When You Learn, Teach; When You Get, Give
By Fr Nicholas Murray
Fr Nicholas Murray died in his native Ireland on 21 April, Holy Thursday, ten days after his 73rd birthday. We first published this article in May-June 2004. The late Father Murray went to China after serving for 12 years as Superior General of the Missionary Society of St Columban. Though he made ‘it very clear that I am a practicing Catholic, to enhance the witness value of my presence’ he found himself in China being a missionary in a very different way from his years in the Philippines where everyone called him ‘Father’. His Chinese students knew him as ‘Mr Nick’.
I’ve been teaching English in a university in Chongging in southwest China since September 2002. I chose to work in this part of China because it is somewhat less developed than the east and the government is now making efforts to develop the west. Chongging is at the center of that effort. I teach Oral English and a course in Western Culture for AB students majoring in English. The latter course in particular affords great scope for communicating values, with topics such as the Bible and Christianity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance and Reformation, to name but a few.
Not everybody sees the teaching of English in China as valid missionary work. Some believe I could be more profitably employed elsewhere. My own experience, limited though it still may be, convinces me that it is still eminently worthwhile and truly valid. It’s a new type of mission where all the familiar trappings which we have become accustomed to elsewhere have been stripped away and one is exposed to weakness and vulnerability. In such a situation one has to rely on the witness of one’s life and values, sustained by one’s personal prayer life and the private offering of the Eucharist, sometimes with a few foreign companions. It is fully in line with the Church’s teaching on mission, for the missionary task implies a respectful dialogue with those who do not yet accept the Gospel.
One gradually comes to work out one’s own modus operandi based on experience. I find it profitable to use my opening class to share about myself, my country, my family, my life, my work, my beliefs and values. I use this as a framework around which I build the oral exercises. They like this and it is amazing the amount they can remember about one and what one tells them. I make it very clear that I am a practicing Catholic, to enhance the witness value of my presence. I also lay particular emphasis on my having worked with university students in the Philippines in the area of leadership training.
The witness of presence can be particularly effective. As I have come to realize from personal experience. Some Chinese teachers of English, who employ journal writing as part of their course to the same students I teach, inform me that their students are deeply impressed by my life, work and values and have recorded such admiration in their journaling. One of those same students, actually the brightest in my own classes, one day shared the following reflection in my class. I was so deeply impressed that I asked her to write it out for me. Here is her sharing: ‘Never have I so seriously reflected on the power of religion (it is far from and alien to us Chinese). By sharing life’s journey with us, our Oral English teacher, Mr Nick, aroused my reflection on religion. Now I realize it’s not only a relief from anxiety, distress and grief, but also a motive for one who believes in it to strive to do good deeds; a way to have a noble heart and a remedy for spiritual barrenness. I feel that it is his beliefs that inspire Mr Nick to do what he has done. Now I’m thinking of converting to Christianity, though I’m quite at a loss about how to do it.’
My travels and lifestyle did not escape her attention and reflection either. She went on to say, ‘I could see Mr Nick’s eyes shining and face glowing when he referred to the places where he traveled: the Philippines, Brazil, Japan, Pakistan . . . to name just a few, and now China . . . When his privacy was intruded by a question about his own family he smiled and said, “No one will marry a man who never has enough time for his wife and children.” Now Mr Nick is 65-years-old and forty years have passed since he embarked on his road of serving and helping people. He sticks to the life-long pursuit, the calling, at the price of hardship, marriage and his precious youth (I know how difficult it is to travel around and help people). I was deeply moved when I heard Mr Nick’s answer to the question, “Is there one day when you will stop doing all these things?” “Yes,” he said, “when my health won’t allow it.” I was seized by this simple answer and began to realize how profound the saying is, “When you learn, teach; when you get, give.”’
I find enough inspiration in that simple, honest sharing to keep me going for another few years. It’s but one of the better among many others that help to make my ministry here in China inspiring and worthwhile. In this regard, I’m also encouraged by the advice of one of our co-founders, back in the 1920s, ‘You are not here to convert the people of China, you are here rather to make yourself available to God.’ I believe that helping young people to be more aware and responsible in today’s world is one response in that availability. Maybe you would like to join us for a stint.
You will find an obituary of Father Murray here and a wonderful tribute to him by a classmate, Fr Gerry French who captured the essence of this great missionary when he said ‘He was the natural captain of every team’.