The Second Vatican Council called missionary work the “greatest and holiest task of the Church” and described the Church’s commission to “rally the forces of all the faithful” to “spread everywhere the reign of Christ” (Ad Gentes, The Mission Activity of the Church, 1965).
Most missionaries will tell you that their work brings rewards no other sphere of spiritual activity can. They’ll also tell you the missionary life is a challenging one. Difficulties — everything from language barriers to financial hardships to health issues to physical safety — abound.
Enter the Family Missions Company, which assists Catholic individuals and families in becoming missionaries. It was founded in 1996 by Frank and Genie Summers, who, after serving in missions for more than 20 years, returned to the United States to better care for a son diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder.
“We understood that at the time we could provide something that the Lord showed us was needed — an organization offering Catholic laypeople, including families with children, the opportunity to be trained, assisted in finding a mission, and supported,” says Frank Summers. “Over the years, we had been approached by people who thought about being missionaries and didn’t know what to do.”
The Summerses built Big Woods Mission outside Abbeville, La. By coincidence, there happens to be a lot of mud and mosquitoes, which they like to say is part of the preparation for would-be missionaries who come for a three-month formation process.
The trainees study Church teachings and Scripture, work in local Catholic service centers, and travel with the Summerses to the company’s semipermanent mission in General Cepeda, Mexico. Language training, if necessary, comes later, once people discern where they will serve.
The new missionaries must raise the $300 per month they will need to support themselves by compiling a “benefactor list” of friends and family. ”St. Francis went around begging,” says Summers. “People gave him money, and with what they gave him, he went forward.”
So far, all new missionaries have been able to provide for their own needs. “We are not talking about a whole lot of money,” he explains. “We are living like the poor we live among.”
Two by Two
The missionaries are sent out in pairs. The Family Missions Company (online at FMCMissions.com) helps them make arrangements, but General Cepeda is the only established mission. “They have to be able to go with what God is doing, and trust God in all the difficulties that will occur as they serve God,” Summers points out. “This isn’t already set up. It’s missions to go forward to extend the Kingdom of God.”
Last year the organization had 28 missionaries serving in countries around the world, including Africa, Mexico, India, Spain, Thailand and the Philippines. They are asked to make at least a two-year commitment, but the hope is they will stay longer.
Short-term opportunities are also available. Family Missions sends groups for weeklong work stints. But, whether the participant is a college student on spring break or a full-time missionary, the primary goal is evangelization.
“Two-thirds of mankind has not heard the Gospel,” says Summers. “They know about Jesus the way we know about Batman. They never have had an encounter or been in a setting where God could convince them to follow Jesus. That work is only done by missionaries.”
Father Charles Langlois, pastor at St. Peter’s Church in New Iberia, La., and chaplain of Family Missions Company, talks of a trip to Mexico. He describes how the missionaries and volunteers laid hands on and prayed for a sick woman wearing a pagan amulet.
“They took the amulet off while they prayed, and she got better physically. They are amazing people,” says the priest. “They give their all for whoever they run into. They make a difference.”
Participants in Family Mission’s short-term program say the experience changes lives. Lisa Killeen, a parishioner at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Lafayette, La., has made five mission trips with her family.
“The people (in General Cepeda) don’t have the conveniences that we have. It is a realization (for us) that we don’t need material things to be happy,” says Killeen. “All we need to be happy is to have God in our lives. To love God with all of our heart, our mind and body. That is what these people do.”
Family Missions Company missionaries help with physical needs as well as the spiritual. The groups Killeen has traveled with worked on houses and churches, brought supplies to the homebound and elderly, and assisted with medical needs. At least one doctor has accompanied them to treat patients.
While her church group decided not to go this year due to an increase in violence, Killeen’s family was still prepared to make the journey — but Family Missions canceled the trip. “The way I look at it,” she says, “if it is time to go be with Our Lord, what better way for us to go?”
Summers explains that the Family Missions Company does its best to make sure short-term trips are safe, but fully discloses the risks to participants. As for the full-time missionaries, he makes no bones about the fact that the life can be a dangerous one.
“What if Jesus said, ‘I’m out of here because they are going to kill me?’ Missionaries have to be willing to give their lives to the people whom they serve,” Summers says.
The Summerses have spent 34 years working for the missions in some capacity. For them it has been a family affair. All seven of their children were raised in part in missions, and several of them are still involved, including Joseph, who coordinates the organization’s short-term trips.
“The older I got, as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do, the more I realized how much I loved mission life,” says Joseph. “I have a more grounded perspective of the world and of the needs of the Church and a better understanding of different cultures and places.”
It didn’t hurt that, as an 11-year-old, he and his brother could paddle an outrigger canoe in the crystal blue waters of a lagoon in Micronesia. “We got to have adventures that most (kids) never had,” he says. But the most important missionary experience is meeting the people: “Living among God’s poor is a tremendous grace and blessing. We can learn so much from their attitude toward God and life. It bursts the American bubble in a good way.”
Monta Monaco Hernon writes
from La Grange Park, Illinois.