Fr. Joe Thaler, 69, is a Maryknoll Missioner in Nepal. When he was in the 6th grade at St. Joseph’s School in Cold Spring, Kentucky, a Maryknoll missionary visited his school and spoke about his missionary life in Africa. Young Joe accepted an invitation to receive Maryknoll magazine at his home, and became a regular reader.
As he grew older, he stayed in contact with the Maryknoll community, and was impressed with their “great passion” for the missionary life. It inspired him to pursue a vocation to the missionary priesthood. He was accepted as a seminarian for the community in 1967, during his senior year of high school.
After ordination to the priesthood, he was sent to Nepal in South Asia; he has worked in a variety of roles since. He recently shared about his 51 years as a Maryknoll missioner.
Tell me about the community you serve.
I work with the marginalized in Nepal, who due to poverty or the caste system in the country, have been moved to the edges of society. This includes females and the “differently-abled.”
Is Christianity welcome in Nepal?
The government recently enacted legislation criminalizing religious conversion. It has sparked a heightened sense of fear and insecurity among Christian minorities. Christian leaders believe the move is targeted at Christians, who have been accused of forceful proselytizing of Nepalis, particularly those from vulnerable and lower castes. They fear the law will be used as a tool to harass and persecute Christian minorities for practicing their religion.
… We’ve seen churches bombed and set on fire, and people are being falsely accused and persecuted for talking about religion, distributing Bibles or killing cows, which are worshipped by Hindus … the major political parties, who are comprised mostly of higher-caste Hindus, are insecure over the increasing influence of the Christian community and this fear has led to the suppression of human rights and religious rights.
After Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake, government officials claimed that Christian groups and aid agencies were using humanitarian grounds to spread their beliefs among victims in need of help.
… Overall the situation is becoming more and more difficult, and to many oppressive, due to the political influences from both China and India and Nepal’s own writing and implementation of laws that are interpreted as attempting to curb the “freedom and movement” of most, if not all, Christian groups in Nepal. It is also a major threat to press freedom in the country that struggled through a bloody civil war [1996-2006] to guarantee freedom.
What do you find rewarding about what you do?
For me the reward is having the opportunity each day to encounter some of the most amazing people on the face of the earth. We pray and work and live and exist in situations that will bring happiness and joy and laughter and sometimes sorrow and pain and conflict, but out of this there is always an opportunity to experience the love and compassion of God.
I have served in Nepal for over 30 years. The greeting in Nepali given to a person you meet is “Namaste.” ... I have seen evil, but so much more often I have seen the good in others and the support and helping hand that is always there ready to be extended. This has strengthened and deepened my faith beyond measure.
What fruit have you seen in your work?
We have had a positive impact. The differently-abled who have passed through our training programs now have a skill and a job and many are earning wages to not only support themselves but their families.
The poor and the lower-caste children who received the scholarships have gone on for higher education and are able to secure better jobs. Those in our ... pig and goat and sheep and mushroom-growing vermi-composting programs have now a good income. The women are able to provide better and more food for the family, and clothes and a better education for the children. Many village women are healthy because of our medical and health camps.
We’ve also addressed the problem of human trafficking by providing local jobs and educating the women about it. Our skills training provides jobs so that the young Nepalese do not have to leave Nepal to go to another country for “employment” where so many of them do get “used and abused.”
What work did you do to help with recovery from the 2015 earthquake?
When it hit, it destroyed much of the housing, roads and schools in a number of Nepali districts. I monitored the distribution of emergency supplies and care for the people and directed missions of mercy throughout the central district of Nepal and spearheaded Maryknoll’s rebuilding process. We helped provide construction materials and for homes and school as well as water pipes, toilets and roofing for over 1,300 homes in Nepal as well as the rebuilding of six schools and provided support for other infrastructure development.
Do you plan to retire?
Retirement is not a word with which I am comfortable. But I do feel that I am moving toward a transitional time in my life. I would like to give more time to reading and writing and doing a few spiritual pilgrimages. I also would like to begin the writing of the history of Maryknoll in Nepal. Maryknoll first arrived in Nepal 41 years ago.
Do you have any other thoughts?
I have been blessed in these years in Nepal. The bottom line is that it is all about being in mission and mission is all about relationships. So what fulfills me is the relationships I have with people in mission. I have lived outside of the U.S. for over 30 years of my Maryknoll Missionary life and then for about 10 within the U.S. All through my priesthood it has been my relationships with others that have nourished and sustained me. Being with others in mission is a total blessing.
… I continue to be inspired by the people I work with and serve in mission. My faith has deepened as a result of encountering people of other religions and seeing their deep faith and love of family and friends and country and culture. I am inspired by their welcome and hospitality that I have encountered and shared in mission. So often the people who have so little are the most kind and generous...
I also deeply value prayer and taking the time for retreats and renewal. Daily prayer is so important and taking time in silence each day is a must for my well-being. Yearly retreats and renewal programs are so important for taking the time to be renewed in spirit and soul and mind.