By Gordon Nary
Shane: Joining a parish is probably a bit of a misnomer when it comes to my relationship with parish. As a child of the mid-sixties, I was brought up on the boarders between the Archdiocese of Armagh and the Diocese of Meath and as a family of ten children we frequented both the parish churches of Drogheda in Armagh and the Holy Family parish in Meath. Drogheda historically is called the town of seven churches and we also had the Dominican friars, the Augustinian friars and the Franciscan friars to choose from as part daily and Sunday worship. In the late seventies I went to boarding school with the Jesuits in County Kildare for six years, to be followed shortly after to London where I was active in a number of different parishes during my five years there. Then I went overseas as a lay missionary worker to South Africa where I lived and worked with the Salesian fathers and attended a number of different parishes in the suburbs. So despite my active engagement with parishes and pastoral councils over the years I have never really settled geographically into one ‘parish community.’
Gordon: As CEO of Viatores Christi. what are your primary responsibilities?
Shane: Viatores Christi (VC) is a lay missionary association which was founded in 1960 as a way to engage with laity in the mission of the Church. It began as a parish support framework for young Irish people who left the shores to Britain and were in need of friendship and guidance. Over the years it moved into international mission as support to Irish religious missions overseas in place like Nigeria and Kenya. Today, the organisation is linked strongly with Irish Aid’s involvement with the legacy of the Irish mission and has over 28 volunteers in East and Southern Africa, SE Asia, Caribbean and Latin America.
As CEO my role is to oversee the day to day operation of VC, ensure the organisation is well run and meet the demanding standards required in the not for profit sector. A key part of this is to manage effectively Irish Aid funding on projects that have been approved and vetted by our external panel and to ensure our volunteer missionaries are well trained and supported while on assignment. Another key element of my role is to ensure the Catholic ethos of the organisation is maintained and nurtured while being open and welcome to all.
Gordon: What are some of the primary challenges in recruiting volunteer missionaries?
Shane: There is a challenge to encourage individuals to apply for the advertised roles. Given the bad press that the Catholic Church has received particularly here in Ireland around the various scandals. This has been reflected in Irish society with the fall off in Church attendance and the drop in vocations to the religious life and priesthood. There is also a recognized growth is secularism in all areas of Irish life and this is just one of these areas.
Having said that VC manages to hold its own with the secular volunteer sending agencies and has increased its numbers from a low base of 12 in 2013 to a high of 31 volunteer missionaries in the field in 2017. This has been mainly down to a change in how VC markets itself and how it operates.
Gordon: Approximately how many missionaries has Viatores Christi recruited and what are some of the countries in which they have worked?
Shane: Since it began in 1960 VC has worked with over 2500 missionaries many of whom went overseas to countries all over the world. Today VC is active in Uganda with a regional office, and has a strong presence in Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa and Kenya. As well as working in Cambodia, it also has a long relationship with Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well as El Salvador and several other South American countries including Peru and Bolivia.
Gordon: What skills do voluntary missionaries need to be successful?
Shane: Today many of the roles for volunteer missionaries relate to skills which are not taught in the seminaries or on the syllabus for religious orders but are in demand at the field projects. Many of our people take up capacity building roles where they help the local counterpart person with skills in business, project management, marketing, IT, accounting, research and such like. A few of our missionary roles involve living in community and operating within a pastoral setting in the area of spiritual development often within a parish setting in the developing world.
Gordon: How has their ministry affected some of their lives?
Shane: I often remark these days that some people leave Ireland as development workers and they return as missionaries! It’s a reflection on the challenge that VC faces as an organisation bridging the gap between the secular and the faith based organisation. However, the challenge is to be able to offer this opportunity in a way that nurtures both the volunteer missionary and the project partner with equal measure.
One of the requirements for our returned volunteer missionaries is that they speak to the trainees preparing for assignment. This is always the part of the course which gets the highest ratings as the returned volunteers talk with such passion about their work, their experiences and how it has changed their lives.
Gordon: What are some of the communications skills that are most helpful to voluntary missionaries?
Shane: From my perspective the single biggest requirement from a prospective candidate is openness a willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit. While it might not be identified as such in any interview it is apparent in conversation what the reasons and rationale are for engagement with us. This is particularly important if we are looking at a pastoral role. Apart from the key skills needed for a particular role, the candidate should be able to communicate freely with his or her fellow trainees and take part in discussion in a balanced way listening and contributing in equal measure. The areas of conflict resolution and commitment are dealt with in some detail on the course. Increasingly the area of relationships and dealing with loneliness is being dealt with as Missionary work is not a quick fix to relationship breakup.
Gordon: Thank you for a great interview and the opportunity of introducing you and Viatores Christi to our readers.