SUMMERVILLE — Msgr. Edward Lofton visited the island nation of Fiji in February and March. He helped at a parish where residents are poor, electricity is spotty and most roads are not paved. What the people lacked in goods, however, they made up for in great faith, he said. He returned from the trip with a heightened commitment to promoting the church’s mission work around the world.
“This is the true work of the church,” Msgr. Lofton said in a recent interview with The Miscellany. “Evangelization is what the church is about — spreading the word of Christ and helping people to hear the real story and experience the Eucharist.”
The pastor of St. Theresa the Little Flower Church in Summerville also is the diocesan director for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. The society’s goal is to help Catholics develop a missionary spirit and motivate them to support worldwide missions.
Msgr. Lofton hopes the faithful of the Diocese of Charleston will remember the needs of churches such as the Wairiki Catholic Mission in Fiji when the collection for World Mission Sunday takes place on Oct. 19.
In 2007, the collection yielded $84,800 in South Carolina. Msgr. Lofton said he would like to challenge parishes to donate $100,000 this year.
Funds from World Mission Sunday go directly to Catholic missionaries working around the globe, often in the most impoverished areas of a nation, he said. In many places, Catholic parishes are not just the spiritual center of a community, but also are crucial in providing education and basic assistance for people in need.
The church he assisted in Fiji is a prime example, Msgr. Lofton said. Island residents built it in 1890. The cement walls are made of burned coral harvested from the sea.
Msgr. Lofton said leaders in the society are encouraged to spend time overseas doing mission work. He discovered the need for a priest in Fiji after doing research on the Internet.
A woman who runs a small resort on the island of Taveuni told him about the Catholic parish there run by a group of Marist Fathers from New Zealand. She said that one of the priests had suffered a heart attack, and there were only two left to serve the main church, its two missions and a Catholic school with more than 1,000 students.
Taveuni is isolated and can only be reached by boat. Supplies are brought in by ferry, Msgr. Lofton said.
He spent a month living on the island, saying Mass at the church and helping villagers without transportation make it to Mass.
Adjusting to Fiji’s Catholic customs was an experience, he said. Fijians do not wear shoes inside, so he had to say Mass barefoot. People sit on mats on the floor of the church, not in pews.
And instead of traditional church bells, villagers beat on special drums to call people to worship.
He said children from all over the large island come to the parish school, some traveling more than 10 miles by bus. The school helps many of the children advance to higher education elsewhere, and also nourishes a deep love for the Catholic faith. As poor as the community is, Msgr. Lofton said they still managed to send 10 young people to World Youth Day in Sydney over the summer.
He said the villagers do not have much in the way of material goods. Most work as farmers, and when it came time for church collections, people often brought food instead of money.
“The people there were all very warm and very friendly, and seemed happy despite having little,” he said. “This experience really showed me that the church is universal. No matter where you go, no matter the culture or the language, we’re all united in Christ.”
He was especially moved by the devotion of two nuns he met at a mission on another part of the island.
“Seeing those sisters living in dire poverty at the mission in Rambi had the biggest impact on me,” he said. “Those two sisters were showing absolute dedication to their mission. They had so little they had to count out each nail for workers who were helping to build a nursery for children at the mission.”
Msgr. Lofton said the church in South Carolina is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of mission work.
“There’s a big spirit for it throughout the diocese,” he said. “We’re encouraging more parishes to get involved in the Mission Co-Op program that the society runs.”
Through this program, Catholic missionaries from around the world are invited to discuss their work with local parishes and ask for financial help and prayers.
During 2008, parishes around the diocese welcomed missionaries from Myanmar, India, Nigeria, Uganda, Colombia, Siberia and other nations. According to figures provided by Msgr. Lofton, they collected more than $137,000 for those missions at Sunday Mass.
He said he hopes to bring in more missionaries in 2009 and to increase the collection figure. His first goal is to open more eyes to the importance of missionary work through the collection on World Mission Sunday.
“Everybody can be a missionary for a day through this collection,” he said. “If you can’t give money, you can pray for the missionaries around the world. … Dollars are important, but the missionary spirit is essential.”
For more information visit the Society for the Propagation of the Faith online at