A Road Less Travelled Book Review–Guest Post by Fr Michael Bennett

roadlesstravelledThe first post of 2013 on my “Church Without Walls” blog sees the welcome return of Fr Michael Bennett, who contributes a guest post in the form of a review of the book, A Road Less Travelled: Tales of the Irish Missionaries (Open Air, 2011), edited by Aidan and Brendan Clerkin.

Fr Michael is a priest with St Patrick’s Missionary Society, and is currently serving in Limpopo Province, South Africa, so he brings both experience and perspective to the review of this book. He is also a graduate of the Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation Studies at my School.


Tales about Irish missionaries seem to be suddenly in vogue. In 2010 Joe Humphrey’ book: God’s entrepreneurs, How Irish Missionaries tried to change the world’, provided a very favourable assessment of the Irish missionary tradition. A Road less Travelled, is similar in title to that of an inspiring book on the psychological/spiritual enterprise written many years ago by Scott Peck. This book also raises the heart. It is certainly not a book of missionary theory or theology. The sub-title is the key: it records the tales of Irish missionaries. Tales told come from diaries, mission magazines, letters, memoirs, and specially commissioned narratives (p 20), mainly from the 1950s up to the present day. These tales bear witness to ‘talented, driven people who chose not to live comfortable lives at home but instead to make their lives among those blighted by oppression, hunger, poverty, war, or inequality’ (Mary McAleese, page 6). These ‘driven people’ are the story-tellers. Aidan and Brendan Clerkin sift through the harvest of stories and place them in a coherent fashion. Their efforts are to be highly commended.


The book itself is divided into two parts: one minor and one major. The minor part includes

  • a rationale for writing the book from Aidan and Brendan;
  • an overview of a long missionary tradition, going back to the first millennium (Edmond Hogan);
  • the intellectual (in a very broad sense) legacy of the missionary tradition (Donal Dorr);
  • an introduction to the book by distinguished Irish people (Tom Arnold, John O’Shea, Sean Healy, Justin Kilcullen, Cardinal Sean Brady, Archbishop Alan Harper and Denis O’Brien).

Part 1 reads almost like a work of academia when contrasted with the flow of stories in Part 2.

Part 2, Tales of the Irish Missionaries, is the major part and reads like an extended novel, providing a fascinating, if at times bewildering, account of experiences of Irish missionaries from all over the world. There are almost too many tales! Perhaps stories in chapters 1-3 of Part 2, could have been arranged in continental groups to facilitate access, rather the use of categories of ‘beginning adventures’, funny things happening’, and ‘doing things differently’. I found Chapter 4, Living Dangerously, and Chapter 5, War and Peace, to be particularly striking.


Because of the large number of contributors – the book has 256 pages – many Irish readers will find themselves on familiar ground, latching on to a story from a friend, relative, or acquaintance. Even from my advantageous perspective, I was still surprised at how many people I knew and situations I could identify with. For example, Brian Tracey gives a fascinating diary account (pages 168-176) of the post-election (Dec. 2007) violence in Kenya, describing the 3000-4000 displaced people seeking refuge from ethnic violence on the church compound in Londiani, near Kericho. I worked there in the middle eighties and could visualise every scene he described. I note Brian’s reference to the ‘huge numbers of international organisations’ who came to ‘assess the situation’.

‘They want statistics … how the heck could we even think of statistics, surrounded as we are by a couple of thousand cold, hungry and scared people?’

Brian’s comments reflect a reality that is consistently portrayed in so many tales: missionaries respond with compassion and with no little ingenuity in situations of poverty and need, and with courage and conviction in situations of injustice. They are ‘not nibblers of the possible, but grabbers of the impossible’ (C T Studd), desiring to break down walls of prejudice, division, ethnicity, racism and gender, elevating the little and the small in the process.


In Part 1, Edward Hogan reminds us of the significant Irish Protestant contribution to mission. ‘The scale of their involvement in the work of missions was proportionately as great as that of their Catholic counterparts’ (p 24) in the last decades of the 19th. century, the beginning of the modern Irish missionary movement. In the early decades of the 20th. century, the Catholic explosion took place. Five indigenous missionary institutes were formed (Columban Fathers, Navan; Columban Sisters; Holy Rosary Sisters; Medical Missionaries of Mary, Drogheda; St. Patrick’s Missionary Society, Kiltegan) and grew exponentially in the following decades. Vatican 11 promoted the role of the laity and organisations such as Viatores Christi and the Volunteer Missionary Movement, as well as development agencies – Concern, Trocaire and Gorta – explored new ways of being on mission. (p 25)

Some will argue (p 20) that in very early days, preceding the modern missionary era, missionaries followed the colonial powers in their adventurous conquests, comfortably carrying the bible alongside the former who carried the sword. Such a concept does not easily apply to the modern Irish missionary movement. Those coming from mainly rural Irish backgrounds held imperialist notions in contempt. This was certainly my rather recent experience, even if it does stretch back to the late 1970s, and anecdotal evidence suggests a similar mentality was prevalent in previous decades.

Others will associate missionaries with ‘religious imperialism and cultural arrogance’ (p 25; also 21-22). Such a judgement is critiqued (p 26). A post-Vatican 11 preparation for mission promoted a very healthy respect for culture. My first experience among the progressive Kikuyu people in the Rift Valley of Kenya soon removed any naivety about having all the answers. There was so much to discover and to receive from a culture different to my own. The challenge, then and now – whether in traditional, modern or post-modern cultures – is to discern between what is life-giving and life-denying. The gospel leaven does not seek to obliterate culture but to engage and transform it.

The editors remind us that the emphasis in the book is ‘less on religion than on the life-experiences and humanitarian undertakings of Irish missionaries and volunteers across the world’ (p17). Despite this emphasis, a question as to the depth of the response to the gospel message kept awakening for me as I read the book. Words spoken to me by a wise Kikuyu man decades ago came to mind: ‘We Africans’, he said, ‘we know all about the gods of our ancestors, but very little about Jesus Christ’. Reference is made (p 195) to the horrors of Rwanda during ten weeks in 1994 when 800,000 people were massacred in ethnic violence. This was supposedly a country evangelised by French-speaking missionaries! Blood lines for most Rwandans were clearly much thicker than the waters of baptism.

My own experience in Zimbabwe in the first decade of the new millennium also leaves me grappling with the religious issue and the quality of response to the gospel. National political leaders have a huge opportunity to promote the common good, or to compromise in favour of a narrow party political agenda. Four of the top six political leaders in Zimbabwe viewed themselves as Catholics. They presided unashamedly over an era of social, political and economic disintegration which led to untold hardship and suffering for so many, and a breakdown in national trust. While the scenario has marginally improved in this decade, these same people still lord it over others from their thrones of power! One of them, in particular, is mentioned (p 18). Clearly they were never exposed to Catholic Social Teaching. An ‘a-la-carte’ response to the gospel is a falsification of its message.

Yet there is the other side. Reference is made to those of a different hue, educated and nurtured by Irish missionaries. From political leaders (p 18), to a Nobel Prize Winner (p 18), to Olympic gold medallists (p 17, 239), they have impacted considerably in public life and on the public imagination. Perhaps this mixed picture reminds us the seed is scattered on both rocks and good soil.


If missionaries are ‘driven people’ what drives them on? An answer to this question is implicit in the pages of the book. One extraordinary tale reveals the faith of many a missionary. Columban Patrick Reilly spent fourteen months in solitary confinement in a jail in communist China in the early 1950s.

“I was forced to sit in one position for sixteen hours every day …. twice a day I received a meagre ration of rice and tiny bowl of vegetables….I saw my body withering away. One day they weighed me… I had gone from twelve stones to only six stone in weight … I was convinced I was going to die. My wish was to say one more mass before I died. But how could I …. then one day I was given steam bread instead of rice. Now all I needed was wine …’

He describes how he was going blind and how a doctor recommended that he be given some grapes from which he secretly squeezed juice into a small bottle. The grape-juice fomented within a number of days. Now he had wine and could celebrate mass. ‘I knelt down, I hurried to the consecration. I could not delay’, in case of being discovered. (p 167-168). Missionaries trust in a Love that will not let go, that drives them on.

Not driving them on to be successful in secular terms. Perhaps an inevitable limitation of a book of this nature is that while it lauds the visible physical and material achievements of missionaries (the pastoral response is less visible), the category of success is rather dubious in circles of faith. Missionaries are slow to talk about ‘their successes’, an issue alluded to in the book. The One missionaries follow died, not in an armchair, nor from a heart attack, nor in his bed, but on a cross, not exactly a category of success. I am reminded on the response of Mother Teresa of Calcutta to a reporter who asked if she considered her work a success. “Our task is not to be successful’, she quipped, ‘but to be faithful’. Not all missionaries have been faithful, briefly referred to on page 21, but the vast majority witness by their lives to a dream whose realisation is not in their hands.


With the number of Irish missionaries working abroad now in sharp decline, their average age is over seventy – there is a danger that a significant chapter in the social and religious history of Ireland will be lost or reduced to a footnote in the chronicles of the last century. (p 21)

While the book is written to obviate this danger, the decline is clearly spelt out. In 1982 ‘Ireland had a total of 5,613 priests, brothers, sisters and laity working in 86 developing countries, as well as thousands more at home providing support services. This total includes 142 missionaries from the Protestant domination, working in 10 countries. These numbers had been building up since the early 1920s’ (p 25). In 2008, 2151 remained (p 254). The picture is one of sharp decline. Almost five years later, that number is no doubt considerably less.

Simply stated, the task of the missionary is to work himself or herself out a job, to be there when needed and to hand over and move on when the job is done. “The job is done” really means the end of the beginning. The missionary is there to create beginnings and to hand over gracefully to local others when beginnings have been made (p 28). The local church builds on these beginnings. Or the missionary may remain longer and serve in a variety of capacities which are beyond the scope of the fledgling local church. In many areas today, however, the missionary task has not been done, in particular in the vast urban and semi-urban areas of developing countries. With the average age of Irish missionaries being over seventy, who will continue this task? The baton must be, and is being, handed on to young local people who are formed and prepared for mission by the traditional missionary societies and institutes (p 28). The baton is being handed on to local church communities whose task, more and more, is to become missionaries to each other.

The Irish missionary legacy lives on and this book helps greatly in articulating it.

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