Sister Norma Edith Muñoz’s life is one of service, obedience and deference to the will of God. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t pick a few personal bones when she walked into the convent 50 years ago.
Fortunately, God was ready for her.
“The Missionary Catechists of the Poor came to my parish on a mission and I heard them preach the Gospel and I went to the classes and to the mission and I decided this is what I wanted to be,” she said. “I wanted to go back to my country and work among the poor in the villages and serve and all that.
“But when I finished my studies, my first assignment was San Angelo, Texas, not in Mexico, and my next assignment was Dallas, Texas. And I realized: The poor were not all in Mexico. They were everywhere, everywhere.”
“Everywhere” is a term few of us are comfortable with when it comes to where we make our homes, do our work and live our lives. Most of us need a mooring that holds us to a certain spot, like aging parents or your children’s school. Major moves are generally strategic; randomness is imprudent if not impossible.
For missionary priests and religious, however, “everywhere” is both where they are and where they are going. It is at once home and wilderness, with only the filament of the Good News lighting the way.
“Yes, yes. Anywhere we should be called and we should be ready,” said Father Barnabas Maria Susai, IMS. “Missionary means wherever you are sent with a mission. So maybe this part of the world, next, some other part of the world. Yes, I should be ready.”
Father Susai, pastor of St. Bernard of Clairvaux Church in Bella Vista, is one of a number of missionaries currently serving the Diocese of Little Rock. Like his comrades, he didn’t necessarily set out to be a world traveler in his vocation, rather, his vocation called him into the world, starting with the religious and social kaleidoscope of his native India.
“So, in India we work amongst Hindus, so many religious groups out there,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t understand Christianity, exactly. They do not know about religious. Their own religion they will know, but a foreign religion for them is very difficult so it takes a long time, you know?
“We always want immediate results when we go to an unknown place with Christ’s message, but it takes many years to understand. So, you wonder while you are missionary, why for so long there is no conversion? That part is difficult.”
Sister Rosa Elena Pérez, CMST, currently assigned to St. Joseph Church in Conway, also understands the challenges and opportunities of being a missionary in her home country. Born and raised in southern California, “Sister Rosie” finds she is equally effective preaching God’s love among Anglos and Hispanics.
“I feel that this is a blessing of the Lord that I can share in both cultures,” she said. “I see it as also a tool that the Lord has put in my hands that I can minister and use for his service and for the greater glory of his name. I have been blessed in so many different ways and one of those is definitely to be able to minister in both languages, fairly fluently.”
A youthful-looking 28, Sister Rosie is also an effective ambassador for vocations among young people who, if they’ve had any exposure to nuns at all, generally have never seen one so young. She wants to be the mirror by which each of them catches a glimpse of a potential future in vocations.
“Every now and then, yeah, some of the young ladies have expressed about their discernment, about what the Lord may be asking for them in their lives,” she said. “There’s a particular connection even in the slang sort of communicating, just being free to speak what you need to say regardless of how you really need to word it; just to be yourself and be able to share something.”
That very urge to share, specifically the Gospel and the Church’s message for salvation, is the missionary’s engine. Talk to any of them and you’re soon amazed at how seemingly easy it is for them to walk into unfamiliar, even hostile territory. But then, as they point out, that is pretty much the point.
“Yeah, I want to be that, I want to go and preach the word of God and to bring the Gospel to the people of God where others cannot and will not go,” said Father Nirmal Raj Kambala Mariadass, CPPS, administrator of Our Lady of Good Hope in Hope. “Our founder was a missionary and he wanted his followers to go throughout the world and preach the Good News to all the people, especially wherever we hear the cry of the poor and the sick and the marginalized.”
Missionaries say it’s not that they’re immune to the same fear of the unknown and pain of separation as the rest of us. Far from it. They never quite get used to going through life, “with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand,” (Exodus 12:11). But the promise of what awaits, and the joy of attaining it, never wanes.
“Always, where I draw my strength and courage is in prayer,” said Father Patrick Watikha, AJ, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Charleston. “The first thing is God, this work you have called in me and I have accepted the work, give me the strength and the courage to go and put myself into the unknown. You want me to be a witness, but I can’t be a witness unless I’m linked to you. I would have a very big challenge if I just went there as Patrick; to do it with my limitations, I would not be able.”
And so they go about their lives: Ministering and preaching, lifting others higher as they themselves stay in the background. They see the life they live as divinely constructed and, having accepted what God offered to them, devote that same life to others without restriction or limit.
“For me, the most joyful thing about being a missionary priest is to offer myself to share what I am and the message of Christ who has sent me to come and preach his word throughout the world,” said Father John Wakube, AJ, administrator of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock. “And, of course, carrying out our charism of the Apostles of Jesus whereby we look for the lost sheep as Jesus did and when found, we bring to greener pastures.
“I know Jesus is with us and when you come generally to the people, the people will always welcome us. Nobody is really bad, nobody can say, ‘I don’t really want this priest.’ I see them hungry, really, for the word of God.”
This, the missionary’s particular grace, never withers but ripens with each passing year and the trail of work and prayer left in their wake. Reflecting on what five decades of vocational life has given her, Sister Norma’s bright bouncy tone hits yet another gear.
“You know when I was younger, I wanted to have a large family of my own. And when I felt the Lord calling me to be a missionary, I knew I would have a much greater family and a bigger family,” she said. “So of course, whenever I’m transferred it hurts, yeah. You kind of get like homesick, you know?”
“It hurts to leave a mission but then you start something new and you tell other people and you serve other people and you love other people. Where I’ve been, there’s always that need.”
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