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Missionaries’ inspiration is rooted in faith

“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.”

Xaverian inspiration

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.”