The calm blue eyes of Maryknoll Father Michael Snyder shine with tears of emotion as he recalls the moment he discovered the heart of his missionary vocation: the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It happened when Father Mike, as he prefers to be called, was a young seminarian just completing his Swahili studies in his overseas mission-training program in Tanzania. He had gone to lead a prayer service for the Kuria people at the Kiagata parish in Musoma. Among the 40 Christians gathered there was Stella, an elderly woman. Her face, wrinkled and serious, gave the impression, says Father Mike, “that I should finish up my work and get home fast.”
As the service began, however, the seminarian witnessed a miracle. “Old Stella started to change right before my eyes!” he recalls. “The wrinkles began to smooth out, as her skin softened and began to shine with cheeks rounding out to such a beautiful smile across that face. As the old Kuria do, she started moving up and down in rhythm with the music. Finally she let out the ‘vigelegele,’ the traditional African shrill of happiness.”
Stella’s happiness was contagious to all, including the missioner. “I couldn’t help but feel a special presence in our midst,” says Father Mike. “I began to realize the power of the Holy Spirit. I felt I had been blessed. I had seen God!”
More than 40 years have passed and today Father Mike is the vocations director for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. Sitting in his office, decorated with memorabilia of his 26 years of mission in Africa, he talks about his own mission life and the challenges and hopes for future vocations with Maryknoll.
“We are not going to have the big numbers we had in the 1950s and ‘60s,” says the priest from Lanoka Harbor, N.J., explaining that in those years the selection process was less strict and vocations more abundant.
In the past, Maryknoll primarily accepted candidates from the United States. Now, with a world changing through communications technology, and the Catholic Church’s changing concepts of God’s mission in the world, the Society has slowly begun to accept applications of men from other countries.
Most vocation inquiries still come from young people in the United States who find Maryknoll via the Internet through agencies that provide information about missionary vocations.
Maryknoll receives about 400 such inquiries a year. Father Mike responds to them immediately and keeps their names in a database, but he says making a decision is usually a long process for potential candidates, who are inundated with information from various congregations, societies and institutions. Once contact is made, Maryknoll sets up a meeting with the potential candidate and one of the Society’s vocation promoters.
Currently, Maryknoll has 10 candidates—including four men from Kenya who studied at a university where a Maryknoll priest was a chaplain, and one from Singapore who came in contact with Maryknoll in Hong Kong. One of the requirements for candidates from abroad is that they have met and had contact with a Maryknoll missioner or with a parish where a Maryknoll missioner served.
In total, the process to become a Maryknoll priest or brother takes seven to 10 years, which includes academic studies, spiritual formation and two years of mission training overseas. The reward is a life of utter joy, says Father Mike. That is what attracted him and still draws men to the life of service of Maryknollers around the world.
A desire for the adventure of mission, says Father Mike, also brought him to Maryknoll. He recalls a Maryknoll missioner visiting his De Paul Diocesan High School in Wayne, N.J., and giving a talk about mission life. His parents supported their son’s interest in the priesthood because at that time, he says, Maryknoll was known as the “Marines of the Catholic Church,” whose missioners served on the outskirts, in the most difficult and distant places in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Father Mike joined Maryknoll in 1968 and studied at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1972. During his seminary training, he left Maryknoll and took a job as a social worker for a year. That’s when he realized missionary life was what would really make him happy. He returned to Maryknoll and was sent as a seminarian for his overseas training program in Tanzania.
“I fell in love with the missionary life. I fell deeply in love with the Swahili language, with Tanzania, which is like a second home for me, and the Maryknoll community in mission,” says Father Mike. Through Skype, Facebook and other media, he maintains contact with the people of Tanzania, from whom he learned patience and resilience despite life’s greatest challenges.
He has accompanied the people of Tanzania in their most difficult times: poverty, drought and the AIDS pandemic. “They never lose heart and always find a reason to laugh and smile,” he says. “They taught me to do that.”
He brings that optimism to his current ministry and says it is why the decrease in vocations to Maryknoll, compared to previous decades, does not discourage him. “God knows. God has a plan. We may not have many missioners, but we continue to need the presence of missioners in the peripheries of the world.”
Sitting in his office, Father Mike focuses on the spirit of Jesus alive and in our midst and recalls again that day he met Stella.
“It was in that simple service in such a stark place among a dumb-founded community that the Spirit descended,” he says. “And, on that day so long ago, a young seminarian emerged with the clear understanding of all he had been taught: God is never distant from us. On the contrary, God is always present among us and within us.”
Featured Image: Maryknoll Father Michael Snyder, second from right, served as a chaplain at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is pictured here with Catholic students of the university in 2012.