What It’s Really Like to Be a Catholic Missionary

What is it like being a Catholic missionary? This author got some advice for long-term Catholic missionaries to get her questions answered.
In June, my husband, four of our friends, and I arrived at the San Lucas Mission in Guatemala, weary and wide-eyed after a long day of travel and a few terrifying experiences on the bus ride from the airport.

Guatemala was a world away from our lives in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, and the sights and smells were overwhelming as we walked from our simple hotel with a breathtaking view to dinner in the dusty biblioteca at the mission.

The six of us made up one of the youngest groups there. Maybe because of our age, and maybe for other reasons entirely, we got to know many of the long-term volunteers (LTVs for short) during our stay. As I was completely unprepared for mission life and utterly transformed by my first experience, I wanted to know more from the people who were called to live this missionary life for months and years.

Living as a missionary

Just as I was starting to get the hang of the hard work and simple living of San Lucas, LTVs Abby, Hannah, and Cecilia all agreed to sit down one night after dinner and answer my questions about their work.

I had always wondered about life as a missionary and had felt called to serve people around the world, but I wanted to hear from these women about what life as an LTV was really like.

“It was never my plan to be a Long-Term Volunteer,” Hannah told me. “I’ve been here for almost 9 months, and my original plan was to stay for 6 months, so that’s how things are going.” She had worked for a year after college and found it unfulfilling, so she acted when she felt the Holy Spirit calling her to explore mission work instead.

I should mention, the LTVs are mostly students and recent graduates, spending their time here before applying to med school or graduate programs. They are software developers, social workers, and entrepreneurs. They make no money during their time at the mission, and they pay $100 per month to share a room in a house that is bursting with other LTVs.

Cecilia and Abby shared their desire to serve after examining their own lives in America, juxtaposed with their experience on shorter term trips. Cecilia will spend at least a year in San Lucas with no plans to go back to the US, while Abby will return in the fall for college at The Ohio State University.

The work missionaries do

Cecilia emphasized the difference between helping and serving. “When we ‘help,’ we’re putting ourselves above others. When we ‘serve,’ we work alongside them.”

There’s a quote printed out on copy paper and taped to a closet door that reads:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” —Lao Tzu

This is how the LTVs live. Every morning when they showed up to a work site with us, they asked the local crews for direction, accepting the grunt work or “unskilled labor” of hauling dirt, mixing cement, and tilling soil with joy and humility for hours on end. On Fridays at 4:30, all work stops and the LTVs join the local workers at the soccer field for an afternoon of play and good-natured jeering.

When asked to share their favorite moments from their time living and working with the people of Guatemala, the word that all three women expressed was joy — the joy of the people.

Whether in processions in the street during holy days, during the mass of Easter vigil, watching the wooden walls of a tiny cement floor house being raised, or in the midst of an ordinary work day, the joy of the people, they echoed, is tangible in a way unlike anything they have experienced in the states.

“They have God,” Cecilia shared. Compared to us, the people of Guatemala have very little — far less than enough by our standards. But because they have God, they want for nothing.
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Advice for others considering missionary work

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked them what they would say to someone considering a call to missionary work, and my hope is that their answers are both comforting and convicting.

Hannah would invite others to “open yourself up to the Holy Spirit — if this is what you are called to do then the Holy Spirit will take away that fear.”

“The devil’s going to put a lot of doubts in you if you want something that’s good. If God wants you somewhere, He’ll get you there. [The experience] changes you more than it changes the people,” Cecilia said after sharing her initial fear and uncertainty, specifically around fundraising.

Finally, Abby posed a simple question that has stuck with me since: “In 50 years, would I regret not doing this?” she asked herself when she’d been accepted as an LTV for the summer after she’d made other plans.

The answer to that simple question led her to a last-minute change of plans that is worth the cost of an extra year of school as she sets aside the med school apps for next summer instead.

I can say from experience that my week in Guatemala with these incredible young people was a transformative one. As someone who very much clings to the creature comforts of the United States, the shock of everything from the landscape to the food to the lack of cell service was good for my soul.

I have yet to meet someone who has served as a missionary, whether for one week or several years, and regretted their decision, and I can’t speak highly enough of this one in particular.

If you’re interested in long-term volunteering, you can ask yourself these questions to discern if you’re called to service work.

If you are interested in visiting or donating to the San Lucas Mission, you can learn more on the mission’s website.

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