09/21/2011, 00.00
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MEP: Volunteers in Asia to re-evangelize Europe’s youth

For the past 4 years the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) have offered young people the opportunity to spend several months in contact with missionaries. Those interested range in age from 18 to 35. The time spent on mission leads many to their lives and professions, to commit themselves permanently to Asia and development. While many more discover their missionary vocation.
Rome (AsiaNews) - The missionaries of the MEP (Missions étrangères de Paris) have discovered a volunteering initiative that not only helps further the evangelization of Asia, but also the rediscovery of faith and vocations among the young people of Europe. For many years, even in Italy, volunteer missions have seen great waves of departures and commitment to Africa, Latin America or Asia, but often the Christian dimension has been absent or overshadowed, in favour of emphasizing commitment, work and action. In this way, after the generous wave of the '70s and '80s, a number of non-governmental organizations sprouted alongside the missionaries work, but these have become increasingly independent from their initial inspiration. And sometimes commitment to an NGO, rather than a mission, has become a way of making ends meet, a job born of generous but nonetheless generic motives.

None of this is part of the MEP experience, born thanks to 45 year-old Fr. Alain Bourdery, an MEP priest for the past 14 years, 12 of these spent in Thailand. One day his superior asked him to take charge of French volunteer work in Asia. Thus, for the past 4 years the missionary institute in Paris has proposed an initiative open to all young people to spend a period on a mission. The length of time depends on the young people’s availability and can range from 3 months to several years.

The preparation period is somewhat surprising: one week of intensive courses on mission, geopolitics, cultures, religions, and then away they go, from Korea to China, from Thailand to the Philippines, Laos, Taiwan or Hong Kong. In each of these places, the young people are welcomed by the local community and an MEP missionary, who introduces them into the environment and enhances their experience. There are young people who engage in teaching, child care, administration, catechesis, etc. ...

Fr Bourdery receives the vital help of three volunteers who work closely with him: Alexandrine Ardant, 34, who handles relations with the missions; Hermeline Barbarin, 28, who has been a full time volunteer for five years and who has teaching experience in China; Mrs. Ngo Thi Kim Chi, 65, from Vietnam, who has been closely involved with the MEP for over 20 years.

"The structure of this organization - Hermeline says - is very clear-cut and efficient: we welcome young people from 18 to 35 years of age and each year prepare and send about 150 volunteers on a mission. In the four years since we began this initiative, about 1000 volunteers have been sent abroad".

Unlike in Italy or elsewhere, "the MEP voluntary work" is not a non-governmental organization (NGO). This is mainly due to the clarity of its Catholic identity and the proposal that is made to young people.

"In the past – explains Fr. Bourdary – the proposal was to become volunteers in mission countries for friendship between peoples, to support development, justice, etc ... The risk was the tendency to want to go on a mission to solve the problems of others. Instead our proposal is clearer for French Catholics”.

We do not want to be an NGO: we are a missionary institute and we want to remain as much. And the young people we turn to want to share this missionary life with us. It is not a case of being merely "useful", an NGO recruits people based on skills. Instead, we recruit based on their motivation. We want to serve people, live with people of other cultures, understand them through "living with" them. And we make a clear Catholic proposal, not afraid to show our faith or to follow Pope Benedict XVI. "

The young people who respond are people who have finished high school want new experiences and possibilities, and there are others who may have already started their career and are in the workplace but want to take time off to go abroad and gain new experiences. Careers are no longer for life, and a stay abroad is seen as a positive point.

"But what is important - says the priest - is that all these young people do not start out with the primary motive of wanting to 'help others', 'change the world', 'be revolutionary', but simply to go and discover other people and even themselves. In their work and new experiences they discover more about themselves and also new ways to cope with life and its problems. "

"The preparation of these young people - continues Hermeline - is concentrated in a week of intensive study and meetings. Some would say that we risk being superficial. Instead, this fast method helps young people to decide early on and to experience the mission almost immediately. Each year there are four group dispatches . In addition to the cultural and religious preparation, training deals with visas, airlines, travel .... ".

"We do not have a long preparation period - said Fr Bourdary - because we want to be close to young people’s psychology, their need to get things done immediately. We also let them decide the duration of their stay: from 3 months to a year or more. This is the only way to find young people and send them on a mission: if preparations are overly long and a long period on mission is required, the result is that only people of a certain age, about 40 years or more, show interest, or maybe people who have retired and want to offer a little of their time, but you'll never find the young. But we want to mobilize young people and so we adapt to them and their way of thinking and living. "

The results are both good and lasting, as Hermeline goes on to explain: "After they return, some of them, affected by the underdevelopment they witnessed, decide to work permanently in development projects. Others discover their profession more clearly. Clement, a young engineer who has worked in Korea in an asylum, on his return he discovered that his vocation was to be a teacher, and so made a turnaround. Others discover the Asian world and on returning direct their work to greater contact with this continent.

For still others, the period of contact with the missionaries and the churches of Asia is a time of discernment to discover their vocation, to consecrated or married life. On their return, some get married, others decide to enter the diocesan or MEP seminaries. Currently there are 25 young people in the MEP, who come from these experiences of mission.

There are also young people who were unwilling to return to studies and are more motivated to study and learn a profession. Of course there are failures, but very few. "

In order to succeed, it is important not to present a forced Christian identity or to hide it. "We think that what supports our proposal is the clarity and sharpness of our identity”, says Fr Bourdary. “We ask young people to trust in the MEP, and we in turn trust them, it is an act of faith in the youth”.

Young people who come to us are not necessarily Catholics, or practicing Catholics. But we ask them to respect our proposal. For this reason, even when they go on a mission, we ask that they participate at least to the minimum degree in the gestures and life of local communities, which includes prayer, Mass, at meals, in parties. We ask this out of respect for the people and the communities of which they become a part.

Often, those who are not practicing Catholics, when faced with the faith shown by communities in Asia, return with a more decisive choice for the faith, a greater consciousness of the universality of the Church. "

The missionary notes with amazement that he had discovered that "this volunteer work for the evangelization of Asia has become a tool for the new evangelization of European and French young people! What started out as an initiative to help others has become a way to help themselves. "

And he concludes: "This voluntary service to Asia is a service to the French Church, often awkward in its approach to a young people marked by relativism, fatigue or anger. The French bishops are beginning to take interest in this experience because they see the effects it is having in the commitment and vocations in their dioceses. For us it remains a job that is a constant challenge, to meet the needs of the young people and to meet the needs of the Churches of Asia ".

The success of the initiative is also evident in another fact: the young people who come forward with the desire to take part are urged on by word of mouth of those who have already lived this experience. "We have a website (http://volontariat.mepasie.org), we hold conferences, send out brochures, but the majority of young people who come have been sent by those who have already worked with us, their enthusiasm is communicated to others ".

For the future, Fr. Bourdery plans to begin a collaboration with other missionary institutions, such as PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) and plans to organise a representation of their group at World Youth Days.

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