Mission is martyrdom

By Fr. Ferruccio Brambillasca – PIME Superior General

Letter to the missionaries – Rome, 25 August 2014


A few months ago I was privileged to join in the beatification ceremony of Blessed Mario Vergara and his catechist Isidore. In the course of that ceremony held in the Cathedral of Aversa, I thanked the Lord for blessing our PIME Institute with the gift of so many martyrs. Yes, our Institute, in its relatively short history, has given the Church many martyrs. And these martyrs are our spiritual heirloom to be guarded as a priceless gift.

In last year’s meeting with the superior generals of missionary Institutes, Pope Francis expressed his gratitude for their continuous gift of martyrs to the Church. Implicitly, then, he included our Institute in his thankfulness for the martyrdom of our missionaries whom we offered in the past, and pledge to continue to offer to the Church!

Personally, I can say that my passion for the call to preach the Gospel in mission lands and the call to bear witness to Christ which flows naturally from it have intensified since visiting the site of the Nagasaki martyrs, the “Korean Martyrs Hill” in Seoul, and since being present at the beatification ceremonies first of Blessed John Mazzucconi and, then, of Blessed Mario Vergara.

Even nowadays our Institute faces some situations in which our missionaries are “at risk.” My thought goes first to our recent martyrs in the Philippines and to those missionaries who continue their work in the same areas. My thought goes to our missionaries in Cameroon, especially those working in the northern part of that country facing, as they are, the grave danger of the Islamic revolt. My thought goes to our missionaries in India constantly forced to deal with Hindu fundamentalism. My thought goes to some of our missionaries working in places like Brazil and Mexico where the presence of senseless violence is directed also at those who work to defend human rights and creates a most serious problem. My thought goes to many other of our confreres who, for a variety of reasons, do their missionary work amid risky conditions.

There is of course, also a less visible type of martyrdom, the martyrdom present in our missions, which I would define as “the daily martyrdom of a PIME missionary.”

It could be the martyrdom of living from one day to the next beset with a grievous illness as it is the case with Fr. Bruno Vanin (a missionary who worked for many years in the Philippines) and Fr. Nelson Meshian (a young Indian missionary). As I mention their names, I urge you all to pray for them through the intercession of our Founder, Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti.

It could be the martyrdom of old age accepted grudgingly, especially if it forces one to go back to his native country or to quit one’s apostolic activities altogether, after so many years on the front line.

It could be the martyrdom of obedience which requires upsetting one’s plans completely along with a prompt reply to a request which one finds hard to heed; or one would rather not heed at all…

Finally, it could be the biblical martyrdom of “forced awaiting” lived by those who long to see immediate results such as conversions, the flourishing of a parish or a PIME community, the improvement of the living conditions of one’s people, better quality in vocation prospects….but get discouraged because the longed for results are just not there yet.

My thought goes to those who are squarely in the thick of this martyrdom of forced waiting. I think of our missionaries working in Algeria, Japan, China, the USA, Myanmar and in many other parts of the world where ours is merely a presence, an awaiting, more than a real work for appreciable and tangible results. This situation reminds me of an old missionary who told me: “It is perhaps more gratifying working in a country where Christians are persecuted than working in a country where they are ignored…”

What is the message that the martyrdom of so many of our confreres conveys to us? Are we treading on the same path blazed by our predecessors? Are we keeping this tradition unbroken?

Martyrdom, as I referred to it in my homily in the Cathedral of Aversa in the course of the celebration of Blessed Mario Vergara’s and his catechist Isidore’s beatification, ought to be for us a powerful call to consistency in our missionary spirit just as it has been for our martyrs.

Now, the term “consistent” could refer to a variety of inner attitudes. However, with this term I refer to a daily living out which is consistent with the formal and explicit choice that we made when we decided to be and to work as missionaries.

Now, to avoid even the slightest misunderstanding, let me specify that by “consistent” I do not intend an attribute applied only to the realm of one’s prayer life, one’s financial decisions, one’s celibate living, a spirit of detachment from material things for the sake of the Kingdom, and so on. Rather, I intend to apply the attribute “consistent” also to making oneself available once again for any assignment, to leaving familiar surroundings, to agreeing with choices that are not necessarily shared by the individual, to opening one’s mind and heart to something new and challenging. Let us never forget the fact that being missionaries means LEAVING… in all its subtle ways. The attribute “consistent” must apply to our openness to any “LEAVING”!!

A second lesson taught us by our martyrs is THE COURAGE WHICH OVERCOMES ANY FEAR AND MEDIOCRITY.

I recall reading many years ago something very interesting in a book about the Japanese martyrs. The title of that book was “Silence.” It is a literary masterpiece on the meaning of martyrdom. What left a deep, lasting impression on me is what happens towards the end of the book where a missionary leaves his faith in order to save his life, opting therefore to live a mediocre and unhappy life.

What our martyrs teach us is exactly the opposite. “If you want to be happy, if you do not want to be a mediocre missionary, have the courage to give your life without reserve, up to the point of forfeiting it for that in which you truly believe.”

You understand for sure how this lesson is valid also for us PIME Missionaries who are gambling our life away for the sake of preaching the Gospel “ad gentes,” “ad extra.” We ought to leave our fears, our mediocrity, our “untouchable” plans behind. We ought, instead, to embrace a new mindset: “the mindset of martyrdom.” Being the mindset of Christ, it is the only mindset capable of making us happy and thoroughly fulfilled.

I close by wishing all of you to begin with joy and hope, in the month of September, the year dedicated to honor the memory of our Founder, Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti.

Best wishes and cordial greetings to all!


N.B. PIME stands for Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Latin. It was founded in 1850 in Milan, Italy. By the end of 1852 the very first group of missionaries reached Woodlark Island and Siassi in nowadays PNG Milne Bay and Morobe provinces respectively. In 1855 they withdrew due to the harsh conditions of life. Father Giovanni Mazzucconi was martyred off Woodlark Island in September 1855 and beatified by Pope John Paul II on 19 February 1984. There are currently a dozen of PIME missionaries in Papua New Guinea.