Welcome to the discussion!

As the articles below indicate, for a number of years I have being trying to understand the changing concept and practice of mission.

My search has moved progressively from ‘Is there still a need for mission?’ to ‘What should the new focus for mission be?’ and finally to ‘Where can we find examples for this new direction?’

Some progress has been made but the effort to get this far has brought up a wider question. Why are so few people doing the practical reflection and research that is necessary to bring mission out of its present decline?

Theologians produce books on the academic aspects of mission but those actively engaged in cross-cultural mission are not writing about the real-life issues that face them. In this age of dramatic changes most businesses and NGOs are plowing resources into research for their next step so why are Christian missionaries, especially Catholics, not doing so?

I’m sure there are many answers to this complex question but by naming them, one by one, we may get a better idea of where the problem lies and what can de done about it.

Have you any ideas to share on this topic?

Monday, 12 March 2012

Enthusiasm for the Message

            On a visit to Hong Kong in 2007, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, the former Prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization, addressed a group of mainly foreign missionaries and religious and put a question to them that left me pondering for some time. He asked, “What is it that animates you to continue to spread the Christian message so enthusiastically among non-Christian peoples? We in the West seem to have lost that eagerness and may have something to learn from your experience.”
            The responses he received may have disappointed him. They were mainly positive accounts of what each group was doing in different parts of China and seemed to miss the point of his question: what is it that motivates missionaries today and keeps them excited about their work?
            I was one of those who failed to come up with an immediate response. Most of us never reflect on why we do something, we take it for granted. It takes time to sift through forty years of mission in Asia and sort out the useful from the irrelevant. Was my experience all that different from that of post-Vatican ll priests in parishes in Ireland? How much of what I learnt was due to personal circumstances and of little significance for others? Only recently did it occur to me that I might be approaching the question from the wrong angle, it was not what I had learned during that time that was significant but what I had to unlearn.
As young priests, setting out from Ireland for Korea, the one thing we did not lack was confidence. Even though there was talk, and hope, that Vatican ll would renew the Church this was seen in terms of minor adjustments to a successful model, not any need for major change. We had no doubt about the uniqueness and value of the Catholic Church. I still don’t doubt it but what has changed in the meantime is my understanding of where the uniqueness and value lie.

Working with the Laity
The model of Church which we had in mind when we came to Korea had the priest at its center. We went to set up dioceses and parishes. The priest was there to serve the people and the people were there to be served. After Vatican ll there was talk of sharing responsibilities with the laity but
we had to invite reputable theologians to seminars to be reassured that it was admissible to do so. 
Six years later, when I was given the task of setting up a new parish in Seoul, I had no alternative but to turn to volunteers among the few Catholics there and set up my first parish council. From then on, and in later parishes, the council took on responsibility for financial affairs, paying my salary and collecting the funds to build a church. They kept me in touch with what was happening in the area. They organized parts of the liturgy, ran celebrations and led small groups. This left me free to concentrate on guiding and encouraging the various groups and bringing them together as a community.
The Korean people are energetic by nature and prefer to be involved in activities rather than participate passively. It was providential that they became opened to the Church at a time when lay involvement was being encouraged. Today the amazing growth and the achievements of the Korean Church, at home and abroad, are legendary. It was the receptivity and support of the people that gave me and my fellow missionaries the energy and satisfaction to keep on working with them. If I needed any proof of the value in empowering the laity, they were the one who provided it.  

Communicating the Message
            Looking back on our preparation for going to the missions, they were typical of other seminaries at that time and were heavily theological. The formation was neither exciting nor thought-provoking but we believed it covered all the important aspects of religion in an authoritative and accurate manner. Today, theological training seems more holistic and personal but a glance at pastoral magazines and listening to clerical talk suggests that there is still an emphasis on orthodoxy and intellectual study. 
            In a developing country like Korea that rational approach to faith seemed to speak the desired language of reason and modernity. Our new Catholics had only to recite the catechism and prescribed prayers, and practice the laws of God and the regulations of the Church.
            One day, when explaining to catechumens that the Mass was both sacrament and sacrifice, I struggled to make the distinction clear using Korean terminology. At the end of the session an elderly gentleman came up to consoled me, saying, “Don’t worry Father, we believe it whatever it is.”
            Orientals, in general, are practical people and not given to spending time in intellectual speculation. What immediately interests them is the relationship between the Christian message and their own traditional ideas of God, and how the scriptures can help them to improve their inner self by deepening their relationship with God and their neighbor. Those living closer to subsistence level would also want to know what the Church thought of evil spirits and how to achieve blessings and good luck in this life.
The people retain a healthy sense of mystery. After a number of invitations to exorcise evil spirits I had a greater respect for the spirit world and realized why our catechetical approach to religion could seem dry and remote.
However, it was the way the Catholics lived out the Christian message that had the greatest impact on outsiders. Their enthusiasm in supporting the parish and encouraging each other gradually spread out into the neighborhood. A group devoted itself to helping at funerals, a stressful time for families newly moved into the city. Another group set up a night school for young factory workers. There was a simple form of ‘meals on wheels’ for the sick and elderly, though instead of ‘wheels’ the dishes were brought by foot up narrow alleys.
It was these activities which showed the people in the area what the Church stands for and many were attracted to it. In missionary circles we say that missiology should not be rocket science and I suspect that instruction on how to live a Christian life should not be either.

A Minority Church  
            When we first arrived in Korea we had the vague goal of converting the whole country. For a while it seemed almost possible. There were many good Korean priests, religious and laity as well as other foreign missionaries already involved in the task, and the numbers doubled from half a million Catholics to a million and then to two million. Today there are five million in a population of over forty million. However, there is no longer an expectation that the whole country will become Christian and the advantages of being a minority have become more apparent.   
            In Korea, and many parts of the non-Western world, religion is a neutral subject like sport or the weather. Taxi drivers discuss it freely, newspapers treat it with respect and nearly everyone regards it with a curious and open mind. There is none of the tension and negative feeling that a powerful majority church can provoke.
            While the pros and cons of Catholic schools are still debated, there is much to be said for well-run ‘Sunday schools’. In Korea the swarms of primary and secondary school students around the church on weekends brought vitality to the compound, gave the young people a sense of parish-centered community and involved many of the adults in the management and teaching. Often the quality of the teachers’ skills left much to be desired but on the other hand the bonds forged there and the example of service that the students experienced had a lasting value.     
            Another advantage of belonging to a minority church is the tendency of adult Catholics, as well as young people, to join together in groups based on age, locality or common interests. All of the groups had some form of Christian study and service as their focus but they also met a need for people to support and encourage each other in their faith.
            The advantages of being in a minority can also be seen, perhaps to a lesser extent, in the United States, Australia and Britain. If that is the future in Ireland also, it will have its positive aspects.
A Balanced Liturgy
            Early in our time in Korea the language of the liturgy changed from Latin to Korean and there was a tendency towards less formal liturgies with greater participation of the congregation. Korea gave me two insights into ritual: the importance of solemnity at crucial moments and the vitality that only communal participation can provide.
            Confucianism uses ritual in a very effective manner. It is not only a means of expressing reverence and gratitude to the supreme being and to ancestors, but also an educational tool. The formal language and postures adopted during key passages of a celebration teach the participants the appropriate feelings of awe and respect, and how these should be expressed. Repetition forms habits that influence everyday thinking and behavior.          
As for the value of music, even if there were only three Korean Catholics at a Mass they would insist on singing a number of hymns. For them, a Mass without singing would be lifeless and while they might complain about the length of homilies they would not mind prolonging the liturgy for the sake of an extra hymn.
            A longer liturgy is not necessarily a better liturgy, so the ideal would seem to be a balance between solemn moments when the congregation remains silent and the times when they sing and express their active participation.  

Uniqueness of the Message
            We went to Korea believing that the Catholic Church was unique not only in its teachings and structure but also in its morality, its devotional practices and its method of spiritual cultivation. However, my first impression was that many aspects of Korean attitudes and behavior resembled, and even refined, those of traditional Ireland.
            I was struck by the show of deference to others. This was brought home in a practical way during our early language studies. Korean is difficult to learn because of the variety of ways it addresses people depending on their age, status and relationship. The whole notion of ‘I’ is downplayed, the nearest equivalent being ‘we’. It is said that the Irish can be indirect or oblique in their approach but the Koreans are even better at it and, if the intention is to avoid hurting the feelings of others, there is nothing to be ashamed of.
            Later I became familiar with their strong religious sense which enabled them to recognize the sacred in trees, rocks, water and even people. They prayed, using beads that looked like rosary beads, they fasted, they sprinkled ‘holy’ water, they used incense, they remembered their dead, they conscientiously attended annual festivals. I had to ask myself, “Where did all this come from? Obviously none of these practices have their origin in Christianity.”
            Eventually I discovered that the people’s social sensitivity was molded by the Confucian tradition which had so impressed the early Jesuit missionaries in China. Those priests from the Mediterranean world were amazed that such a generous and refined approach to life could develop outside Christianity. Confucian self-cultivation began with self-criticism and there is a similar tradition of self-reflection in Buddhism. Taoist paintings and poetry provide constant reminders of mankind’s relative unimportance in the universe.
If Christianity has something of unique value to offer it is not, obviously, to be found in its Roman-derived ritual, religious sensitivity or even much of its practical morality.
So what has the Church to offer? Faith statements aside, there is no intellectual argument that proves our religion is superior to others. Indeed, there are many Christians today, including missionaries, who seem convinced that all religions are similar and the Church should be making its contribution in the social arena rather than in the religious. The only possible proof of Christianity’s unique value is that which comes from encounter and involvement. It is the way non-Christians respond to the Christian message that reveals its worth.
In Korea, sooner or later, most of us came to admire the local religions for the reasons mentioned above. Indeed it was similarities between Confucianism and Catholicism that led many people to the Church. Yet, they came looking for something more. The young wanted fresh values and ideals to live by in a changing world. Older people needed support in coping with the frustrations of a more individualistic and materialistic society.
However there was more to Christianity than community and social values. From the Christian experience people got an inner sense of worth, of a calling and of divine compassion that had been absent in their lives up till then. The older religions, while preserving many exemplary aspects, no longer had the vitality to inspire. And so they came to the Church. It was their enthusiastic receptivity and response that ultimately reassured us, who worked there, of the value and uniqueness of our own religion.  
The challenge for missionaries today remains the one billion people, mostly in Asia, whose cultural or political circumstances exclude them from hearing the Christian message.  They are not accessible through the traditional parish system. Bringing the gospel to them means giving up many of the concepts and practices that the missionaries had acquired in their homeland. If they cannot do so, they will not appreciate the people’s goodness and their different approach to life, to the sacred and to each other. Nor will they be able to respond in ways which the local people find comfortable and meaningful.
Perhaps this situation is not much different from the challenge facing the Church in Ireland today. A generation has emerged which has grown up with different ideas as to what matters. Communicating with them will mean giving up much of the traditional language and thinking of the Church. This is where the un-learning process that Irish missionaries had to undergo abroad may be a help and encouragement. Beneath the cultural layer, that we once thought immutable and permanent, the Christian message does have a vitality and universal validity that can bring joy and hope to the new generation, if they can be helped to hear it.    
                                                                       Hugh MacMahon       4/12/10

No comments:

Post a Comment