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Posted Thursday, August 26, 2004 at 4:41 p.m. CDT


'I had always wanted to be a missionary'
U.S. sister has been in Thailand 45 years


The year was 1959, and a young, adventurous and newly professed Ursuline sister, Mary Walter Santer, had her eyes set on Asia. One year after taking her final vows in the Ursulines of the Roman Union congregation, she left the United States and headed off to Thailand to become a missionary.

Mary Walter Santer
She has been a missionary there ever since.

Today, she is known through much of Asia for her tenacity, her dedication and her consistency in spreading the Good News. She does it her way, she says. Not necessarily by preaching, for that approach in Thailand, with a 95 percent Buddhist population, would not go far. She does it, she says, by witnessing to the gospels, by patterning her life after that of Jesus Christ.

No task is too big or too small for Santer. With characteristic humility, when asked the other day what work she does for the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, she answered, "I sharpen pencils."

What she might have said is that she readily handles whatever task needs to be done to plan for or keep an FABC plenary running smoothly.

Santer has worked in Thailand now for 45 years and soon will celebrate her 50th anniversary as an Ursuline sister. "I had always wanted to be a missionary," she said. Thailand made perfect sense.

I asked Santer what has been the most important lesson she brings out of nearly a half century of missionary work in Asia. "Especially in the situation in which I am in, where 95 percent of the people are Buddhists, we witness to Jesus Christ, not perhaps by speaking about him, but by living a life patterned after him. That way people are attracted to the gospel though they might not necessarily know that it is Jesus who taught it."

And what about the Buddhists? What have you learned from them? "I believe the Buddha was a very sincere man," Santer says, "He was looking for the truth, putting his life where his mouth was, very kind, patient, accepting."

She says she has noticed a change in Buddhism in recent years. More of the Buddhist monks are becoming concerned about social issues. Before they used to think they lived above the temporal world. She said more now are getting involved in responding to its problems. She sees this as a very positive sign.

[Fox is publisher of the National Catholic Reporter and author of Pentecost in Asia, a book about the Asian churches. His e-mail address is tfox@ncronline.org.]


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