met weren’t Catholic, but I’ve no doubt they have just as much chance of reaching heaven (or whatever celestial resting place awaits us) as me!
I’ll never forget visiting the “English Corner” in Shanghai’s People’s Park in the early 1990s, where I was befriended by an octogenarian man. As someone who remembered life before the cultural revolution, he didn’t take too kindly to being told what to think. A free thinker, he was a breath of fresh air and not scared to talk about controversial topics. Bizarrely he liked Margaret Thatcher, not because he agreed with her politics, but because in his eyes she stood for everything the Chinese leadership wasn’t.
Similarly I won’t forget, although I wish I was able to forget the hangover, spending several hours drinking beer with the guards on a 30 hour train journey down Vietnam. It started as an attempt to teach them better English, but soon descended into a Beatles sing song and then pure farce. In fact I still have a handwritten note, signed by the Head Guard, that offers me free rail travel throughout Vietnam!
Back in reality my work with Amnesty International continues. I’m just a member of a local volunteer group now, but I did spend many years in the organisation’s governance. I was even on the Board of the UK Section for four years. I may be less directly involved in the organisation’s decision making these days, but my desire for human rights remains undiminished.
I’d like to think my need to campaign against unfairness and injustice comes from my aunt’s spirit and energy. She, and other Colomban missionaries, were arguably laying the foundations for Amnesty International’s later human rights work in the Far East. Neither of us knew it back then, but the two organisations had more in common than we thought.
I’ll be attending a mass in London in June to mark the Missionary Society of St. Columban’s centenary. Whilst I’m a lapsed catholic, I still feel a spiritual pull towards religion for the good of a society. So when I’m there, I’ll look up and give thanks to my Aunt Sheila and the wonderful work she and other Colomban missionaries did, and continue to do, around the world.