Mission Experiences Provide Powerful Witness to Faith

Maria Hayes Around the Province

Paul O'Keeffe, second from right, with participants on a recent mission trip to Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Paul)

Paul O’Keeffe, second from right, with participants on a recent mission trip to Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Paul)

REMEDIOS, Cuba — Outside the city of Remedios, a small group of people on a mission trip gathered last month in the home of Doña Matuña, the matriarch of a Catholic family that continues to practice their faith, despite threats and aggression. They listened as she described how the government had taken all of her family’s livestock and most of their land to intimidate them. Doña Matuña had told the rebels that they could kill the family if they liked, but that they would never leave their land or abandon their Catholic faith.

Doña Matuña and her family shared their story with their visitors even as they were coping with another loss — Doña’s daughter had died from cancer just weeks before their visit. It is these moments of powerful witness to the Catholic faith that make the Franciscan Missionary Union’s mission trips so impactful and essential, according to animator Paul O’Keeffe, OFM.

“The family allowed us to visit even in the midst of their sorrow, and they welcomed us and enriched us with their witness to the Catholic faith,” Paul said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as they told us their stories. For me, this visit symbolizes what these mission trips are about — to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in faith, to comfort those who mourn, and to be strengthened by their witness to the faith.”

Paul has led two mission trips to Cuba this spring — one in March with students from the University of Georgia’s Catholic Center, and one more recently — from May 21 to 28 — with students from St. Bonaventure University and Siena College, as well as several parishioners from St. Anthony Shrine, Boston. The Franciscan Missionary Union plans to offer two additional trips this fall — both with parishioners from St. Francis Parish in Raleigh, N.C., — as well as eight trips in 2017. The April 22 to 29 trip will be for friars only. Those interested in attending should contact Paul at pokeeffe@thefranciscans.org.

Cuba is just one of the several countries to which the Franciscan Missionary Union travels. Next year, the FMU will be offering mission trips to South Africa, India and Washington, D.C. This is the fifth mission trip Paul has led since taking over as moderator of missions and evangelization in 2014. Friars who are interested in going on a trip with the FMU should visit www.fmunion.org or email him. Each trip is designed and coordinated by Paul and sponsored by the FMU.


Participants on a mission trip to South Africa visited the Rainbow Cottage at St. Francis Care Centre, a home for abandoned, neglected or orphaned children. (Photo courtesy of John)

Last month, John Aherne, OFM, led his first mission trip with the Franciscan Missionary Union. He and a group of people from Siena College, St. Anthony Shrine, and University of St. Francis in Ft. Wayne, Ind., traveled to South Africa, arriving in Johannesburg on the evening of May 17 and departing on May 26.

“Although I’d been on other mission trips, this was my first time leading such a trip,” John said. “The part of the experience I was most nervous about — getting the group to engage in theological reflection about their daily experiences — turned out to be the source of much joy and amazement. I was struck by how open and insightful the group was, and how the evening reflections spun off in directions that I never would have guessed. These were holy moments, and I was privileged to be a part of them.”

One of the goals of the mission trip was to help participants understand ministry of presence, explained John. The significance of simply being present for others was especially obvious at the Rainbow Cottage at St. Francis Care Centre, a ministry founded by the late Fr. Stan Brennan, OFM.

“Rainbow Cottage is a home for 30 neglected, abandoned or orphaned children,” said John. “As soon as we entered the room where these beautiful boys and girls live, we were greeted by children who simply wanted to be with us. They looked up at us with arms outstretched and simply said ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada,’ desperate to be held. We did not have any toys or gadgets or food to offer. We simply had the gift of ourselves and that was clearly more than enough. The room was radiant with love.”

For those who participate on a mission trip, the experience is more than a vacation to a foreign country — it’s life altering.

“It’s my hope that participants on these mission trips will realize how God is moving in their lives and in the lives of the people they encounter, and perhaps they will be able to see more clearly what God might be calling them to do in their own lives,” he said. “The goal is not to give people a cultural experience or a nice vacation — though we do enjoy cultural things and learn about the history and social issues of the countries we visit. The goal is to evangelize with our presence and our love, and to be evangelized by the experience the connections that we make with the people we encounter.”

“In that respect, we aim to live out the Franciscan principle of spreading the Gospel through our lives and our actions, and only using words when necessary to preach the Gospel,” he said.

Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.

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