Lay missionaries find purpose and spiritual growth during work abroad

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy of Connor Bergeron

By Chaz Muth

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Before Connor Bergeron of Reston,
Virginia, left to serve as a lay missionary in Bolivia, he wasn’t sure how the
experience would impact his life, other than soaking in the excitement and
intrigue of living abroad.

After graduating from college, Bergeron was looking
for an experience that would help him tie together what he had learned in
school with some practical understanding with the world beyond his American

At first, he considered teaching English in a foreign

However, after consulting with a parish priest, he
looked into doing a year of missionary work, went on the Catholic Volunteer
Network website and found a program with the Salesian Lay Missioners that
appealed to him. He set off for Yapacani, Bolivia, in the summer of 2014.

Bergeron knew he would be using his experience
crafting video stories in his work at the Salesian-owned radio and television
station, that he would be teaching Bolivian children and serving as an English
translator in the Spanish-speaking country.

“My family and friends didn’t know what I was
signing up for and to be honest, I didn’t know exactly either,” he said. “Which
was fine. Because this is something I was being called to.”

The work was hard and the transition to living in
rather primitive conditions was challenging, he said, yet Bergeron immediately
found the mission rewarding.

When he returned to the U.S. 16 months later, he
felt like he had grown emotionally and spiritually.

This is not an uncommon outcome for young Catholic
lay missionaries, said Jim Lindsay, executive director of the Catholic
Volunteer Network.

“These missions are incredibly important to the church because it
is an opportunity for young people to put their faith into action,” said Amy Rowland, program coordinator for community
service through the Office of Campus Ministry at The Catholic University of
America in Washington.

“It is an opportunity to
grow closer to God, to broaden their horizons, and to evaluate what is
important to them in life before embarking on their careers,” Rowland told
Catholic News Service.

Based in Silver Spring,
Maryland, the Catholic Volunteer Network — —
is one of the United States’ largest Catholic coordinators of mission trips and
the organization had
2,668 lay missionaries serving within the U.S. for nine months or longer during
2014-2015 and 428 serving for the same amount of time internationally, Lindsay
told CNS.

Catholic University of America, just one of hundreds of Catholic colleges in
the U.S., has anywhere from 15 to 30
students annually commit to doing a long-term volunteer mission after
graduation, Rowland said.

all of our lay missionaries are working with the materially poor in both inner cities
and rural areas,” Lindsay said.

most popular field of service for long-term missionaries enrolled in Catholic
Volunteer Network programs is social services, accounting for about 25 percent,
he said.

20 percent serve in education fields and about 10 percent are directly involved
in pastoral ministry and religious education, Lindsay said.

fields include health care and advocacy, Rowland said.

missionaries almost always live under very simple conditions,” Lindsay said.
“Most often, they live in community with other missionaries, where they
pray together and seek to discover the connection between their faith and the
service they render to the poor and marginalized.”

The value of a yearlong
mission in any location is impossible to measure because the result is one of
personal growth, Rowland said.

“After spending a year
in a different city or country, students are able to understand more fully the
issues that affect certain populations simply by living and walking with the
people affected along their journeys,” she said. “For the church,
opportunities like missions allow students to find and share their faith with
people from all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs, which hopefully leads them
into a life filled with similar, faith-filled experiences.”

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