By Father Christopher Heanue
My first experience with the Maryknoll Missionary Fathers was in 2011, when I traveled to China to participate in the centennial celebration of their mission there. The Fathers invited each seminary in the United States to select two students to attend. St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, my alma mater, thought that I would be a good candidate. After all, the Diocese of Brooklyn has experienced tremendous growth from Chinese immigrants in recent decades. Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, now surpasses the historic Chinatown in Downtown Manhattan.
This trip was truly a missionary experience. I flew over 8,000 miles to “the other side of the world” on a 15-hour flight to Hong Kong. Since I am a tall man (6 feet, 4 inches), flights can often be uncomfortable for me. After arriving at the Maryknoll House in Stanley Beach, Hong Kong, the seminarians received introductory lessons about what we would soon experience in mainland China. After a few days in Hong Kong, we flew to Beijing, where we spent a few days touring historic and religious sites. Some seminarians were shocked by the profound differences between Chinese and American cultures.
Some had great difficulty using chopsticks. Others had a hard time determining what they were eating. Still, others began to become a bit homesick. During these uncomfortable moments, we began to understand what true missionary discipleship is meant to be.
After our time in Beijing, we were split into groups of two to travel to different parts of China. I traveled to Shenyang, where Father John Vesey, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, spent years ministering. Although Shenyang is home to almost eight million people, it is small compared to Beijing, a city of 20 million residents. Shenyang is not a “touristy” city. It does not have many attractions that would attract visitors. Not many residents speak English and menus are not always translated into English. One evening I dined at the convent of a group of religious sisters. Although the food that they served was delicious, I had no idea what I was eating! While this made me a bit nervous and uncomfortable, I was continuing to learn what missionary zeal truly is.
A few years after this mission trip, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan, again thanks to the generosity of the Maryknoll Fathers. In the summer of 2019, I spent four weeks with them in Jilin, China, teaching English at a medical university. All of these experiences helped me to understand better the missionary life. God calls all missionaries to embrace new experiences, some of which may be difficult, frightening, or even dangerous, to preach the Gospel. All of my brief missionary journeys to foreign lands prepared me for a different kind of evangelical endeavor.
This past July, after six years of ministry in Richmond Hill, Queens, at Holy Child Jesus–Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish, I traveled eight miles to begin a new missionary experience in Prospect Heights at the Co-Cathedral of Saint Joseph–Saint Teresa of Avila Parish. Eight miles may not seem like a lot. When I began, however, it felt like 8,000 miles. In the difficult and uncomfortable moments of the transition, I again learned what it means to be a true missionary disciple for Christ.
To be a missionary for Christ requires courage to respond to God’s call. In the Gospel this Sunday, the blind man is told: “take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.” To be a true missionary requires one to respond to an invitation to change. In this passage, the blind man calls out and begs Jesus to change his life, specifically to give him sight. A missionary for Christ needs to move. After the blind man’s sight was restored, he began to follow Christ. He no longer stayed seated in one location begging. He moved; he journeyed.
In all of my missionary experiences, I have been called to be more courageous, to be open to changing my predispositions toward cultures and peoples, and to move forward. On this World Mission Sunday, may we all seek to become more willing, more open, and more courageous missionaries for Christ.
Readings for Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Father Heanue is the Rector-Pastor of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph, Prospect Heights.