“Faces of Mission” is a bi-weekly blog series produced by the United States Catholic Mission Association highlighting our membership and all their work in and for mission. This week we feature Fr. Vincent Burke, SVD, a missionary priest with the Divine Word Missionaries.
Born in 1933 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fr. Vincent Burke, SVD felt called to mission very early in life. He attributes his awareness to this call to “the culture of service” that was prevalent at the time. As a soldier in the army, his older brother, like so many other young men and women, was serving his country during World War II. This awareness of service struck a chord with young Vince while he was reading a magazine about the exciting work Maryknoll missionaries were doing in China in the early 1940s. He felt that mission service was something he could do. Only 11 years old at the time, he confided in Sister Edwina, his 8th grade teacher. She guided him to the nearby Divine Word Missionaries. As a result, he entered their high school in Duxbury, Massachusetts in 1947.
After high school, Vince was encouraged to continue studying with the Divine Word Missionaries. Their devotion was to the poor and undermined across the world. During his years in novitiate and junior college he was able to hear stories from many returning missionaries about the work they were doing. He heard about the only seminary for African Americans that the Society of the Divine Word had opened in St. Louis. He learned of their work in the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King. He discovered their work in the Philippines where one of his favorite teachers had served. And he felt excited about the chance to join the Divine Word Missionaries and to become a missionary himself.
While studying at the Divine Word Seminary in Chicago, Vince was asked to indicate his top three choices for missionary service. First and second were the Southern United States and the Philippines. The third, however, was Ghana. On the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1961, Fr. Vince was called into the provincial office and given his mission assignment. “Father”, they said, “you are going to Ghana, West Africa.” And Fr. Vince recalls well his reaction: “I said, ‘Praise be Jesus Christ!’” His appointment to Ghana marked the beginning of 43 years of service to a country he soon fell in love with.
The missionary work in Ghana imposed certain requirements. Because his main ministry would be to teach English as a second language, Fr. Vince began by obtaining a degree in English Literature from Catholic University, with a minor in Linguistics from Georgetown University. At age 30, after acquiring his teaching certificate which affirmed that he was qualified to teach English, Geography, and German, and 19 years after he first felt called to be a missionary, Fr. Vince arrived in Ghana.
Fr. Vince’s first assignment was at St. Peter’s Secondary School. He was involved with the Ghana Education Service for the next 33 years, where he rose through the ranks as the superintendent, director, and eventually, became the headmaster of schools.
Bringing a Broader Vision
Having served as a missionary for over 43 years, Fr. Vince has a wealth of wisdom toshare. He is convinced of the necessity of delving deeply into the culture where one is serving. Fr. Vince says, “Missionaries bring a broader vision to the people they live with and minister to. We first learn the language of the people, along with their culture and cultural signals, and finally minister the Gospel of Christ to them within their own language and context.”
A Student Becomes a Bishop
In 1966, Fr. Vince taught English classes to students at the junior seminary. One of his fondest memories is that of a very bright student who, nevertheless, fell asleep in his class. “His name was Charles. I still remember what happened. I took a blackboard eraser, threw it at him, and said ‘Charles, wake up!’” Fr. Vince goes on to recount, “He woke up alright; so much so that he decided to become a priest! After his ordination, he was sent to Rome to study, and then he came back and he was made bishop of our very diocese!” 30 years after throwing that blackboard eraser at Charles, the provincial of the Divine Word Missionaries in Ghana had a favor to ask of Fr. Vince. He was asked to hand over the school to the new bishop. “So here I am, 30 years later, handing over the keys to the guy I threw the eraser at… a moment in my life, I tell you.”
Closing Words from a Life of Mission
Fr. Vince left Ghana in 2009, after retiring from teaching at the newly established Catholic University of Ghana. He now spends his time visiting parishes and schools to talk about mission. It is clear that Ghana is still where his heart is. Reflecting on his time there, he likened his relationship with Ghana to a marriage. Having learned the language and immersed himself in the culture for so many years, he had done just what a spouse does in order to better love their husband or wife. Fr. Vince married Ghana, for the sake of Jesus and the Church.
The United States Catholic Mission Association (USCMA) is the only association of US Catholic mission-sending and mission-minded organizations and individuals. Dedicated to supporting and promoting the domestic and international mission efforts of the Church in the US, USCMA provides a forum in which people with a variety of experiences in mission can find a welcome, celebrate their faith, reflect on the signs of the times, foster leadership within mission organizations, explore emerging trends in mission, stimulate creative mission practices, and challenge one another to live lives more deeply rooted in mission spirituality.
USCMA is a membership-based organization. Our members are involved in establishing the direction of the association and supporting its life. To learn more about the United States Catholic Mission Association and to become a member, please visit us at our website http://www.uscatholicmission.org. Follow us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/uscatholicmission) and Twitter (@USCMA_DC).