URBANA, ILL. -- Twenty-six years ago, Susan Nagele, just out of medical school, took a leap into the relatively unexplored territory of lay mission work when she joined the young movement of Maryknoll lay missioners. A three-year commitment grew, year after year, until it became her life’s work, a vocation that drew her simultaneously to the front lines of war in Sudan and to the quieter pursuit of a deeper interior journey.
Longevity makes hers an unusual tale, but foreign mission work is one of those staples of U.S. Catholic life that is shifting because of increased involvement of laity and changing needs in the field. The initial impulse to involve laypeople as active missionaries at Maryknoll, a peculiarly American organization, was provided by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its emphasis on the roles and responsibilities of laypeople within the church.
Maryknoll, a foreign mission endeavor that includes a society of priests and brothers and a separate religious order of sisters, was undergoing significant changes during the latter part of the 20th century. As a result of Vatican II, the society’s members engaged in a deep reassessment of how they approached their work in foreign missions. They looked at how they were present in different cultures, at who they served, at their commitment to the poor, and at what kind of institutions they maintained.
The initial impulse to form a lay group received a boost when leadership became aware that a continuing drop in the number of ordained and vowed vocations was forcing a decision: consider radical changes in the way the organization perceived both its purpose and the role of laity within that purpose or watch its overseas mission efforts slowly but inevitably expire.
The future of the church is often found being worked out today at the intersection of demographics and theology, in those areas where the numbers are already dictating a new reality on the ground. The new reality, like liquid finding its level, seeks its match with the theological work that often anticipates the questions of the future.
“The whole idea of Maryknoll starting a lay mission program really started right after the Second Vatican Council at the 1966 chapter [meeting of all the members] of the Maryknoll Society,” said Sam Stanton, a former lay missioner and now executive director of the program at Maryknoll.
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Six years later, the society decided it would start a formal program as soon as two Maryknoll regions overseas were open to receiving lay ministers for three-year commitments. “In 1975, the first missioners were sent to Hong King and Venezuela” after training at the society’s seminary at Maryknoll, N.Y., said Stanton.
By the mid to late 1980s, the leadership of the society was declaring publicly that the future of its mission activity rested with laypeople.
For Nagele, the decision to join Maryknoll was not so much a matter of theology or demographics, but of a call that, in hindsight, seems a natural extension of a life of service that began as a child. During a January interview in her family home in Urbana, Nagele recalled trips she took beginning when she was 10 or 12 years old with her father to see her uncle, Father Joe, a Glenmary missioner in Appalachia. The impressions of how different life was in Uncle Joe’s small parish in Sunfish, Ky., stayed with her for a long time.
This past January, she was home to be treated for an illness that turned out to be an immune system disorder, and to be honored at her home parish, St. Patrick Church, an event that included a commendation signed by President Barack Obama.
During her undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, she continued to be influenced by her contact with the Neumann Center and by trips she took with service groups to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
“I knew after I had done those projects that I wanted to do something more substantial. I always got a lot out of everything I did, but what can you do in two weeks in a different culture and country? So I wanted something that would give me a chunk of time, and, of course, if you’re a doctor, the best time to do it is when you don’t have a practice and overhead.”
She went to medical school at Southern Illinois University and immediately after her residency she joined Maryknoll. “My faith was very important to me, so I wanted it to be with a Catholic group. I didn’t want to be a sister. If the right guy came along, I was going to get married, so I was looking for a lay group. Really, at that time , Maryknoll was the only group that had those parameters.”
Of the scores of religious orders, dioceses and other groups that send missionaries overseas, Maryknoll has consistently sent the largest number of religious men and women and, in recent years, the largest group of laypeople, according to figures compiled by the United States Catholic Mission Association (see below). Those same figures (not definitive because they are reliant on groups’ self-reporting) would show that while religious men and women by far constitute the largest groups of U.S. Catholics engaged in overseas mission, the only category that is growing is laity.
Nagele’s first six years with Maryknoll were spent in Tanzania, then from 1991 to 1997 in southern Sudan, most of the time as the only physician serving two refugee camps with a combined population of more than 30,000.
She moved to a more settled region of Sudan in 1997. From 2003 to 2009, she worked in a small village in Kenya, and when she returned to Africa this year in April, it was to Mombasa, Kenya, where she was invited by the archdiocese to oversee its health programs. The 54-year-old family physician now looks back on a career that never involved much overhead, and in which her practice was usually engaged in starting up or rescuing health care facilities in what by most standards would be considered desperate circumstances.
It was a lot of “doing,” over a quarter of a century. But in the family living room in Urbana, just blocks from the church she knew as a child and that has supported her ministry over the years, talk of heroic work receded in the conversation as it turned to her lifelong consideration of vocation and the evolution of her ideas about God.
Sudan played a large role in those considerations. It was “certainly one of the most important parts of my life because when you live in a war situation, you really do live in the present moment. We can talk about living in the now, but how many of us can really do it? That’s what you do there. All of the extraneous little things, it’s much easier to let them go. ... The relationships with people were the most important outside of water and food,” she said. “I always know there are certain people in the world that no matter where they are, we still think of each other because of what we went through in Sudan.”
The Mass sustained her throughout the work. In Tanzania, it became part of the daily routine. In the war zone, when “all I wanted was an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be because I had no energy to whip up some big prayer service,” the Mass often was an intimate gathering of a few people. That’s where one evening, just she and the priest were sharing Eucharist outside in the evening and he said to her, “ ‘You know, I can learn from a laywoman.’ What he was saying was, ‘I’m glad we can talk about these things.’ ”
Church in extreme circumstances can sometimes point to a church of the future. During a sabbatical in Ireland, she listened to a presentation by a priest on the centrality of Eucharist in the Catholic church. She raised her hand at the end and said, “Okay, I’m a missionary in southern Sudan and there could be places where we might not have Eucharist for three or four months. So if this Eucharist is so essential for our faith, what do you say to that? What are we supposed to do?”
The priest answered: “You do what you have to do.”
“I thought,” she said, “ ‘Thank God.’ ... In fact, I was never in a place where we didn’t have priests, mainly for safety reasons, but if it is that central, then you do what you have to do.”
When she was young, she said, her idea of God “was pretty typical. He was a man in charge of everything.” But that idea has changed. Sudan had something to do with it. “I’ve been in very dangerous situations, and I’ve seen things happen that shouldn’t have happened,” and in those circumstances, she said, she’s “known God’s presence. So it’s not an idea anymore. It’s a knowledge. I could never say there is no God.”
But couldn’t it be argued that situations like Sudan are indications of God’s abandonment?
“They can, but I know what I feel and what I know, and that’s what I know. There is something very good and benevolent and wonderful that is where we all come from, and is inside us as well. Our deepest center is something divine,” she said.
Her conviction comes, oddly enough, not from her experience in Sudan, but from a more inward journey that began when she hit 50 and began seeking a better balance in her life. “I worked far too hard and would have had a more healthy, balanced vision of the world if I hadn’t been striving so hard to do a lot of things. I think I would have been a better missioner.”
She’ll have the opportunity to try for more balance in her new assignment in Mombasa. In a brief phone interview in early June from Kenya, she told NCR that she was thrilled to be back in Africa and anticipated at least another five or six years helping the Mombasa diocese establish health facilities throughout its territory.
In the meantime, she is convinced that laypeople belong in mission. In fact, more and more, laypeople are taking over tasks of orientation and teaching that once were done almost exclusively by priests and sisters. The numbers are telling, but they aren’t the reason for the call. Her vocation, she said, is nothing more or less than an attempt “to do what God wants me to do. It’s not too difficult. I mean, you’re always trying to figure out what God wants you to do. I just know that I’m not supposed to join an order. I’m supposed to be part of the everyday world.”
As everyday as it gets in war zones and among some of the poorest on the planet.
Maryknoll marks 35 years of sending laity to foreign missions
The Maryknoll Lay Mission program, which sent its first class of lay missioners to Hong Kong and Venezuela in 1975, will observe its 35th anniversary Aug. 28 on the campus near Ossining, N.Y., that the program shares with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Maryknoll Sisters.
The idea for lay missioners surfaced with the Maryknoll priests and brothers at the 1966 chapter of the organization just after the close of the Second Vatican Council the year before. Sam Stanton, executive director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, said the Maryknoll Society was heavily influenced by the work of that council and its emphasis on the roles that laypeople should take up in the church.
In the years since that first group left for the foreign missions, more than 600 U.S. lay Catholics have participated in foreign mission work through the program. Many of them were married couples with small children.
The lay missioner program at Maryknoll is distinctive not only for its longevity but also because it requires a deeper commitment than most lay mission programs that have developed in recent decades. The minimum commitment is three years, said Stanton, and of the more than 70 missioners in the field in six countries today, two have given more than 30 years to the organization and more than 20 have served 15 years or more.
The global economic crisis caused Maryknoll to cut its recruiting to under 10 missioners per year and to exclude children for a few years because of the expense of keeping families in the field.
However, said Stanton, the organization is planning to revive its recruiting program in 2011 and hopes to send 15 people into mission next year. Nine are being sent this year. He said Maryknoll also hopes to begin including families again.
Those selected through a screening process for the program are required to go through months of formation and, once in the country where they will be serving, go through further orientation and language training.
Despite its title, the Maryknoll Lay Missioners program was constituted ecclesially as an “open” organization. While its membership is overwhelmingly made up of laypeople, it also includes vowed and ordained members.
-- Tom Roberts