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LIMA, Peru -- The year was 1955 and Pope Pius XII called for more missionaries to be sent to South America. He followed this call in 1958 by establishing the Pontifical Council for Latin America. Pope Pius was concerned that a priest shortage in South America would hinder the growth of the faith in the Southern Hemisphere.
In response to that call, then-seminarian Patrick O'Malley began to learn Spanish, "I thought I would be one of those people coming to Latin America," said Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, speaking Jan. 23 at the house of the Missionary Society of James the Apostle in Lima, Peru. The cardinal was in Lima for the celebration of the society's 60th anniversary.
In the Archdiocese of Boston, Archbishop Richard Cushing -- who had previously been the director of The Society of the Propagation of the Faith for 22 years -- took the Holy Father's call to heart and as a direct call to action. He decided that Boston would send a cadre of missionaries.
"Cushing embraced this with great enthusiasm and wanted to take advantage of the many vocations that the Archdiocese of Boston was blessed with," Cardinal O'Malley said.
Never one to hesitate when it came to sending help to the missions from Boston, Cardinal Cushing turned to Msgr. Ed Sweeney who was the director of the Propagation of the Faith at the time. He tasked Sweeney with planting the seeds of a new venture -- a missionary society that would accept priests from English speaking countries to serve in the missions of South America. Sweeney went to Lima, Peru to scout out a location for a center house and the journey of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle began.
By 1959 when St. Pope John XXIII called for North American bishops to send a "tithe" of 10 percent of their diocesan priests to bolster the Latin American Church, the society -- commonly known as The St. James Society -- was already one year old and sending its first missionaries to serve in South America.
Fast forward 60 years and over 300 priests from the United States, Ireland, England, Scotland, the Philippines, and most recently, Ghana have served the poor of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Their ministries have led to an expansion of the Catholic faith in the cities and rural areas in which they serve. The society now focuses its work on the parishes it shepherds in Peru.
The society's current director is Father David Costello from the Diocese of Limerick, Ireland. After hearing about the society from Boston member and fellow Limerickman Father Gerry O'Meara, Father Costello sought permission to join.
"Sixteen years ago, I asked my bishop to let me go to the missions for five years," Father Costello said.
He was first elected director in January 2012 at the Annual General Meeting of the Missionary Society and is now serving in his second term.
In conjunction with the annual meeting of active priests and alumni, this year Father Costello welcomed guests from the worldwide Church to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the society during the week of Jan. 21-26.
Cardinal O'Malley, as president of the society, arrived early because by a happy coincidence Pope Francis scheduled a visit to Peru.
A Jan. 21 papal Mass preceded the society's celebration by a day. Bishop Robert Hennessey of Boston -- a St. James Society alumnus -- and many visiting bishops and other society alumni were privileged to be in Lima at that time as well and many attended the papal Mass.
Among the guests at the society's anniversary celebrations were five of Father Costello's seminary classmates. They all spoke highly of the work of the society and their own personal connection to its work through Father Costello.
After hearing the stories of the missions that touched them deeply, they wanted to share them.
One narrative in particular comes from Father Costello's first month of service.
There was a house fire in Father Costello's parish. He arrived on the scene to find that two children, ages 4 and 6, had died in the fire. Their mother was at work, and the children had no one to care for them or feed them, so she locked them in the house for what she assumed would be their safety.
This inspired Father Costello to begin a "comedor" -- a feeding program -- for children in that parish and later in Lima. The program serves nutritious meals to at least 90 children a day, making it also possible for the little ones to go to school where they are not guaranteed a meal. Each of Father Costello's classmates helps to support the work of the St. James Society by encouraging their own parishioners to pray for and financially help the evangelizing, emergency relief, and development work being done in the St. James Society in Peruvian parishes.
All St. James Society priests receive permission from their local Ordinary to leave their work at home and serve the Church in South America. It was Bishop Donal Murray, also present, who gave Father Costello permission to leave his home diocese.
Bishop Murray spoke of the value that mission work has had on his diocese.
Having had six priests from his diocese serve in Nigeria, when approached by two other priests to serve in the St. James Society, he quickly agreed.
Now retired, Bishop Murray feels strongly that mission work enlivens both the sending and receiving communities. On his many visits to Peru, Bishop Murray said he has been inspired by the work of the St. James Society.
"The establishment of parishes and the work being done from them is wonderful. It is liberating to see the Church working so well through them. What they have here is something we all need," Bishop Murray said.
The bishop also feels that the St. James Society has helped his local Church by raising mission awareness.
"It's terribly important. People need to understand that the future of the Church is in our own hands," Bishop Murray said.
The weeklong celebration began at the Peruvian center house of the society with a Liturgy celebrated by Cardinal O'Malley on Jan. 22.
During his homily, the cardinal welcomed all the alumni of the society and their guests. He also noted the presence of the leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston's Propagation of the Faith office, remarking that their office did so much for the missions.
Preaching on the Gospel of the Good Samaritan, Cardinal O'Malley spoke of the Samaritan as someone who was looked upon as being a foreigner, different, and perhaps under suspicion. It is then the foreigner, showing mercy, who becomes the neighbor to the man who was beaten in Jesus' story.
"Sixty years ago," said the cardinal, "Richard Cardinal Cushing sent priests to this part of the world, not as foreigners but as would-be neighbors, brothers, and shepherds. Through the society, they have become neighbors, they have become friends, and pastors to the people that they serve."
Cardinal O'Malley then presented Mission Crosses to two new members of the Society, Father Dan Gonzalez from the Diocese of Tyler, Texas and Father Francis Kwofie from the Diocese of Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana. This is Father Gonzalez's second mission appointment with the society. Father Kwofie is the first priest from an African country to join the society.
The next day's highlight was the presentation of the Cushing Award, given for service to the St. James Society.
This year's recipient was Father Gustavo Gutierrez, OP.
Father Gutierrez, a native Peruvian, is a Dominican Friar and a member of the Department of Theology at Notre Dame University. He has held many posts in the Latin American Episcopal Conference (known as CELAM) and has been a longtime friend and supporter of the priests of the St. James Society and their work.
Father Gutierrez spoke about how the work of the St. James Society, over the years, has reflected what Pope Francis calls for -- serving the poorest of the poor.
The other speakers to round out the week were Irish Mercy Sister Sheila Curran and Msgr. Allen Aganon, an alumnus of the society.
Currently based in Ireland, Sister Sheila is the Coordinator of the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation desk for the Association of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland (AMRI). She reminded all present that the reign of God is not something in the abstract, but present with us now.
Msgr. Aganon is now back in his native Philippines, serving as a pastor and vicar general of his diocese. He is also responsible for the ongoing formation of his priests.
Both presenters brought to the gathering the insight of missionaries who had returned home and applied the ideals with which they had served others to their home countries.
Speaking to The Pilot, Cardinal O'Malley noted the importance of the ongoing work of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle.
"The combination of the works of mercy, promotion of justice, and evangelization have been characteristic of the Society of St. James: often taking on the most challenging parishes (in their missions), developing them, and then later turning them over to the local clergy. Being a missionary is a very special call to discipleship," he said.