Supporting missionaries and seminaries to share Christ’s message in a world at flux

Supporting missionaries and seminaries to share Christ’s message in a world at flux Zimbabwean children are pictured in a file photo carrying vegetables as they walk past a house in Harare.
World Mission Sunday 2023 – Celebrating and Supporting the Legacy of Irish Missionary Work
Missionaries, as Christ’s ambassadors, continue to give people tremendous hope, Missio Ireland’s director tells Chai Brady

Irish missionaries are growing older and many have been forced to retire due to ill-health, but the fruits of their hard work remain, including the training of young seminarians all over the world to assist the vulnerable and the needy despite the dangers.

Missio Ireland is the Irish branch of the Pontifical Mission Society – which is the Pope’s charity for overseas mission. Overall the charity reaches across five continents and supports more than 1,000 mission dioceses.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic, the National Director of Missio Ireland, Fr Michael Kelly SPS, spoke of the often-quiet work of missionaries around the world and what the charity is doing to ensure the creation of a new generations of priests – many of whom he believes may come to Ireland to assist where needed.

Fr Kelly, who is a member of St Patrick’s Missionary Society (Kiltegan Fathers), was appointed in November 2021 following more than 30 years of missionary service in places such as Grenada and South Africa.


Asked why many missionaries remain when others might leave a community due to a variety of dangers, Fr Kelly said they “stay on in solidarity with the poor and the marginalised, being ambassadors for Christ, their presence there with the people gives them such hope”.

“I think that’s why, despite tremendous dangers, they continue to stay on and support the people. The love of Christ urges us on,” he said.

Data gathered by Vatican news agency Fides, each year, revealed that in 2022, 18 missionaries lost their lives violently across the world – a reminder of the risks they take. The deaths include 12 priests, one brother, three women religious, one seminarian, and one lay person. Nine missionaries were killed in Africa, eight missionaries in the Americas, and one in Asia.

Asked about Ireland’s view of missionaries nowadays, Fr Kelly said while a great sense of faith was handed down from generation to generation, “I suppose as we got more secular, God gets pushed a little bit to the side in people’s lives, unless there’s a disaster of some kind”.

He added: “In the past every parish would have had a number of priests, brothers or nuns on the missions so their families would be talking about them. Nowadays most Irish missionaries are very old and a lot of them are back in Ireland and retired at this stage, but then there’s new fruit emerging. In our society [Kiltegans] now our superior general is Nigerian, and also on the council one person is from Zambia and the other from Kenya.

“This year we had 11 ordained and next year we have ten and now they’re thinking of sending some of those back to Ireland so hopefully that will help to invigorate a sense of Faith and mission in people’s lives.”

Fr Kelly said the Kiltegans are training a “new generation of priests to come to Ireland or to Europe”, saying it is the missionary work Ireland did but in reverse.

With Missio Ireland’s support of seminaries abroad, in Africa and Asia, “we’re actually preparing the next generations of priests that we may have – but also the numbers might increase here as well”.


However, he added that even in parishes where there is a shortage of priests, who may only be seen perhaps once a month, there are places in which it is the catechists keeping the Faith alive.

He said: “In one sense even though we don’t have too many priests here, we’re still very well off compared with some African countries and parishes. The laity in mission countries are tremendous people, they’re really involved in the Church, in the life of the Church and so on. I’m 45 years a priest this year but I’ve never actually worked in a parish that didn’t have a parish council at that time. They are involved in a big way, and a lot is about listening to them in a big way. In many ways we’ve been living out synodality as missionaries over time, so this has come more into a European context at this stage.”

National Director of Missio, Fr Michael Kelly SPS.

A lot of the projects Missio Ireland support are run by missionaries or local religious people. A project is sent through the local bishop – if he signs off on it – then will go to the papal nuncio of the country, who sends it on to the Pontifical Mission Society in Rome who go through the projects and then send them out.

The Pontifical Mission Society gave Missio Ireland 16 projects dedicated to children, mostly in Africa. “So we fund those projects directly through the nuncio of the country and the local bishop and then down to the projects. So there’s a good record and tracking of all the funds and then reporting back afterwards,” Fr Kelly said, adding that they are currently supporting children in poverty in Calcutta and “I was looking at those children, and the help they get reminded me very much of my own time in South Africa where we were feeding more than 1,000 orphans whose parents had died from AIDS.

“Initially we started with 50 children, we managed to get food and I suppose it brought home to me the extent of how we can help children with these different projects. At that time Missio was sending us some funds from their office in Malta,” he said.

One day he saw a little boy cleaning off dishes, and said to one of the ladies cooking, “that little fellow, his mother trained him very well”, she replied “Father, he is taking those scraps home to feed another child, nothing is wasted here”. Fr Kelly said it reminded him of the Gospel story of Jesus feeding the multitudes, saying “they picked up the scraps afterwards so nothing was wasted – the children were living out of the Gospel”.


Missio Ireland continue to support, with the help of donations, the work of the Church’s mission across the world with many of their projects that help children currently being in Africa – in countries like Chad and Benin. This would involve feeding programmes, various materials to support schools, nurseries, clinics and more.