Into Africa: Coming out of Left Field

Author: Fr. Pat Neary, C.S.C.

Fr Pat Neary, CSC the missionary

After ten years working at Moreau Seminary, Fr. Pat Neary, C.S.C., answered the call in June to become rector of the Holy Cross Formation House in Nairobi, Kenya. In this series, “Into Africa,” which we will post the third Friday of every month, Fr. Pat will chronicle his missionary adventures with Holy Cross in East Africa. In this first installment, Fr. Pat shares how this Indiana native providentially wound up in Africa in the first place.

I have always had a passion for learning Spanish, for Mexico, and for working with Hispanic people. I lived for one semester as a student in Mexico City while a sophomore at Notre Dame, and one year in Santiago, Chile, while in theology. That is why it is so strange that I find myself in the Holy Cross formation house in Nairobi, Kenya!

Before coming to Nairobi in June, I spent the past six years as Rector of Moreau Seminary at Notre Dame. About this time last year, I had lunch with my Provincial to talk about my future. He asked me to come prepared with some ideas of where I might want to serve next. To be honest, nothing obvious came to me. It kind of left me with a sinking feeling. I had been doing seminary work full-time for ten years, but now I couldn’t see the next step. It didn’t seem that God was giving me any clarity about the future.

That lunch with my Provincial was providential. We seemed to talk about everything but my future. Finally I asked him, “What do you see me doing next?” He smiled and said, “Well, what I am about to ask you will seem like it’s coming out of left field. You will most likely reject this request, but I want you to at least keep an open mind. We need someone with seminary experience to run our formation house in Nairobi, Kenya, for two years.”

I was stunned. I had visited East Africa seven years prior at the invitation of a friend in Holy Cross who had been working there, but I never dreamed that I might be working there someday. It simply was not on the radar screen. Curiously, and to my utter amazement, something deep within me was thrilled at the idea. I think I surprised the Provincial too. I told him that I was open to the idea. He urged me to take all the time I needed to think and pray over it.

Fr Pat presiding at Mass

I had the strangest dreams that night. Africa entered my awareness in a way it never had before. There were so many reasons why it seemed crazy to entertain the idea. I had no experience of the culture. I had only spent ten days in East Africa. Most likely, I would have to learn Swahili. Surely there were other people more qualified in the Province or District than I!

But after many conversations, prayer, and reflection, I said yes. To what do I owe this decision to go? Perhaps on one level to my interest in travel and adventure. On another level, I knew that my life had grown quite comfortable the past 15 years at Notre Dame. Ultimately, however, I agreed to go because I felt that God was asking me to go through my Provincial.

I think that it really stems from the spirit of the founder of Holy Cross, Blessed Basil Moreau, that lives in the heart of every Holy Cross religious. He urged in the rules a readiness “to undertake anything…, to suffer anything and to go anywhere that obedience may call us to save souls that are perishing and to extend the reign of Jesus Christ on earth” (Rule XVIII).

Fr Pat Neary, CSC in Africa

That explains why I’m here. It’s that same desire to go anywhere that I’m needed. It has been a steep learning curve: three weeks of intensive immersion classes with Maryknoll, the crazy traffic and roundabouts of Nairobi, speaking Swahili in class like a Kenyan toddler, and worrying about thieves in a way I never have before. Deep down, however, I feel at peace and happy that God brought me here. The men in my charge are warm, zealous, and full of life. I learn something new every day. Once again I marvel at Divine Providence and how rich my life has been since I said my original “yes” to God when I first entered Holy Cross.

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