Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
Shortly before his Ascension into heaven, Jesus gave his Apostles the Great Commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). I spoke with four Catholic missionaries, three priests and a laywoman, about their missionary efforts on behalf of the Church.
Father Myron Effing is a missionary in Vladivostok in Far Eastern Russia. Although Christianity is now legal in Russia and 40% of Russians are baptized, fewer than 1% attend church. Poverty and crime are typical for a big city, Father Myron reported, and prostitution and pornography are widespread. He noted, “The culture here reflects the breakdown of the family. In fact, the family was outlawed for a time under the communists.”
Drunkenness is a common problem, as is the abandonment of children and abortion. The average Russian woman, in fact, has 7 or 8 abortions in her lifetime. Father Myron observed, “Russia suffers from a lack of children. Many elderly must work because they have no children to support them. We’re in an end state for any country that doesn’t have kids. I always tell people, ‘Have kids, they’re your future. The government is bankrupt. It won’t be able to support you.’”
The typical Russian marriage lasts four years, and most children grow up without their biological father in the home. Father Myron continued, “Children are raised by their mothers and grandmothers while the fathers skip out on their responsibilities.”
Fortunately, the local government, although heavy with bureaucracy and widespread with corruption, has a good record in respecting religious freedom. The Vladivostok economy has improved with many new construction projects, although the dearth of young people requires importation of foreign labor.
Father Michael Shields, a priest of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, served as a missionary in Magadan, in Far East Siberia, Russia. Magadan was a former slave labor camp of the Soviet Union, and like the Church in Vladivostok, has enjoyed great freedom since the fall of communism in that country.
Ministries he engaged in while serving in Russia included a pro-life ministry. He said, “The abortion rate in Russia was very high. Not long ago, for every 10 births, there were 13 abortions. We provided a Rachel’s Vineyard program to help women heal from abortion. We also provided young families expecting a child with such things as food, housing, medication and hospitalization.”
He also offered a ministry to the elderly, who were typically poor and uncared for, and for young children, who were often born to single parents or who had alcoholic parents. They also engaged in evangelization. He said, “We find the best way to spread the Gospel is through friendship, which gives people the chance to get to know the Church and find their way into a relationship with God.”
He also cared for some survivors of the prison camps, and helped publish a book sharing their story: The Martyrs of Magadan and now Strength in Suffering (read it here). He said, “They experienced great suffering, watching people die from malnutrition and the cold.”
The young in Magadan can be receptive to the faith. He said, “They are not atheist and hostile to the Faith as people were under Communism. Most have either no or little Faith background, and want to know what Christianity has to offer. It’s an exciting time to preach the Gospel.”
Reflecting on his time in Russia, Father said, “I’ve learned that the cross is important. I’ve learned about failure and suffering. I went to Russia to fix the place, but now I know that you can’t fix anyone. You can walk with them, though, and share in their sufferings.”
Melody Doudna has done missionary work conjunction with the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska to bring the Gospel to the people of Northern Alaska. Fairbanks has the distinction of being the largest U.S. diocese geographically, spanning 409,800 square miles in the northern two-thirds of the state, while serving one of the smallest U.S. Catholic diocesan populations of 18,000. She and her fellow missionaries lead youth groups, host retreats, conduct Bible studies, promote Eucharistic Adoration and work in efforts to relieve the needs of the poor bringing the love of Christ and unbridled enthusiasm to all they encounter.
She said, “Living and evangelizing should be synonymous in our state as young Catholics within the Church.”
Her life as a missionary is “totally dedicated to the will of God,” she continued, and has brought her freedom and joy. She added, “Life with God is a life of abandonment, adventure and deep love. Everyone desires to be happy, and I am seeking to accompany all I meet to bring them closer to the One who can fulfill all their deepest longings in life.”
She is a graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville and launched her mission with the support of Ad Gentes Mission, an organization headquartered near the Franciscan campus which facilitates and supports student-led mission trips. They are currently supporting over 50 missionaries and their missions in Ukraine, Ireland, Peru and Russia, as well as Alaska. They offer missionaries assistance in processing donations, instruction in operating a mission and spiritual guidance to those considering becoming missionaries.
The Diocese of Fairbanks has been designated by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples as the only remaining fully missionary diocese in the U.S. It is also among the poorest, with only eight of its 46 parishes and missions being self-supporting.
Most of its churches can only be reached by plane, boat or snowmobile; harsh weather conditions often delay or strand its 18 priests as they travel about the diocese. Some regions of the diocese may not see a priest for months at a time.
Father Bob Jalbert has been a member of the Maryknoll community for 45 years, 18 of which he spent working in the missions in East Africa. He is originally from Massachusetts, and joined the community after serving in the U.S. Air Force. He said, “I had felt called to the priesthood since I was a child, and in the 1970s, it became clear to me that I had a missionary vocation.”
Working in Tanzania and Kenya, he not only performed the duties of a parish priest, but also trained lay leaders and advocated for the people before local governments. While the environment in Tanzania was “tranquil and stable,” he experienced “stark poverty” in Kenya and “lots of tribal violence.”
He was welcomed by the people, he said, and “learned it was possible to receive much more from the poor than I could give.”