By Kevin O’Sullivan
‘The history of Ireland’s missionary movement has not yet played out’, the narrator told us at the end of the two-part mini-documentary series, ‘On God’s Mission’, broadcast on RTÉ 1 television on Tuesday night. ‘And it may take another hundred years to fully understand its impact.’ When a television programme ends with an admission as equivocal as the average historian, it’s always a fair bet on the quality of the material that preceded it.
Let me admit something at the outset: I really liked this documentary. This is a subject on which I have written, researched and thought about extensively, and at every turn I found myself remarking at how well-researched, well put together and evenly paced – not easy to do – it was, with some interesting footage and only the usual, inescapable gripes about factual errors.
Its makers were helped, of course, by a terrific story. They began with Fr Joseph Shanahan’s journey into darkest west Africa in the early twentieth century, a place where, in his own words, ‘human flesh was even sold in public spaces’, where Satan was visible in the landscape, the people and the soil. Shanahan’s expansion of the Catholic Church in Nigeria and elsewhere was matched by the Maynooth Mission to China (later known as the Columban Fathers) and its magazine, The Far East, the emergence of the Holy Rosary Sisters, the Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMMs), and others. The MMMs were put forward as evidence of a changing Catholic Church, of the emergence of a renewed interest in humanitarianism and, indeed, a feminisation of missionary work in the health sector in the years immediately before and after the Second World War.
By then the role of the missionary was changing rapidly. When Bishop Shanahan, who died in Kenya in 1943, was reinterred in 1955 in the country he had given much of his life’s work to, Nigeria was on the early road to independence. The rest of Africa quickly followed, changing the political and social context the Church operated in, and according a new definition of the missionaries’ role and a new identity based primarily on their own country’s history of anti-colonialism.
The story of the Biafran war (1967-70) and Catholic involvement in providing relief to starving refugees was told briefly and with some inaccuracies, but nonetheless compellingly, with due emphasis on its significance for modern missionaries and NGOs. Tom Arnold rightly described it as a crossroads, ‘passing on the baton’ to non-governmental organisations like Concern, Trócaire, GOAL and others. That path led us, via Live Aid, to explore the lives of five contemporary Irish missionaries – in Brazil, the Philippines, India, Uganda and Kenya – and how their work has been re-shaped to suit the demands of the modern world.
There were so many layers to this progression: how early twentieth century evangelism gave way to the missionary as nationalist, an expression of Irishness after 1916; to a stronger involvement in humanitarianism and justice after the second Vatican Council and changes in the Church in the 1960s; and, perhaps most strikingly, the manner in which contemporary missionaries, deeply assimilated into their local societies, have turned to new interpretations of their role and the gospel.
To hear Sister Cyril Mooney in Kolkata assert that the Catholic Church should be more tolerant of other religions, less evangelical – ‘I might be excommunicated for saying this’ – and to see the programme-makers explore the implications of liberation theology was illuminating. To watch Cyril at work and hear one young schoolchild describe her as ‘so good, she is like my god. She brought me here and she made my future so bright’, to hear of Fr Jim Crowe in Sao Paulo, or Fr Shay Cullen in the Philippines, made the missionaries’ changing role more intelligible. I was less enamoured by the extra-medical methods of the missionaries shown dealing with the stigma of HIV/AIDS in Kenya, but that example was important in highlighting the missionaries’ work as an ongoing process of re-definition.
The programme’s approach to some of the story’s more controversial aspects was also impressive. Dublin-based Nigerian sociologist Festus Ikeotuonye told us that the missionaries, however well-meaning, were ‘invaders’; any people who impose themselves on a culture uninvited ‘are always colonialists’. Bob Geldof echoed those thoughts, describing the missionaries’ activities as ‘cultural imperialism’. They were balanced by the words of Tanzanian Prime Minister Peter Pinda, who highlighted the good – education, health care – and the bad – positive cultural values overridden or lost by Catholic dominance – of missionary activity in his country.
The issue of child abuse was not sidestepped either, neither by the narrator or by Fr Shay Cullen, whose campaign against child prostitution in the Philippines more than accorded him the authority to assert that simple message for the Church should be: ‘just don’t do this, don’t tolerate this, don’t cover it up’.
Only one aspect remained unexplored: the glaring absence of any reference to Ireland’s important Protestant missionary heritage. The Church Missionary Society, for example, has a strong tradition of work in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in the developing world. Some of its members were as involved in distributing relief in Biafra as their Catholic colleagues. Perhaps it was too difficult a story to integrate in such a short space of time, and one that was more difficult to square with traditional notions of ‘Irishness’ and the expression of Irish identity – which the documentary otherwise dealt with admirably – but it remains an important part of who we are nonetheless.
In the end, however, it is difficult to have anything but praise for ‘On God’s Mission’. If you want as nuanced a piece of documentary story-telling as is likely to be possible in such a medium, drawing on a wide variety of source material with the minimum of the dreaded actors’ ‘reconstruction’ and not afraid to tackle some of the more contentious issues of the missionaries’ past and present, you could do much worse than seek it out.