by EDWINA GATELEY, organis ing secretary of the Volunteer Missionary Movement
"THE Church is not a perfect sign of Christ among men, unless there exists a laity worthy of the name working along with the hierarchy" (Ad Genies No. 21). This phrase perfectly expresses the precise function of the laity in missionary activity.
The witness borne by lay people should be in keeping with a true concept of their vocation; they are truly members of the People of God and citizens of the world — members of professions and trades with responsibility to both aspects of their lives.
The work of evangelisation and that of human progress, properly understood, tend towards the same end in perfect harmony, since progress involves the whole man. From a starting point of material development, through cultural advancement, can come an improvement of moral conduct. There is no contradiction between development and evangelisation, but a harmonious unity between the cause of progress and of salvation.
The work of the lay missionary is in perfect accord with these aims and can be fulfilled 'both in communities in the developed Western World and in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and South America.
It is to these continents that lay missionaries are now going in increasing numbers to work alongside Religious; priests, nuns and brothers, who are committed variously to the work of education, medicine. agricultural and trade projects, community development, animal husbandry, home economics and so on.
In all these spheres there is now an increasing recognition of the value of the assistance of lay missionaries, especially for those with professional qualifications. Doctors, nurses, midwives, teachers, agricultural experts, farmers, cattlemen and accountants are increasingly sought by the Catholic missions to work with them in furthering the spiritual and material welfare of the people.
Until recently, it was the particular province of the Protestant Churches to send out lay missionaries, both single and married, whose Christian lives were a silent witness to the value of Christian living. Now, happily, the Catholic Church is evincing a growing awareness of the great well of lay talent and spirituality upon which she can draw, and the religious missionary nowadays is much more ready to welcome the expert help of a professional layman.
It is an old story, often told in mission areas — that of the
priest inundated with problems of building projects. education, hospital development; so busy, so swamped with demands on his time by material development that his pastoral duties inevitably suffer. He becomes a builder. or a teacher, or a farmer and his primary duty that of shepherd and father begin to take second place, perhaps almost imperceptibly.
These demands on his time are valid, he cannot ignore them. This is where the lay missionary can offer himself and in relieving the priest of temporal cares and problems he is fulfilling a vital role in the service of the Church, and freeing the priest for his own particular vocation.
The lay missionary must not be a separate entity in the mission activity of the Church, must not even be looked on as a parallel to the religious missionaries. He is, and must be accepted essentially, in a complementary role to that of the religious. This necessitates a spirit of acceptance and welcome on the part of the religious.
On his side, the lay missionary is to be a completely committed person, whether his service is for two years or for life. During his service he gives himself completely and unreservedly; his missionary task is with him every moment and he is completely at the service of the local community while he is in its midst.
There are no "office hours". A teacher may have spent all day with the children and in the evening the adults will beg him to teach them. A nurse may have seen hundreds of patients at her bush clinic during the day, but the mothers will be eager to learn dressmaking or dietetics and she will improvise evening classes for them.
The carpenter may have been all day in the trade school with the boys and still find his evenings full, repairing the church, mending furniture, refitting windows or generally patching up. No matter what his or her particular skill, each lay missionary will find himself fulfilling a variety of roles according to the special needs of the community in which he works.
Sometimes a teacher will spend his holiday carrying bricks and whitewashing the school. Another lay missionary will give up his pocket money to pay for the education of a young African boy.
In this vocation there is. no particular heroism. no sense of martyrdom. no expression of piety. The volunteer missionary is a normal. stable person, fulfilling a vocation which demands maturity, courage, commonsense and not least a great sense of humour. The challenge is not to be answered with grim determination or high idealism, but with a faith that can smile and pervade every effort and action. Today the lay missionary vocation is just beginning to take its place in the Church's structure. The whole import of the Vatican Council document on Missionary Activity and the apostolate of the laity is complete involvement by the laity, and as soon as the voluntary organisations began their recruiting campaign there was no lack of young and old applicants for the work who felt it vital to fulfil the obligation that Christ had pointed out to them towards those less fortunate than themselves.
The long-term lay missionary faces a lack of security. which if not remedied or catered for soon will result in the unnecessary loss of many dedicated and qualified personnel for the missions.
It is relatively easy to give two or three years of one's professional service in return for a subsistence allowance; but for many who greatly desire to give longer service, perhaps even for life, there is as yet no provision for old age or breakdown in health, and this militates against the long-term commitment which many lay missionaries would like to make.
One can only look hopefully towards the day when the lay missionary vocation is fully recognised by the Church and some central body will make suitable provision for these people who long to dedicate their talents to the service of Christ in a role which will complement to the full the religious profession of the priests and nuns, to the great benefit of the people among whom they will live and work, and vitally enrich the life of the Church.