WASHINGTON — World Mission Sunday, celebrated this year on Oct. 22, is a day the Catholic Church around the world publicly renews its commitment to missionary work.
The day, first designated in 1926 by Pope Pius XI, not only highlights the ongoing work of missions but also takes up a collection from Catholics worldwide to support this work of fulfilling the Biblical mandate of bringing the Gospel message to all nations.
But today, many people may not be familiar with the work of Catholic missionaries in far-flung locations.
That was exactly the reaction Sister Krystyna Ciarcińska, a Polish sister and member of the Koinonia John the Baptist community serving in Umzimkulu, South Africa, received last summer when she visited three Brooklyn parishes seeking funds for her order’s missionary efforts.
She said a young woman approached her after one of her presentations saying she didn’t know the Catholic Church did that kind of ministry.
The sister spoke at Our Lady of the Snows in Floral Park, the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sunset Park, and the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Brooklyn Heights, seeking funds for Lourdes Mission, which runs the Koinonia Orphans Project, and a program to sponsor children in need.
Sister Krystyna, 51, has been in the South African mission for 10 years and does not see herself leaving.
Her primary ministry is the mission’s outreach to orphans and vulnerable children that cares for more than 900 children and family members, providing the children with food, medicine, school uniforms, and school supplies. She said many of these children are AIDS orphans. If their fathers are alive, they primarily work in the mines in Johannesburg, about 9 hours away, and see their children maybe twice a year.
The mission’s children’s program started in 2015 and received funding for its first two years from the U.S. PEPFAR program (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) distributed by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. When the funding was discontinued in 2017, Sister Krystyna assumed and feared the program could no longer continue.
But she prayed long and hard about it and was convinced God would provide them with funds they needed to keep it going. Sure enough, one week later a sponsor stepped up and others have followed, but they can always use more help which is why she was on a fund-raising visit last year.
The work she and other members of Koinonia John the Baptist are involved in at Lourdes Mission — giving children what they need for school and sometimes helping to rebuild simple homes, providing catechism teaching, visiting the sick, caring for the dying, and for the priests, celebrating Masses — has shown Sister Krystyna how God is at work.
She said the most rewarding part of her ministry is to see changes every day from the mere fact that they can keep doing the work to the successes of children moving on in their education to pursue careers, the number of babies being baptized each year, or adults joining the Church at Easter.
“God wants available people,” she said and added that she is available to whatever God asks of her.
She is a long way from her small village in the northeast region of Poland where she grew up with her 17 siblings, but she hopes to stay in South Africa, saying she “believes the Lord is using us” there.
That same attitude of being ready to serve far from home has also been a driving force for Msgr. John Vesey.
The 80-year-old retired priest, who is parochial vicar for Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jamaica, has spent a large part of his priestly ministry as a missionary priest. He served in Paraguay for eight years, Guatemala for 12 years, and most recently in China for nine years.
He’s also ready to return anytime to China where he served as a Maryknoll associate from 2004-2013. Every place he has been as a priest, he said, prepared him for where he went next.
He was sent to a Brooklyn diocesan mission in Paraguay just six years after his 1968 ordination, when he was the only priest to respond to a call to serve there. He worked primarily with vocations and permanent deacons, but he was also involved in human rights work in the country under martial law.
On his flight home from Paraguay, he read about the murder of Blessed Father Stanley Rother, a missionary priest in Guatemala, and felt he should be sent there to continue the work of the Oklahoma priest who he knew from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where they both attended.
Msgr. Vesey was sent to Guatemala and most of his work there, amid the country’s civil war, dealt with human rights abuses since he served not only as a pastor but also the director of the Human Rights Office.
He said he learned so much at that time from walking with those suffering and in poverty, particularly the community elders. “You go to encourage them, and they encourage you,” he said.
The priest also leaned on his faith amid ongoing violence noting that while he was traveling in his Jeep around the country, he would say 10 to 12 rosaries asking God to protect him.
The prayers were necessary. At one point, he said, a group of men took him hostage after Mass in a village and he was only freed after hours of negotiations with the religious sisters and when armed men from the main parish came to rescue him.
The bishop asked him the next day if he forgave his captors, which the priest admitted was not something he had considered.
In China, where he went to serve a parish with an international community, he said he also learned from the faithful there, particularly Church leaders who had been persecuted.
Msgr. Vesey said the variety of experiences found in mission life reflect the universal call of the Church and the vision of Pope Francis to reach out to the peripheries.
The ministry has broadened his own faith and made him eager to continue doing this work. As he put it: “We have to walk in faith gently and adapt ourselves to where the Holy Spirit takes us.”
To find out more about the missions, visit the website for the Propagation of the Faith Office in the Diocese of Brooklyn at dioceseofbrooklyn.org/offices/diocesan-offices/propagation-faith To find out more about the mission in South Africa visit: koinoniajb-sa.org/koinonia-orphans-project