Last November, in Jamaica’s recently restored Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kingston, local Archbishop Charles Henry Dufour presided at the ordination Mass of a priest whose journey to a local religious community there began thousands of miles away.
That young priest, Father Allan Borais, 30, spent 13 years in preparation for the priesthood with the Missionaries of the Poor — now some 600 members strong worldwide. He started his vocational journey in a high school staffed by the Sisters of Mary, one of the private Catholic boarding schools in the Philippines that groomed youngsters for better lives in the professions, and where Borais was studying on a scholarship.
“I was thinking of only one thing: to help my family because we were very poor. My father used to say if we eat three times a day, we are happy,” he said. “We were a simple family, and he really brought us to the Catholic faith.”
After failing to line up an entry-level position in business or even a factory job in the Philippines, the future priest began to despair and wonder what he should do with his life after secondary education.
During that time, in 1999, a vocations recruitment priest from Missionaries of the Poor named Father Brian Kerr came to talk to the senior class.
One thing that Father Brian told the students that really touched some hearts: You have only life, and with that one life you want to make the best of it. “You have only one chance and you want it to be your best,” Father Borais said. “I had never thought of priesthood before in my life, but Father Brian said our main ministry is our service to the poor, and that all that is required is a big heart to love the poor and love God. I found that exciting.”
Without making the journey home to see his parents, the future priest implored Missionaries of the Poor to accept him sooner rather than later. He spent the next decade in the order’s five stages of discernment and formation with the partially cloistered monastic order through assignments and studies in the Philippines, Jamaica and Canada.
From his current assignment at the Missionaries of the Poor’s home for abandoned or poor children called Mount Tabor, near Kingston, he recalled his “Pietà moment,” when he first deeply encountered the street poor of Kingston. He was assigned to care for a dying elderly man there in the 2000s, and recalled being with him in his final hours of life.
“I became like Mary beholding Jesus — that was a strong [moment of faith] for me. In the formation program there were difficulties, but that confirmed my life of working with the poor,” he said. “I am very happy, there is no question about it. I love to be in community and in prayer and serving the least. It is a happy life to be in grateful service to Christ.”
Though the order has not attracted many North American vocations, it does draw hundreds of U.S. Catholics who travel to Jamaica each year for both a spiritual retreat with the Missionaries of the Poor and a chance to work and live alongside the brothers.
It’s a chance to strip away the distractions of modern life, one of the pilgrims told Our Sunday Visitor.
Jane Rogers, the Atlanta-based administrative assistant for the U.S. office of the Missionaries of the Poor, accompanied her brother on a mission trip there in 1999 and again the following year to see if the charisma of these robed brothers with their love for the destitute was real or not.
“We both were hooked,” Rogers said. “I came back home and didn’t want to turn on the TV, listen to the radio or to be in the world. I have been going on retreat a couple of times every year since, and have been with them in Africa and Haiti too.”
The MOP, as the order is sometimes known, operates houses of formation in both Jamaica and Uganda, and the community now finds itself with an abundance of applicants — almost exclusively coming from abroad.
Dedicated to the Holy Rosary and begun in 1981, the community of brothers wear rosary beads on their sash. They serve in Jamaica, Haiti, India, the Philippines and parts of Indonesia and Africa. A few members also work with Hispanics in Monroe, N.C.
Much of the appeal of the MOP is due to the cheerful and straight-talking leadership of the community’s founder — Father Richard Ho Lung, a former Jesuit who is affectionately called the Ghetto Priest. Father Ho Lung’s appearances on Catholic television and the MOP’s Caribbean-style traveling musical productions have helped popularize the order.
With the personal encouragement of the late Blessed John Paul II as well as the late Mother Teresa, both of whom visited Jamaica during their lifetimes, Father Ho Lung said he wanted to help others strip away the nonessential distractions of life and take to heart the Gospel mandate to serve the poor.
“Asceticism is absolutely essential, and religious communities must know there is a self-overcoming that is required to encounter God, to get at the foundations of who we are,” Father Ho Lung told OSV. “So much has be to stripped away; a lot that is redundant and unnecessary. I think we don’t understand how precious life is and how short time is. Our soul will die unless we feed it, train it and open our souls to the experience of spiritual things and God.”
Tom Tracy writes from Florida. For information on the order, visit www.missionariesofthepoor.org.