The Heart of a Missionary Among the Poor: An Interview with Fr. Peter Woodruff

Interview by Nancy Brouillard McKenzie

For over 40 years, Father Peter Woodruff worked as a missionary priest in parishes in the northern periphery of Lima, Peru. He is now the editor of the Australian Journal of Mission Studies. After his missionary work, Father Peter traveled to countries where Columban missionaries worked to interview priests, sisters, lay missionaries, and others for his book, Columbans on Mission.

What influenced you to become a missionary?

The major influence in my life is people, how I perceive them, and their impact on me. As a young boy, I looked up to people, starting with an Irish priest and Irish sister in my parish, who had left their homes for others. While in my teens, I wrote to different orders about my vocation to the priesthood.

All orders, except the Columbans, sent me information. A Columban priest responded to me with a handwritten letter. That personal contact from the Columbans was more important to me than the missionary aspect. In the seminary, Columban Father Bernard Way who had been a missionary in Burma gave the best ever retreat in my life. His commitment to others and zest for life came through as he told us story after story about the people with whom he worked.

Another person who influenced me was Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, who as a young priest in a working class Belgian parish, founded along with a few workers the Young Catholic Workers movement. From the back of the hall of the Sydney diocesan seminary, I listened to an address he gave to over 200 seminarians and was deeply moved by his passion and enthusiasm, even though I understood little of what he said as he spoke English with a heavy Belgian accent. Neither man ever knew of his impact on me.

Tell us about your missionary work in Peru.

From 1968 to 2009, I prepared people to do God’s work, not my work, in Lima, Peru. Working as a priest in a busy urban parish, I did many things, but, with hindsight, the role that I now value most was that of motivator. Forming a parish team was key to helping parishioners discover ways to evangelize. I looked for parishioners who could connect with other people in the parish and could encourage and promote groups of laity in the parish. I also sent people to courses on bible, theology, catechesis, social analysis, leadership, and personal development.

This built up leadership in the parish community. Some would stay long-term while others gave less time to this work. Later, I encouraged lay men and women and youth to work in other parts of Peru as short-term missionaries. Then there was the social dimension of living our Christian faith. The economy in Peru was changing. People who had lived at subsistence levels in rural areas were migrating to Lima and subsequently to other major cities with expectations of a potentially better life for themselves and their children.

From 1968 to 2009, Lima’s population rose from three million to 9 million inhabitants. A fundamental aspect of missionary work was to help Catholics become aware of the social teaching of the Church and discern, in terms of social commitment, the consequences of this for themselves.

Traditional Peruvian religion was, for the most part, focused on God, Mary, the saints and miracles, the sacraments, prayer, and personal devotions. There was a peoples’ religion and a priests’ religion - to use a distinction a Peruvian parishioner once made while complimenting me on having time for the people’s religion – in this case, a Mass and procession in honor of an Andean village’s patron saint.

Helping men, women and youth link in their minds, hearts and actions what seemed to be alien to their traditional religious approach was and continues to be a challenging and evolving task. Pope Francis has been very helpful in this regard as he himself lives a Catholic spirituality rooted in both popular religion and the broad theological and spiritual tradition of the Church.

In your early years in Peru, did you have parishioners approach you about joining the Columbans?

A Peruvian diocesan priest who was a friend of the Columbans recommended against taking Peruvian vocations, as the Church in Peru was still at the initial stage of discovering its missionary identity. At the time, the Catholic Church in Peru was predominantly a “maintenance Church” that was in the process of developing a preferential option for the poor. However, from the mid-1980s on the Columbans began to welcome vocations from the countries to which we had been sent and a number of young Peruvian men have responded.

Have the goals of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach—migration, environmental justice, economic justice and peace—expanded the life of a missionary?

The goals of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach are a direct response to Gaudium et Spes – Joy and Hope, the final document of Vatican II. In the first paragraph of that document, this general council of the Church, under the leadership of Pope Paul VI, called on all the baptized, to recognize, identify with and respond to: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted….” (Gaudium et Spes 1).

In baptism, we receive the call to be missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, a calling to be lived out in the context of whatever may be the circumstances of our lives. We are called to read the signs of our times and respond in merciful love. We form part of a global community and work locally from our communities and networks in the spirit of the missionary challenge proposed to us by Gaudium et Spes and other leadership statements of the Church.

The Latin American and Caribbean Episcopal Conference (CELAM) has gathered on four occasions (1968 in Medellin, Colombia; 1979 in Puebla, Mexico; 1992 in Santo Domingo; 2007 in Aparecida in Brazil) to develop guidelines for renewal of the Catholic Church in Latin America. The conclusions of these conferences seek to spell out in a Latin American and Caribbean context the challenges outlined by Gaudium et Spes. Because of the widespread and dehumanizing poverty in much of the Americas the bishops have given particular attention to the Gospel’s demand that we missionary disciples of Jesus Christ embrace a preferential option for the poor.

Has Pope Francis influenced the work of missionaries?

Most missionaries choose and are sent to work among the poor. Pope Francis has highlighted the importance of this by emphasizing the Church’s preferential option for the poor and by constantly challenging and questioning the global economic system that maintains millions in poverty.

Also, even though many missionaries, of their own initiative, have become accustomed to a rather flexible approach to church law in their pastoral dealing with those who seek their advice and support, Pope Francis’ emphasis on a hierarchy of truths in the body of Catholic teaching along with his insistence on mercy in all that we do, has been most affirming and freeing for many missionaries.

In the encyclical, Laudato Sí, Francis also explicitly develops the interconnection between solidarity with the poor in their struggles for justice and the duty to care for the earth, our common home. This unification of what at times was expressed as quite separate and not necessarily complementary commitments has cleared the way for greater collaboration among Christians, who are by baptismal vocation missionaries.

Why did you divide your book Columbans on Mission into six chapters, each focusing on different approaches to mission?

The book was divided into the chapters: Deeds and Words; Liturgy and Prayer; Commitment to Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation; The Practice of Interreligious Dialogue; Efforts of Inculturation; and the Ministry of Reconciliation.

It is not uncommon for passionate and committed men and women in any field to argue in favor of one correct way of doing things. Debates about the right way and the wrong way are common in many fields and are seldom, if ever, settled by logical discourse and even less so by a majority vote.

Missionaries are usually passionate and committed people and, despite the obvious truth that there is no point in reinventing the wheel, we often seem to have to learn from experience that different social and cultural contexts require varying approaches to mission. For this reason I chose to divide the book into six sections, each section containing articles whose main emphasis illustrates the approach to mission described briefly at the beginning of the chapter.

For the reader to appreciate this division along with the overall understanding of mission, I suggest the reader study the introduction to the book which makes the point that mission, in whatever form, is prophetic dialogue. Then, the reader might look carefully at the brief introduction to each chapter to gain an appreciation of how missionary approaches might vary.

Finally, there is little chance that any reader would describe this book as a gripping read. However, it might be a helpful and informative read if one takes in one or two stories a day over a period of time.