WASHINGTON, D.C. – Eight months of pandemic life may have modified activities of the Franciscan Mission Service to assure the safety of its volunteers and the people they serve, but the recent commissioning of five new lay missioners, and their training for an international ministry, demonstrates that participants have not wavered in their enthusiasm for and dedication to the program.
While most service organizations, the Franciscan Mission Service among them, have been forced to curb their operations since the COVID-19 outbreak in March, the success of FMS in attracting new missioners during the pandemic – all while meeting safety and health protocols – has also caught the attention of media outlets around the country.
The five new missioners were formally welcomed into the Franciscan Mission Service at a special commissioning Mass held outdoors on the grounds of St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. The Nov. 7 liturgy was celebrated by Larry Hayes, OFM, pastor, and a video recording of the Mass can be viewed on Facebook.
“God blessed us with uncommonly warm and sunny weather that allowed our Mass to be an absolutely glorious Franciscan celebration with singing birds and beautifully-colored leaves gently falling behind the outdoor altar,” said FMS program director Emily Norton, who explained that the commissioning Mass was held outside to enable as many people as possible to attend while positioned safely apart.
The 40 socially-distanced attendees, all of whom wore face coverings, included FMS board members and alumni, Secular Franciscans, family members of the newly commissioned, and a potential missioner applicant.
“Fr. Larry gave an inspiring, mission-themed homily that described the Old Testament’s Hannah as an example of someone who answered a prophetic call to mission. He masterfully wove together the second reading and the Gospel, as well as references from the pope’s recent encyclical, ‘Fratelli Tutti,’” Norton said.
In summing up the Franciscan approach to mission during his homily, Larry shared the following: “Mission is not about bringing Christ to others, rather mission – all of our missions – is about bringing to consciousness the presence of Christ already there, [as well as] the more complete fulfillment of that dream of God for a just society [and] a just world in which all are respected, all are loved, [and] all are valued with their God-given talents and potential and rights. [Jesus invites us to] ‘remain in my love.’ May missioners be instruments of that love with and among others by the way [they] live, [and] by the respect that they share with all people.
The new lay missioners echoed Larry’s description of mission in their own mission statements, which they shared at the commissioning Mass. The statements are a guide for their commitment to how each of them desires to live as missioners while overseas.
The missioners were officially commissioned by Norton and FMS executive director Elizabeth Hughes to serve for two or more years in Bolivia, Jamaica, and the U.S.-Mexico border region.
The 2020-21 missioners, and the locations where they will serve, are Joleen Johnson (Jamaica); Rhonda Eckerman (U.S.-Mexico border); Nora McMahon (Bolivia); Domonique Thompson (Washington DC with departure to Bolivia in fall 2021), and Jenny Tsui (serving with the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan in summer 2021).
The commissioning Mass ended with a blessing from longtime missioner Ignatius Harding, OFM, who served in the Province missions in Bolivia for more than 40 years and provided pastoral support to FMS lay missioners serving there.
“We give thanks for the five commissioned lay missioners, and to the Franciscan brothers, sisters, and laypeople who have given of their spirit, energy, talents, and resources to this important missionary endeavor of the Catholic Church in the USA,” said Iggy, who now lives in Silver Spring.
“Many years ago, the FMS team prophetically saw that the numbers of religious were dwindling and that fewer missionaries would be available,” said Iggy. “Realizing that lay missionaries would be an important part of the global mission of the Franciscan family worldwide, they established a formation program for Franciscan lay missionaries – and they persevered despite some early criticism and opposition.”
Since 1990, FMS has provided opportunities for laypeople, both men and women, to live and work in mission outside of the United States. FMS missioners have served in 20 countries over the past three decades.
36th Class of Missioners
FMS welcomed its 12 new missioners and D.C. Service Corps volunteers in August to its Washington, D.C., intentional community residence — Casa San Salvador. The newcomers were required to quarantine and demonstrate negative test results for COVID for a 14-day period before beginning the program year, according to Hughes.
“During a time of uncertainty, these men and women inspire me with their commitment to mission and to the marginalized,” said Hughes.
Added Norton, “This class of lay missioners demonstrated a deep sense of courage and commitment starting from the first day of their three months of formation when they agreed to abide by the COVID protocol upon arrival to a house of complete strangers in a new city. They quickly bonded as a group and cultivated deep faith-filled relationships with the entire community at Casa San Salvador. Throughout their formation, the missioners repeatedly showed their flexibility, patience, and ability to lean into a time of uncertainty – all qualities that are incredibly helpful to navigate the challenges of overseas mission.”
This year in the midst of the pandemic, FMS missioners completed their training via video workshops whose subject matter included liberation theology, self-care, navigation transition, Catholic Social Teaching, Franciscan spirituality, and a session on “St. Francis and the Foolishness of God” taught by Joseph Nangle, OFM. Other presenters included friars, sisters, laypeople, and Secular Franciscans. Since September, the missioners, whose formation also consisted of daily group prayer, served once weekly at outreach centers in the nation’s capital, including the Fr. McKenna Center and Christ House.
“Formation is meant to prepare for a lifetime commitment to the Franciscan mission,” explained Hughes, who has served as FMS executive director since spring 2017. “As Franciscans, we are still called to be in relationship with each other even during this time of physical distancing.”
Traditionally, missioners begin their participation with FMS in August and conclude formation in November. In addition to the five missioners who completed their formation and are preparing to serve outside the United States, there are seven missioners who will be serving domestically as part of the D.C. Service Corps, a branch of FMS that was established in 2015.
FMS participants of the 2020-21 class include individuals from Argentina and several U.S. states – among them, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
The video above, originally posted on the FMS Facebook page, offers a glimpse into the formation experiences of the Franciscan lay missioners.
The five recently-commissioned missioners, who will spend the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons at their homes, are scheduled to depart for their mission sites in the early part of the new year. Stories about the missioners can be found on the Franciscan Mission Service website.
Raising Funds and Interest
Like most non-profit organizations, FMS is facing financial hardships this year because the pandemic has severely curtailed fundraising efforts and opportunities.
“Fundraising has been challenging this year,” said Hughes, whose role as the executive director also includes networking and relationship building with FMS supporters. “We have already used some savings – originally dedicated for a building repair – toward operational expenses.”
A recently-released FMS booklet, “Journey to the Border,” explains the value and importance of donations to the organization. A contribution of $300, for example, pays for missioner housing for two weeks, while a $50 pledge subsidizes missioner health insurance for four days.
“We appreciate the support received from around the country. After all, we belong to the entire Franciscan family,” said Hughes.
Iggy further commented on the international scope of the program, noting, “It is gratifying to see how FMS missioners in Cochabamba, Bolivia, have – through the years – become an integral part of the national Franciscan family organization.”
The Franciscan Mission Service garnered broad exposure through reports on National Public Radio and Catholic News Service. Two FMS stories bookend the NPR podcast, “Alone Together: Stories from a Pandemic,” with Megan Hamilton’s story from Jamaica beginning at 2:23 in the podcast, and Michael Broughton and Matthew Fichter’s story from Washington, D.C., featured near the end.
In September, Catholic News Service published an article examining how Catholic organizations, including FMS, have adapted to the pandemic.
Information about FMS and opportunities to support the mission can be found on the FMS website at www.franciscanmissionservice.org. Updates about Franciscan Mission Service can be found on its Facebook page.
– Jocelyn Thomas is the director of communications for Holy Name Province.
- “Franciscan Mission Service Accepting Applications” – April 23, 2020, HNP Today
- “Ministry Outreach Intensifies in a Changed World” – April 9, 2020, HNP Today
- “Franciscan Mission Service to Honor Ignatius Harding April 27” – April 18, 2018, HNP Today
- “Province Marks 50 Years of Ministry in Bolivia” — Sept. 26, 2007, HNP Today