In 2014 I visited our Mill Hill Missionaries in Chhattisgarh, a landlocked state in central India. Our missionaries were invited by the Bishop to begin a mission in a remote and very poor area of the diocese, with a very small number of Catholics present. The state was overwhelmingly Hindu and protective of their religious heritage by officially discouraging conversions. Quite a challenge!
However, the people of Chhattisgarh welcomed our missionaries among them and the creation of a small mission station began on land owned by a local Christian. On the land there were only a couple of small rundown huts, one serving as a chapel for the handful of Catholics, the other accommodation for our intrepid missionaries.
Education is always high on the missionary agenda of serving those in need and so our missionaries set about building a very simple school for children of any religion in the area. One of our missionaries was a musician so he started a cultural music group to encourage an appreciation of the ancient local musical traditions. For the small number of Catholics already there, catechism was arranged to bring them closer to the Church.
Welcoming the stranger
The local political leaders and people did not see our missionaries as a threat and in long-standing local tradition welcomed them and showed them appreciation for their service to the community. Hospitality is second nature to the people, as is their sensitivity to the mystery of God’s presence among them.
Please note that this is not to ignore the many difficulties of working in such remote places with people who have no knowledge of Christ, but as our Holy Father Pope Francis tells us:
‘Challenges exist to be overcome! Let us be realists, but without losing our joy, our boldness, and our hope-filled commitment. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of missionary vigour!’ (EG 109)
Back to Chhattisgarh.
Once I arrived at the mission station, after an unforgettable journey in a crowded commuter train, I was welcomed by the small Christian community with garlands, music, food, and many speeches.
It was midday and the sun was at its zenith. There was no shade save that of an enormous, magnificent tree at the very heart of the compound. It was there, in its cool shade, that we sat for a considerable period of time.
And then I saw it! A statue of Our Lady in a wooden case with a glass front panel. The statue itself was simple and unremarkable, the ‘shrine case’ showing its age all too clearly.
I was told that this shrine to Our Lady was probably set up many years ago and had become a place of prayer and petition for many people in the area, Hindu and Christian alike.
Many would come with their domestic problems, their ills and ailments, their troubled hearts and broken dreams, and lay them before Our Lady, Queen of Heaven. Furthermore, there were rumours of miracles of healing, and of peaceful resignation to suffering.
During my short stay there, I witnessed a woman bring her newborn child to the shrine to be ‘blessed’ by Our Lady. She was Hindu and she was welcome, for there is room for all in God’s Kingdom.
This is one more example of Our Lady leading the way for missionaries to share the message of a God who revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ.
This story is by no means unique.
Mother Mary in Mongolia
During the recent visit of Pope Francis to Mongolia, possibly the smallest and youngest Church in the world, a similar story was shared.
Long before missionaries arrived in recent times, a Buddhist woman found a wooden statue of Our Lady in a landfill full of decaying rubbish in Darkhan. She admired it and took it to her ger (tent) and kept it there in a place of honour until she told her story to a Religious Sister who visited her one day by chance.
This statue of Mary had been found prior to the arrival of any Priests or Sisters. It has become the symbol of the Catholic Church in Mongolia and resides in the Cathedral, blessed and named by the Holy Father as the ‘Heavenly Mother’. One more incredible example of how Our Lady leads people in mysterious ways to her Son, Jesus Christ.
Pray for us, O Heavenly Mother of Christ, that our missionary discipleship of your beloved Son may bring all people to the knowledge of Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.