You Can Make a Difference:
The Call to be Missionaries
Rev. Barry Fischer, C.PP.S., Address at Saint Joseph’s College and Calumet College of Saint Joseph Graduation Ceremonies 2016
(Following is a transcript of the commencement address given in 2016 at Saint Joseph’s College in Renssselaer, Ind., by Fr. Barry Fischer, C.PP.S., a former moderator general of the Congregation. A member of the Cincinnati Province, Fr. Fischer also was a Missionary for many years in Peru, Chile and Guatemala. He is now the director of the Precious Blood Spirituality Center in Salzburg, Austria. This transcript was provided by Fr. William Stang, C.PP.S.)
I remember my graduating class of 1969 processing into this same field house for graduation. Like you are today, we were filled with joy. We could not wait to get our diplomas, move on with our lives, and live our dreams. My dream that day was to be a missionary priest in South America, where I hoped I would spend the rest of my life.
A long time has passed since my graduation day. It is now 47 years that I have lived outside the United States as a missionary priest, living first in Peru, then Chile and Guatemala, later on in Italy and now for the past eight years in Austria. Today I'd like to share with you a few insights that I have gained through the varied experiences of these years. I hope they will be of some help to you as you pursue your dreams.
Broaden your Horizons, Think Beyond your Borders
When I first stepped off the plane in Lima, Peru, at the end of June 1969, I was ready to change the world! I was young, had my college degree in hand, nine years of seminary training already under my belt and was filled with the missionary zeal of St. Gaspar, our founder. The sights, the sounds, the smells of poverty flooded my eyes, nose and ears, slowly clouding my concept of what it meant to be a missionary and shaking my securities.
I found myself interacting with a world much broader than the one I had known before: the world of the Pennsylvania Dutch in south-central Pennsylvania, where I was born; or the world of northeastern Ohio where I went to seminary high school; or the world of rural Indiana! Breaking out of my own little world and coming to grips with the bigger picture was one of the most challenging struggles I faced during those first years in Latin America. That world stretched my horizon, it stretched my understanding of life, of my faith, and it helped me to see the interconnectedness of everything.
It helped me to see how decisions made in New York or Chicago or Paris affect the lives of millions of people continents away. It was a world polarized between north and south, east and west, capitalism and socialism, rich and poor. I discovered a very messy, violent, and many times unjust world. I was witness to how greed and selfishness could create unjust social and economic structures that condemned millions of innocent people to lives of abject poverty and misery, in which they were not able to meet their most basic needs: that of having food to eat and clean water for bathing and cooking, access to health-care and education.
In Guatemala, some years ago, I was present during the conversation between one of our priests and a rich landowner of a coffee plantation in our mountain parish of San Miguel in Tucurú. The pastor was trying to help her see that the 75 cents a day she was paying her workers was not enough, that it was not anywhere near a just wage for their 12-hour work days picking coffee.
The landowner couldn't understand the priest's concern. She said, "What more do they want? Besides their pay, they have a home!" Their "home" is a hut made of mud and bamboo with a dirt floor and thatch roof. It had neither water nor toilets. And their only food, day after day, was a corn tortilla with a few beans and hot peppers inside. I discovered a world in which many children never go to school and where half of newborn babies die before they reach the age of six.
I learned early on, that life wasn't just about ME! It wasn't about Barry Fischer. It wasn't about doing my thing, or even about realizing my dreams. It wasn't about doing it my way. We are not just individuals out to make a quick buck, headed for early retirement, at any price. We need to replace the myth of rugged individualism and independence with a new paradigm of interdependence and solidarity as the foundations for making a better world.
Pope Francis calls us to build bridges and not walls. Often, we build walls around our hearts in order to protect our identity and our comfort zone or because we fear “the other,” the one who is different from us. Walls keep us apart. The Scriptures call us to dismantle those walls so that we might form community. Build bridges, says the Pope, because bridges bring us together and enable community building. How important this is in our ever-changing world and in our increasingly multi-cultural society and Church.
A New Way of Being Church
I confronted even deeper change on the level of how I experienced Church and understood my faith. Pope Francis says that the poor can teach us so much. I can vouch for that from my own experience!
In the small faith-sharing communities that I formed with neighbors in the housing complex where I lived, these very simple people, some of whom could neither read nor write, showed me how to pray, how to read the Bible more with the heart than with the head, and how to share our personal experience of Christ. It was for me a new experience of Church and one which has influenced me ever since. This is where I began to make connections between faith and life. In these communities we found a safe place where we could be ourselves and share our feelings and experiences without being judged, in a climate of true fellowship. We had our differences in a time of great political polarization, but the faith we shared bonded us together in a true communion in diversity! I discovered that being a Christian is not just knowing about Christ but is meant to incarnate his Word in our own lives in very concrete ways. Following Christ is more than going to Mass on Sundays; it affects the way we think, the way we relate to others, the way we view the world.
The rich land owner I referred to previously considers herself a devout Catholic; she "practices" her faith and has her devotions. But it is a faith divorced from life in what Vatican II called one of the greatest sins of our time.
Through our faith we grow in awareness of our obligations towards our brothers and sisters living in Afghanistan, in Bolivia, in Russia, in Kenya, in Canada, in Mexico, and we work to achieve that global solidarity to which Pope Francis calls us. This solidarity also includes a concern for the stewardship of all creation, of our common home, the earth, because “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (Laudato si´, n. 91).
We Never Stop Learning
When I was young and had just arrived in Latin America, I saw everything in black and white. Everything was very clear. But as time went on, as I got grey hair then lost my hair, I began to see a lot more grey in the world—a lot more grey. Everything isn’t so cut and dried and clear. From the time I stepped off the plane that day in Lima, Peru, I began my learning experience. I had to express myself in a foreign tongue; I had to learn to eat all over again. I had to study, once again, geography and history, and learn the local customs and traditions, and the rules of proper etiquette. That has happened again and again for me, most recently in Italy and for the past eight years in Austria!
If we wish to survive in this rapidly changing world, it is important to realize that we never stop learning. The hard-earned college degree you will receive today is not the end of your education. As we journey through life we need to be open to listen to “the other” and to be enriched by their experience and insights. When we let go of the false sense of cultural superiority that we tend to carry within us, we can be open to see life from the other side, with the eyes and ears of the other or of another culture. When we enter into the life of another, or walk in their culture, we are to take off our shoes and tread lightly, as we walk on sacred ground. We can learn so much, and we will be better for it! Then we won´t feel threatened by new challenges and changing circumstances, which can challenge our pre-conceived ideas and unveil our ignorance, because we can say humbly and sincerely: I really don't know, but I am willing to learn. Will you teach me? Will you help me?
That's what happened in 1979 when I was asked to be the principal of our large boys´ school in Santiago, Chile. I had never taken a course in education as such. I was handed the keys to the school and told to get to work! And I looked and thought, “What do I do with the keys?” I didn’t even know what doors they opened. So the first thing I did was go to the secretary and say, “Help me. Where do I go?” I learned that it’s okay to say that you don’t know. I didn't pretend to know what I didn't know! But I reached out to those who did know. I learned from their accumulated wisdom and experience. Then I trusted my own intuitions and brought the strengths of my faith and the spirituality of the Precious Blood to bear on it all, and before long, our school became a model for Catholic education in Chile. Together, we learned! Together, we created! Together, we forged new roads! In a very complex and rapidly changing world, we need one another. We are not in this alone!
You Can Make a Difference: The Call to be Missionaries
Pope Francis reminds us time and again that by being Christian, we are a missionary people. Each one of us. We are all called to be missionaries: in our homes and families, in our work places and offices, in our schools and institutions, in the world of sports. YOU are particularly equipped to fulfill that mission. You are part of a small percentage of this world with a college education, earned through your own hard efforts but also through the efforts of your families, teachers and friends who have encouraged and supported you. They have shared their lives with you, their knowledge, their insights, and friendship, and they have challenged you to reach the full potential of your growth. They, we, celebrate with you today this achievement. Today you make a lot of people proud.
In this life, each of us needs to make a choice: we can choose to conform, to be one of the masses, to be carried along by the drive for success, for wealth, for doing our own thing, or we can choose to make a difference, to work towards making this world a better place, where no one has to sleep on the streets or under bridges, where everyone has a roof over their heads and where no one goes to bed hungry.
To have chosen the latter has been a constant source of peace and happiness for me.
You won't all become rich nor will you necessarily venture into foreign countries to sponsor human development projects, but each and every one of you can make a difference in the lives of someone else. And that is where you must begin. By your choices, by your words and deeds, in the everyday circle of your relationships wherever you are, you can make a big difference, and you can make your contribution to making a better world.
If we could harness all the ideals and dreams that fill your hearts and minds this afternoon, we would indeed have a powerhouse that could generate so much creativity and new life! Soon, your dreams and ideals will be challenged by reality. There will be times when you run into the wall of indifference, selfishness and skepticism, caught up in a society in which lofty ideals are not always the main source of inspiration. You will also find out that change comes slowly and often you will encounter stubborn resistance.
Be Willing to Pay the Price
To have chosen toward making this world a better place has been a constant source of peace and happiness for me, but we must be willing to pay the price for our choices and commitments. Fighting demons and dragons in the real world can get messy!
When I was in Southern Chile and working with the poor peasants on big haciendas, I made the choice to walk more closely with them, visiting them in their humble dwellings, sharing their hospitality and spending entire weeks with them, sleeping in different homes in order to get to know them and their reality better. I wanted to make a preferential option for those whom society excluded. My presence in their homes became a "Good News" which spoke more eloquently than any sermon ever could of God's love and presence in their lives.
What was good news for them only confounded the rich land owners, who looked upon me and my motives with suspicion. One day, a land owner physically expelled me from his farm amidst threats and insults. My crime? I was headed for the home of an illiterate peasant family to read the Bible with them as I did each week, huddled around the little wood-burning stove and in the dim glow of candlelight. That day I felt the sting and the frustration of rejection; it was the price I had to pay for proclaiming God's love to the poor.
My friends, life isn't always easy, at least not when one decides to do something to make this world a better place, more just and more equitable, where all have a place at the table. There will be opposition, outright or veiled, and we must know that and be ready for it.
Have a Good Life!
I'll never forget my graduation day in 1969. It was a day of joy and also a day of farewells. And I remember particularly one person, a fellow student in one of my classes, whose name has long-since faded from my memory. He came up to me and shook my hand, and he said, "Barry, have a good life!" He was so sincere. I don’t remember a word from the commencement address that day. You probably won’t remember mine either, but I do remember that: “Barry, have a good life.”
Life has been good! Today, that is my wish for each of you as you venture forth on many and varied pathways, in search of happiness and in search of your ideals.
Have a good life, my friends! And may you find the source of that good life in reaching out to others and in touching them with your love. In that gesture of fellowship and solidarity, you will find the source of the happiness we all strive to achieve.