“Each of us should find ways to communicate Jesus wherever we are. All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord.” Pope Francis
OUR missionary priests and religious are often an inspiration to us—an inspiration that has its genesis in the beautiful, powerful, transformative nature of faith.
Fr Eugenio Montesi (above) is a Xaverian Missionary Father currently serving the parish of St Bartholomew’s in the Castlemilk area of Glasgow, but the inspiring moment that crystallised his decision to love and serve God and His people in a very direct way, took place in his home country of Italy.
Fr Eugenio is from the town of Corinaldo in the Province of Ancona, not far from the Adriatic Coast, where, on a clear day you can see right across to Croatia. But as beautiful as his hometown is, he didn’t draw his inspiration from its vistas, he drew it initially from the strong faith that was prevalent within his own family.
“My father died when he was just 44,” Fr Eugenio said. “My mother on the other hand lived almost to the age of 99. She said that 10 years of marriage was so beautiful, so deep and so unrepeatable that it would carry her for the rest of her life. And it did, she had a tremendous faith.”
A saintly sign
One thing that can’t fail to serve as a faith-filled inspiration is that Corinaldo is the birthplace of St Maria Goretti, virgin martyr of the Church and one of our youngest Canonised saints. However, while her murder provided very stark witness to her unwavering faithfulness to and love of God, it was witness of a different kind surrounding her story that amazed Fr Eugenio as a boy.
“Obviously St Maria Goretti is an inspiration to people in Corinaldo and further afield, not merely for her purity or chastity, but also her capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness,” he said. “She said to her killer, Alessandro Serenelli before she died: ‘I forgive you and I pray that one day you will be with me in Paradise.’
“When we were in primary school our teacher used to take us to see the mother of St Maria Goretti, Mamma Assunta, who was still alive but in a wheelchair. So we got to learn all about St Maria Goretti and one day, as children, we saw her getting pushed in her wheelchair to the altar rail by Alessandro, the young man who had spent 27 years in prison for having killed St Maria Goretti. He had changed his life upon his release. For us, as children, it was very powerful to see the killer going up to receive communion with the mother of the girl he had killed. It was very striking. It really blew my mind.”
So for Fr Eugenio, the early seeds of his vocation had been sown in a household and hometown where powerful examples of faith and witness were fecund. His calling was further enhanced by a visit to his secondary school by a Xaverian Missionary Father from Latin America who he said ‘imbued him with so much enthusiasm’ that he—and eventually his brother—followed him in becoming a Xaverian too. His final decision to take up a vocation occurred in a somewhat poetic fashion during his summer holidays on the family farm in Italy.
“When I was in my late teens, every summer holiday, from July to September, I took ill and was confined to the farm,” Fr Eugenio explained. “I had blisters all over my body and I couldn’t even wear a vest. It was an allergic reaction to something but back then, the doctor simply said that it could be any number of things so they couldn’t pin it down. I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t go out for those three months for three years, so I used to go up to the veranda in our farm house and look at the stars and ask God what He wanted from me as I couldn’t even enjoy my holidays. From there the idea of going to the missions started to grow. I started asking myself why don’t you just give everything, jump into something unknown, something that you actually know because God is there already?
“I had a very early personal relationship with Christ, which made me feel I could face anything and that personal relationship really pushed me to go out. It’s a sentiment that’s really reflected in the mottos of our congregation: Christi Urget Nos, Christ compels us and In Omnibus Christus, Christ is in everything. I think people are often drawn to the Xavierans because of their openness to other cultures and not being afraid to reach out and that really appealed to me.”
Mapping out his mission
After his ordination in Parma, Fr Eugenio had designs on heading out to Congo because he had studied French in secondary school, but the congregation wanted to make use of him in Sierra Leone, a prospect that he found a little daunting as he had never studied English. To remedy this he was sent to a Xaverian College in Coatbridge, a Junior Seminary, to learn the language and thus began a life-long association with both Scotland and Sierra Leone.
“I was happy to go to Scotland,” he said. “I was happy to go out because I realised that being a missionary meant going out from your own country and reaching out to others, so I was happy to go to Scotland and from there go to Sierra Leone.”
His missionary service has also taken him to Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Congo, Liberia and The Gambia, Chicago and Boston in the US, but it’s Sierra Leone where he spent most of his time and where he received his first insight into life in the missions—an insight that allowed him to see the Gospel played out right in front of him.
“My first impression of life in the missions was that God had been there long before us,” he said. “In a village I saw the parable of the Prodigal Son lived out. In this village there were no Catholics. I came across a young man who had committed a crime and who was physically and literally kicked out of the village by the chief and the people who told him to stay out until he had changed his ways. After a couple of months the guy came back and the whole village came out and they sang, they cooked rice, they started dancing and whatnot. He was lost and had been found. They knew nothing about the Gospel and the Prodigal Son and yet they lived it, so that told me that the Lord was there before the missionaries arrived.”
Training and education
One of Fr Eugenio’s roles while on mission in Sierra Leone was to train the Catechists there so that they could assist him in spreading God’s Word to all four corners of the country. However, even in this role, he often found himself in the position of student as much as teacher.
“In Sierra Leone I was in charge of the Catechists and training leaders for transformation,” he said. “I found both good and challenging. The people were extremely anxious to become leaders in Sierra Leone, so they did any amount of courses. I visited every school, primary and secondary, along with three other young people from three different tribes so that they could translate materials into three different languages and we used a lot of visual aids, going around with a small generator in the car, using videos, showing films like The Life of Christ and so on. It was very interesting.
“When we were out with the Catechists, we went to a village where the children had to cross a river to go to school and we felt that they needed a bridge. So we gathered the chief and the elders to talk about progress and a project. We talked and talked and talked and yet there was silence so I urged to the guys to ask the chief what was going on. He called us to the meeting to see about this project and so the chief said: ‘Tell father that when we have important meetings, first we pray to God and then we talk. So tell him he can pray his way and we’ll pray our native way and then we’ll start talking.’ And I thought that it was us who were the missionaries! As I said before, it showed that the Lord had been there long before us.”
However, while Fr Eugenio and his fellow Xaverians in Sierra Leone became adept at looking after the spiritual well-being of the people there—having such an effect that vocations have grown greatly in the country as a whole—they became similarly proficient at tending to their practical needs too, something that, to this day, still brings a smile to his face when he reminisces about those achievements.
“In Sierra Leone, 45 per cent of education is in the hands of missionaries—Catholics and Anglicans—so missionaries are seen by the people there as those who bring development, progress and so on,” he explained. “We were involved with clinics, hospitals and both primary and secondary schools in the northern part of Sierra Leone. Before the Xaverians reached there, there were no primary schools or secondary schools and now there are thousands of primary schools, lots of secondary schools, four colleges for teachers and one private Catholic University in Makeni. The local people have great love and admiration for us.
“I feel very proud that we were able to do a lot of agricultural projects too such as building a lot of water wells in the villages. After the war too—with the help of some NGOs—we built a completely new village. We built 30 houses for war widows, a primary school that serves 12 villages, a secondary school, a church and a clinic. We also bought a lot of land for the war widows. It was a community of communities coming together. When I left they managed to get three SMA Fathers to take care of the whole setup—primary school, secondary school, vocational centre, a church, agricultural projects and so on. It was 12 or 13 villages coming together. I think that was tremendous. I will treasure that. People contributed so much and I draw strength from the beauty and kindness of people.”
Live out your mission
And it’s ordinary people who Fr Eugenio calls on to live out their Baptismal call to mission and, in doing so, do something extraordinary for other people, be they near or far. In this way, he argues, we can showcase the universality of our Church.
“Mission, to me, means to go out of yourself, go out and be with others and receive from them,” he said. “Every time we go out to others we receive a lot. It’s in giving that we receive. In terms of mission, without lay people we can do nothing. Everywhere we go on mission, we are surrounded by volunteers, by Catechists, by parents, teachers and so on. One missionary with ten lay people can do so much in such big areas. Lay people often make the best missionaries because their own vocation can see them reach out to married people, to sick people, to their leaders and so on because they come into contact with them a lot in their daily lives.
“Here in Scotland, many people live out their mission through charity by donating to Missio Scotland and supporting the work of missionaries worldwide. I’m always amazed at the generosity of Catholics in Scotland because it only has a population of around six million and yet the people are tremendously generous—it’s unbelievable. The Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS)—of which Missio Scotland is a branch—is the charity that strikes a chord with most people precisely because it is Pontifical and the current Holy Father, Pope Francis, is always enthusiastic and is beloved by many people, including many young people. The PMS is the best in terms of enthusiasm and reaching out to others so that is why we should continue to support Missio Scotland here because it brings unity and gives unity to the pilgrim church. All the other organisations may follow but the PMS is the central and main charity in terms of reaching out.”
Fr Eugenio ended our interview in jocular fashion by declaring that: “Somebody said with regards to being a missionary you must be one third intelligent, one third strong (healthwise) and one third crazy.”
But on a more serious note people like him, his fellow Xaverians and all those involved in our missionary congregations and orders are guided, first and foremost, by the Holy Spirit and rely on the support of Missio Scotland and our PMS partners worldwide. For our part, we will always endeavour to support them with your help.
To donate to Missio Scotland, visit: https://www.missioscotland.com/donate call us on: 01236 449774 or send donations to: Missio Scotland, St. Andrews, 4 Laird Street, Coatbridge ML5 3LJ