Learning to receive in order to give
I WENT to Africa to find the will of God. Three years before this, I had cancelled my ordination to the priesthood, got a flat in the west end of Glasgow and a job in the north east of the city. However, I was still a deacon and had said 'yes' to God so I could not just drift along. The issue had to be sorted. I took up an offer to go to a remote parish in Cameroon, West Africa, to try and understand what I should do with my life.
After a year of living with the Bangwa people, I gradually came to the realisation that God was calling me to the priesthood. Rural Africa has a way of simplifying the complicated European heart and soul. There were no mobile phones, no internet, videos or retail parks. Life was trekking through the forests and over the mountains to visit the people in their villages and isolated compounds. Sitting in the evening sharing stories, reflecting on life and faith around a fire or under the stars. And so it was that after a year I came back to Scotland, got ordained one rainy night, and three weeks later returned to resume my life with the Bangwa.
It was Pa Mathias Anu, a saintly, old Catechist who summed it up very well. Pa was like a father to me and so when I came to leave after many years, I went to ask his advice and blessing as any son would do when leaving home.
As I knelt before him, he said: “You were born twice. The first time was when your mother delivered you. The second time you were born was here because when you first came to Bangwa you did not know what God wanted of you. It was here that you discovered the will of God for your life. That is the real birth, the most important birth. So always remember that you are a son of this soil. You will be our 'word' to the people you will meet out there in the world.”
He put his hand on my head and said a prayer of blessing and then we embraced.
When I went outside, I bent to the ground and scooped up a handful of soil in front of his door. I keep that soil in a small box and when I die it is my wish that the soil of Bangwa be placed over my heart, next to my skin and buried with me.
Everyone who has left Scotland to serve the Church abroad, whether in Africa or Asia or South America, will tell you that they often feel they have received far more than they have given when living and working in these places. That is because mission is essentially about creating a relationship with others. As Pope Francis has insisted: "Mission is not proselytising." We must not set out to 'capture' others. We do not come with an agenda. We come to love.
A true relationship is not a one-way street. There can be no sense of one person being superior to the other.
The person through whom the Gospel is being brought is not greater than the person receiving the Gospel. It is the Holy Spirit who brings God's life and faith, not us. All that is required of us is that inspired by our faith we do our part to create a relationship where there is love and mutual respect. In that context, the Holy Spirit can then draw us both into a fuller understanding and knowledge of Christ.
Being involved in the mission of the Church, therefore, means that my own life and faith will benefit from the encounter and the Church will be enriched by those it is evangelising. Ultimately it enables the Gospel to become more 'incarnate' in our world.
We can recognise this in the life of the Church where we can see the same faith being expressed through our different cultures. Just attend Mass in sub-Saharan Africa where the Liturgy is vibrant, full of singing and dancing and three hours long. The greatness and beauty of the Church throughout the world is a testimony to true communion and where the prayer of Jesus to the Father—'May they all be one'—is fulfilled.