Signs of the Time: The Heart of the Gospel in a Season of Lent

by Scott Wright

This year the Society of St. Columban celebrates its 100th anniversary. Founded as a missionary order with roots in Ireland, the “Columbans” are presently working in 15 countries around the world, including along the U.S. – Mexico border. The Columban mission statement reads, in part: “We are small, intercultural groups centered on the Eucharist, called to participate in God’s mission, crossing boundaries in communion for the life of the world, living and working in solidarity with the poor and the exploited earth, engaging with the Chinese, Muslims” and other traditions. The following Signs of the Times is a tribute to this work.

We are entering into a season of Lent, which marks the beginning of a six-week journey that will culminate with Holy Week and Easter. Traditionally, it is a season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, a season to recognize how we have failed, personally and as a nation, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. It is also a season in which we are called to generosity, mindful of the gift of life we have received and the responsibility we have to protect, defend and reverence all life and our common home. It is a season to welcome the stranger and to care for creation, a season to promote justice and to work for peace.

Especially now, as the fate of 11 million undocumented immigrants hangs in balance, including 1.8 million “Dreamers” who came to our country as children; and the fate of future generations and the earth itself, suffering under the impact of climate change and extreme weather events, also hangs in balance. We the people, rooted in our Catholic faith, can make a difference, as we advocate for just and compassionate policies for immigrants and for the environment alike.

As we begin this season of Lent, we take stock of the many challenges we face in the world today, and in our country, and the ways in which Columbans strive to offer a bit of light amidst the darkness, of hope amidst despair, of joy amidst the sorrow. It is one story among many that could be told, and it reminds us that now more than ever, we are called to be “a poor church of the poor,” a pastoral and prophetic presence in the “streets” and “field hospitals” of the world, where the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth invite us to be the face of justice and mercy.

Around the world, Columbans respond to the desperate plight of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, defending their rights and providing hospitality in Britain and Ireland, Taiwan and the Philippines, as well as accompanying detained immigrant men, women and children along the U.S. – Mexico border. In a world in which more people are on the move than ever since the Second World War, crossing borders and fleeing from poverty, climate change and violence, Columbans live out the call to welcome the stranger in our midst and advocate for policies that both respect the human dignity of migrants and refugees and address the root causes of migration.

In a world where the poor are vulnerable to catastrophic hurricanes, rising sea levels, massive flooding and severe droughts, Columbans work closely with poor communities to address the root causes of climate change. As founding members of the Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM), Columbans seek to live in right relationship with all of creation, calling for divestment from fossil fuels that cause global warming and promoting investment in renewable energy sources.

In a world where the divide between rich and poor is growing, Columbans address global poverty and global inequality by promoting just trade agreements and upholding the dignity of women and children, farmers and migrant workers. As founding members of the Pan-Amazonian Church Network (REPAM), a Catholic network of indigenous and pastoral leaders in the Amazon, Columbans walk in solidarity with poor and indigenous communities by promoting a model of development that protects their lives, their cultures and their territories from the destructive practices of mining companies and other extractive industries.

And in a world torn by war and violence, Columbans work to cultivate a culture of peace and nonviolence, promoting intercultural and interreligious dialogue, and contributing to the work of Pax Christi International and the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. Today Columban missionaries serve in Japan and Korea, where nuclear weapons threaten global stability and peace; they are present in areas of ethnic conflict and religious persecution, like Pakistan and Myanmar; and they also accompany indigenous communities in the Philippines, Chile, Peru and the Amazon.

There is much to be grateful for, and much work to be done. So as we continue this Lenten journey, we are mindful that we walk together with migrants and refugees, and with the poor and vulnerable, sharing the journey and our common home with them, and we are called to welcome the stranger and to care for creation. That is the Gospel invitation to all of us in this season of Lent.