5 reasons I love being a missionary priest
As a missionary priest Father Joseph Bragotti, M.C.C.J. has frequently been inspired by the faith of people he has met. Here he stands with Wai Pui Man, his “adopted grandma,” who spent 10 years in prison for being a Christian during Mao’s regime in China. (Photo courtesy of Comboni Missions)
Happiness is being a missionary and going to Africa. I was sure of it. My motivation? I wanted to see lions! I was 10 years old then, a survivor of World War II in my native Italy. I was ready for adventure, and adventure had come to our school in the guise of a Comboni missionary, fresh from Sudan. During his visit he fascinated us with stories and colorful postcards. That did it: I was hooked on mission.
Seventy years later, 55 years into my priesthood, I am now “recycled.” We missionary priests don’t really retire, nor do we fade away easily. I look back on my life as a pastoral priest, youth chaplain, and journalist, and I see myself as a happy, contented, adventurous missionary. I loved it all and I still do. Here are five reasons this vocation has been so rewarding for me.
1. Celebrating the Eucharist
Lately I have been helping children in a small school in Cincinnati to understand the Eucharist. We gather in little groups and have Mass in a classroom. The children have lots of questions as we gather to celebrate, and I explain everything I do as we move along. Some liturgists may shudder, but we love it.
It has always delighted me to open the heart of the faithful to the joy of “celebrating,” rather than “attending,” Mass. I have celebrated Mass under the trees in northern Uganda, with high-school students in the city, and in remote communities in Guatemala. That is what I was ordained to do, after all.
In the forests of Guatemala, where communities go without the Eucharist for months, I once gave the people of remote Sajul the first Christmas Mass in their history. People came from near and far, some walking through the forest for hours to attend. Did we celebrate! We shared the unbounded joy of celebrating with the Lord. In another place I was the first priest ever to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with the people there. It’s part of their history now and a bond of love that will never die.
2. Participating in Reconciliation
By now I have heard untold thousands of Confessions on four continents, in dozens of countries and in various languages. No matter where you happen to be, the sins are always the same! And so is the inner joy of being an instrument of God’s mercy and love. I’ve spent hours hearing Confessions in the open air in northern Uganda, in mission churches throughout Africa, Latin America, Europe, and even in China once. I’ve heard Confessions of little first-timers who confessed to “stealing the remote” (it’s definitely a modern sin) and Confessions of death-row prisoners. No matter where and when Reconciliation takes place, nothing compares to the intimate joy of seeing a burdened soul come in and a lighter, more hopeful, reconciled human being walk away to face a new life. Sometimes I feel I can almost touch the presence of God’s merciful spirit.
3. Meeting people of faith
When I first went to Africa as a young missionary, I was going to bring God to people, or so I thought, but I soon realized that God was already there. Thanks to my ministry as a missionary and a journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a variety of people worldwide who have taught me the meaning of faith in God and in humanity.
Martin Okelo was a young Catholic politician in Uganda during dictator Idi Amin’s rule. He disappeared one day, and his body surfaced in a ditch two weeks later. He had been tortured and murdered. In a pocket agenda found in his coat he had scribbled: “Together with Christ on the cross I forgive these people. May the shedding of my blood be a blessing to them.” I kept those pages with me as a relic for a long time.
In 1994, at the height of the civil war ravaging Sudan, I smuggled myself into the southern part of the country that was under rebel control. There I joined the local bishop who was attempting to visit his flock in the newly liberated areas. We lived and traveled with the rebel army. It was risky, but we had no choice. One day we came across about 1,000 people who, after years of hiding in the mountains, were now desperately looking for food. At one point, the confrontation between people driven by hunger and 400 battle-weary young soldiers armed to their teeth was about to turn ugly. But a hush fell over the crowd when someone spotted the bishop and myself among the soldiers. Then one of the elders walked up to the bishop, pointed at me, and asked: “Is this the priest who will stay with us and give us Jesus? We haven’t had the Eucharist in five years.” It gave me goosebumps. There are hungers that bread alone cannot fill!
Another time I joined a group of Chinese Catholics from Macau on a trip to Guangzhou (Canton) in Communist China. A diminutive grandmother took me under her wing. She taught me how to use chopsticks and placed morsels of food on my plate. One day, after Mass, we took the entire cathedral crew, from rector to sacristan, out to breakfast. It became a cheerful celebration of the years my new friends had survived at the “university.” Those, I found out, were the years they had spent in Mao’s prisons because they were Christians. My adopted grandma? Ten years. Father Tan, the pastor? Thirty-four years. I was breaking bread with living martyrs who, around that table, totaled 90 years of detention.
How could I not love being a missionary priest? Getting to brush shoulders with Christian heroes and then tell others their inspiring stories has been an honor.
4. Sharing my experiences
What you receive, you are asked to share. I had—and still have—the privilege of sharing the joy of mission through the written word. It isn’t work; I love it. I did it through our publications, through my international contacts in the Vatican pressroom, through war correspondents in wartime Uganda, and even through ordinary parish bulletins.
Over the years I have also loved sharing mission with teenagers. Because I love mission, I never fell into the trap of taking a bunch of suburban kids to a survival environment “to help.” We always went to learn and to establish connections. The kids always understood that, once there, we would be a pain in the neck for busy missionaries and that we would have to rely on the kindness of poor people. We learned from them in a spirit of gratitude and humility. So we canoed our way up the rivers of Ecuador, took in the awesomeness of God’s creation, shared festivals with the Cayapa Indians, ate tons of rice and beans, got sick to our stomach, and spent TV-less evenings reflecting on our experiences and baring our souls. We always came home enriched, wiser, and with the intimate joy that we had touched the heart of mission and had been changed forever.
As a missionary priest one just falls in love with opening young minds and hearts to the wonders of God’s creations and of the human family in it.
5. Embracing creativity and adventure
When I had been in Uganda about a year, in 1968, my bishop named me diocesan chaplain of youth organizations. I respectfully mentioned to him that there was a dearth of youth organizations in the diocese. “Exactly,” he answered. “Get busy!” Oh, the joy of working outside the box or, even better, of inventing the box! And I have pictures to prove it: Over the years my Uganda Martyrs Youth Club became a model for similar ventures. Since that time, I have taken great pleasure in initiating projects that “would never work,” resurrecting publications that “were meant to die,” going to places where you “won’t be able to go,” such as voodoo rites in West Africa or the mined countryside of Angola, or a newly contacted indigenous group in the Amazons. Writing the book beats going by the book any day. What’s not to love?
Mission always has a big component of adventure. As a youthful war survivor and a missionary priest, I have enjoyed it all. Indeed, my heart overflows. People tell me that I should write a book about all this. Perhaps I will. But one thing is sure: My priestly missionary life, with its highs and its lumps, has been the adventure of a lifetime. I have loved it all. Thank you, Lord!
Oh, by the way, in case you wonder, I did get to see lions!
Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “Pope Francis wants YOU to be a missionary.”
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