Good Ol' Rocky Top, Rocky Top, Tennessee!
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and
Blessed John Paul II Missions
Maynardville and Rutledge, Tenn.
Corinth, Thessalonica, Philippi,...Maynardville and Rutledge, Tenn.?
Like St. Paul, missioners never really know where their journeys are going to take them. St. Paul traveled across the Mediterranean to places like Corinth and Philippi. My missionary journey led me across the beautiful rocky-top mountains of East Tennessee to the towns and missions of Maynardville, Rutledge and sometimes Erwin.
The place where one carries out his ministry is no insignificant factor, because the people and culture of each area probably have a greater effect on the missioner than he or she does on the area. As St. Paul boarded a ship to leave the people of Ephesus, they and he had tears streaming down their faces (Acts 20:36-38). A mission area can really touch the heart of the missioner.
This has certainly been the case for me in my first year of missionary ministry as a Glenmary priest. I have been blessed to have so many wonderful experiences and to learn so much from the people.
During the first year, for instance, I worked with four teenagers who wanted to become Catholic. They were generally unchurched and unbaptized, and they had little experience with Christianity, let alone Catholicism. Yet their enthusiasm, zeal and perseverance for becoming Catholic were incredible. Even when things were tough, they kept their eyes on the goal. And as the waters of baptism touched their foreheads at Easter Vigil, their souls were changed forever; the same was true of my heart.
I recall one slightly older woman who had never really participated in Mass beyond being a congregation member. She hesitantly agreed to become a lector for her mission. After receiving her assignment for the following Sunday, she went home to exercise her shoulder muscles so she would be able to carry the Gospel book during the procession. Her reading was brilliant. Her courage to step out and lead was even more amazing. She has helped to change her mission community. She has also changed my heart.
I often reflect on our weekly evenings of faith formation, when the energy in our missions is palpable. At one mission, for example, we at times have crammed eight different classes into our little storefront church. While we've short on space, we haven't been short on grace. Witnessing the enthusiasm of groups of eager students, committed teachers and faithful parents has filled my heart with faith.
And I remember going to a local revival to pray with my non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. The music had the twang of East Tennessee, the preacher brought the message home strongly, and the people yelled in praise to God. Though this experience of faith was different from that found in most Catholic churches, it was no less authentic. The hospitality that the people extended to me, a stranger, will remain in my heart forever.
Missionary life may not be for everyone. But for those who are called, and for those who respond, it is the greatest gift God could ever give. A Glenmary missioner never knows for sure where he might do his ministry. But one thing is for certain: if he allows his heart to remain open to the people and the culture of the area, he will find himself one day leaving just like St. Paul. His eyes will be filled with tears grateful for how his heart has been changed for the better. Thanks for the first year of priesthood, Rocky Top, Tennessee!