We recommend you work your way through these questions thoughtfully. Consider clearing a space to be quiet or going to a place that is special to you. Turn off your phone and minimize distractions. You may want to journal your answers. You may also find it helpful to discuss these questions with a spiritual director or someone whose wisdom you admire and who knows you well or is a good listener.
If you would like an experienced accompanier, or spiritual director, to walk this discernment journey with you, please email email@example.com as we have a number of individuals who have volunteered to support discerners on this journey.
What is your motivation?
It can be tempting to use mission to escape from things that you find difficult in your family or your work. Often those things have a way of following us into mission and becoming major distractions. Also, you will be asked to give of yourself overseas. If you are going feeling “empty” or unhappy, the challenges of being overseas may increase those feelings instead of alleviating them, and you may find yourself without much to give.
Are you ready to leave behind friends and family for 3 ½ years with only occasional visits?
- Think about the people and relationships you have in the U.S. How will each be affected by your absence for 3 1/2 years?
- Is there a romantic relationship that would be affected if you went overseas for several years?
- If you are single, what are your plans for finding a partner or starting a family? How will leaving the country for 3 1/2 years affect those plans?
- If you have grown children, are they ready to launch on their own?
- If you have young grandchildren, how will it affect them or you to gone for so long?
- If you have aging parents, what will it mean to miss the opportunity to be with them during these years?
For couples and families, how will this time affect your relationships?
- If you have young children who would be coming with you, what are your plans for their high school or college education?
- How will being overseas affect their social development or their academic progress and opportunities?
- If your plan is to come back to the U.S. for their high school or college, will they be academically prepared to transition back?
- What will it mean for your children to leave friends in the U.S. to go overseas? What will it mean for them to leave friends and cultural norms overseas and return here in a few years?
- As a couple, how will you nurture your life as a couple while balancing the demands of full-time ministries and Maryknoll community life?
- If you have children, how will you balance all that and still have enough time to focus on your children?
If you are a woman, how might it feel to live in a country with different cultural gender norms?
For the most part, the U.S. gives women a certain freedom and ability to be heard. In the countries where we live overseas, as a woman you may face a higher level of harassment or feel like you have less power to interact freely and have your opinion counted overseas. How would you deal with that?
Can you live in a fishbowl?
As a foreigner, you may feel like everyone is watching you overseas, paying attention to everything you say and do in ways that are uncomfortable. That also means things you think of as normal, including the way you interact with the opposite sex or with people in general, may be judged as inappropriate overseas. How would you deal with that experience?
Can you live in a diverse community?
Maryknoll Lay Missioners accepts people from many different backgrounds. Our missioners vary in how they think about politics, the religious practices they find most meaningful, and in their sexual identity. Most people in the U.S. are used to working with people from different backgrounds, but being part of a community with diverse views and practices can be quite a bit more challenging, particularly if you are far from home and relying on this group for a lot of your social and spiritual support—especially if the group is quite small. How do you think those differences would affect your ability to feel at home in your Maryknoll local community?
Are you healthy enough physically and emotionally?
On the one hand, medical care overseas is increasingly catching up to care in the U.S., so often minor ailments and medications are not a problem. On the other hand, it is important to be realistic about both your physical and your emotional health and to look out for your well-being.
- Are there medical resources you will need? If so, you will want to discuss them with our staff during your application process.
- Are there things that tend to make you nervous or angry?
- Do you easily get anxious or depressed?
- How well do you deal with uncertainty and change?
- Are you dealing with unaddressed traumas from the past that might be triggered by things you would see overseas?
These are all things to reflect on before you make the decision to go into mission, both to determine whether this is the right path for you and to make a good plan for how you might handle things in a healthy way if they do arise overseas.
What is your vision of mission?
There are many different models of mission. Some are focused on inviting others to join the Catholic church. Others are based on doing things for people in another country or trying to fix problems you see in their lives. Maryknoll Lay Missioners has a distinct vision of mission that is neither about proscelytizing nor about offering charity overseas.
Our model of mission is grounded in a sense of mutuality, solidarity, and partnership with local people and respect for them and their culture. We do bring our gifts, skills and talents into our ministries but we do not assume that we have the answers to local problems or that the way we would “fix” problems in the U.S. would work in another culture.
Therefore our work is based on
- living in solidarity with local people
- listening to their stories and learning about their lives and their cultures
- engaging in processes of social analysis to continually deepen our understanding of the local context where we live
- accompanying local people as they strive for their plans and dreams
- offering our skills and resources when invited
- working with local people and partners to build the capacity of individuals and organizations to provide for themselves
- acting out of a sense of mutuality
- offering unwavering respect for local people’s leadership and faith in their ability to find their own solutions
- opening ourselves to be challenged by the perspectives and beliefs of our host culture
We invite you to read the following excerpt by Henri Nouwen. To what extent do you resonate with his ideas about mission? What is your own vision of mission?
It is far from easy to be a missioner. One has to live in a different culture, speak a different language, and get used to a different climate, all at great distances from those patterns of life which fit most comfortably. It is not surprising that, for many missioners, life is full of tension, frustration, confusion, anxiety, alienation, and loneliness.
Why do people become missioners? Why do they leave what is familiar and known to live in a milieu that is unfamiliar and unknown? This question has no simple answer. A desire to serve Christ unconditionally, an urge to help the poor, an intellectual interest in another culture, the attraction of adventure, a need to break away from family, a critical insight into the predicament of one’s own country, a search for self-affirmation – all these and many other motives can be part of the making of a missioner.
Long and arduous formation offers the opportunity for re-alignment and purification of these motives. A sincere desire to work in the service of Jesus Christ and his kingdom should become increasingly central in the mind and heart of a future missioner, although nobody can be expected to be totally altruistic. Not seldom do we come in touch with our hidden drives only after long and hard work in the field. Preparatory formation and training cannot do everything. The issue is not to have perfectly motivated missioners, but missioners who are willing to be purified again and again as they struggle to find their true vocation in life.
The two most damaging motives in the makeup of missioners seem to be guilt and the desire to save. Both form the extremes of a long continuum, both make life in the mission country extremely painful. As long as I go to a poor country because I feel guilty about my wealth, whether financial or mental, I am in for a lot of trouble. The problem with guilt is that it is not taken away by work. Hard work for the poor may push my guilt underground for a while, but can never really take it away. Guilt has roots deeper than can be reached through acts of service.
On the other hand, the desire to save people from sin, from poverty or from exploitation can be just as harmful, because the harder one tries the more one is confronted with one’s own limitations. Many hardworking men and women have seen the situation getting worse during their missionary career; and if they depended solely on the success of their work, they would quickly lose their sense of self-worth. Although a sense of guilt and a desire to save can be very destructive and depressive for missioners, I do not think that we are ever totally free from either. We feel guilty and we desire to bring about change. These experiences will always play a part in our daily life.
The great challenge, however, is to live and work out of gratitude. The Lord took on our guilt and saved us. In him the Divine work has been accomplished. The human missionary task is to give visibility to the Divine work in the midst of our daily existence. When we can come to realize that our guilt has been taken away and that only God saves, then we are free to serve, then we can live truly humble lives. Clinging to guilt is resisting God’s grace, wanting to be a savior, competing with God’s own being. Both are forms of idolatry and make missionary work very hard and eventually impossible.
Humility is the real Christian virtue. It means staying close to the ground (humus), to people, to everyday life, to what is happening with all its down-to-earthness. It is the virtue that opens our eyes for the presence of God on the earth and allows us to live grateful lives. The poor themselves are the first to help us recognize true humility and gratitude. They can make a receptive missioner a truly happy person.
–Henri Nouwen, Gracias (Orbis Books)