According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, West Africa is in the midst of one of the largest Ebola outbreaks in history and the first in the region.
As of Aug. 15, more than 1,100 people have died and more than 2,100 confirmed or suspected cases exist in four countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Among the dead is a missionary priest, Father Miguel Pajares, 75, who was flown from Liberia to his native Spain for treatment. The death of Father Pajares highlights the risk missionaries undertake in their call to serve the poor.
So why do it? Why would missionaries voluntarily put themselves on the front lines of a crisis when it seems so contrary to the natural urge to seek safety and security?
A number of years ago, when I was the local superior in Liberia during the civil war in that country, I was in the United States for some meetings. I received a phone call from a family member of one of our missionaries inquiring about their relative. After I had given the relative an update on the situation and how the missionary was doing, the person asked me, “Well, why don’t you go there and let him come home?” My response was that I was in fact going to Liberia and that I did not think their relative would agree to return even if I offered to take his place.
At the Society of African Missions, of which I am provincial superior, it is our policy to offer our missionaries the assurance that if any of them wants at any time to return to their country of origin, we will arrange it.
Very few have ever taken me up on this offer, however. In fact, even when I did order some of them to return home from a dangerous situation, they accepted only because of their promise of obedience to their superiors. I could tell that they did not want to “abandon” their flock in such desperate times. Missionaries understand the feelings of Jesus when he looked out into the crowd and was moved because those gathered seemed like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36).
It is, in fact, in moments of danger when missionaries truly live their vocations. It is then when the words of Jesus in John 15:13 become real: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
In those moments, they feel deeply and spiritually close to those whom they serve and see themselves as a true friend of Jesus.
Understand that when missionaries find themselves in dangerous situations, they are just as scared as everyone else. I know I was, and I know those with me felt the same. There is also a great deal of uncertainty. People look for direction, strength and guidance from missionaries during those times, and we often feel inadequate. These are the times we feel most powerless, and yet, because of our faith, we become stronger and have the sense we are being moved in the right direction. Why would one give up those moments of grace?
I have to admit, as one who has seen both sides of the coin, I am happy when a missionary chooses to stay in a dangerous situation and continues to be the witness that they were chosen to be. I know that decision will only benefit the individual and also the Church.
I encourage all those who have family or friends living in difficult situations to continue expressing your concerns, as this is an affirmation of your love for them and shows that they mean a great deal to you.
Keep praying for your loved ones because your prayers open the doors of grace and are greatly needed in times of difficulty and danger.
I encourage all to use these moments to reflect on your own vocation, and let the life of your missionary friend or relative give you insight to the Gospel question: “What must I do to inherit the kingdom?”
Father Michael Moran is the Provincial Superior of the Society of African Missions.