Proverbs in mission

Columban Frs Leo Schumacher (left) and Barry Cairns (right) celebrating Mass in the Columban house chapel, Tokyo. - Photo: Fr George HogartyColumban Frs Leo Schumacher (left) and Barry Cairns (right) celebrating Mass in the Columban house chapel, Tokyo. - Photo: Fr George Hogarty

Proverbs are the ancient wisdom of a country’s culture expressed in pithy sentences - and often with humour. Proverbs also give us expatriates an indication of how “our” adopted people think and act.

As an aged person (I am 90), this proverb gives me courage: “Even an old rope can be useful.”

Or as an incentive: “Even an aged one can learn calligraphy.”

And when I have a ‘senior moment’: “Even a monkey can fall from a tree.”

And after a disappointment or failure: “Fall seven times, get up eight.”

Personally, I use proverbs in homilies and instruction but try to add a Christian nuance to them.

For example, in talks to parents at a church-sponsored kindergarten, where many are non-Christian, I tell them that we will teach Christian values in a gentle way. I quote the proverb: “The heart of a three-year-old child lasts till the child is a hundred.”

In a class to those preparing for Baptism, I speak of our inbuilt human frailty and our need for a Saviour. All of us has some weakness.

“Even a new tatami straw mat, when beaten, will give out dust.”

But not all proverbs express desirable values! Such a proverb is: “A nail that stands out gets hammered.”

But this proverb also tells me something about Japanese culture. People are reticent to take leadership roles in the parish community or even read the Scriptures at our Mass. So here we need to emphasise St Paul’s teaching: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me the strength.” (Philippians 4:13)

But perhaps the proverb that I feel most strongly about is: “Suffering makes a jewel of you.”

From here, I will share with you a very personal experience.

When I was 40, I was missioned in the island fishing village of Sakitsu. My people were descendants of those who had been through 250 years of persecution for their Christian faith. When religious freedom was granted in 1873, French missionaries returned to build a church on the ground where their ancestors had been tried and, at times, executed. I really delighted in the mission apostolate of Sakitsu. But then sickness hit me. I was diagnosed with beriberi and hospitalised as side effects and complications set in. After nine months in the hospital, I was sent home.

I was devastated. I had asked God for healing, but I got worse! I felt very bitter against God. With no faith, how could I continue as a priest? My cry, too, was: “My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

It took me two years to realise that, in fact, Jesus had been at my side all along through the friends he sent to my bedside.

When I looked back, it hit me that the suffering and sickness had matured me as a person, as a follower of Jesus, and as a missionary priest. I had been fashioned as a jewel but was still rough and in need of further polishing! I can now thank God for the experience. After 16 years away, I returned to Japan 40 years ago.

One fruit of the hospital bed is expressed in the proverb: “People with sickness can feel empathy.”

Indeed “suffering makes a jewel of you”!

Columban Fr Barry Cairns lives and works in Japan.

Listen to "Proverbs in Mission"

Related links

The Far East - New Subscription

Code : 4



Annual subscription to The Far East magazine, published by St Columbans Mission Society 8 times per year. It features mission articles and photographs by Columban Missionaries from the countries where they work.


See all products