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?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Mission Institutes --- Adapting to the New Reality?

            Recent articles by Michael Amaladoss SJ on the future of mission institutes have given rise to helpful discussion. While some may dispute individual points he makes there is no doubt that he has surfaced many of the issues challenging missionaries today, especially those belonging to mission institutes Ad Gentes.
            As one who has spent forty years as a member of a mission institute in Asia I would like to take up some of these issues and hope I can be as frank and thought-provoking as Fr Amaladoss.

1. Origins of missionary motivation
Did the European missionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries stem from a colonial enthusiasm as Fr Amaladoss suggests? Whatever colonial instincts may have existed among missionaries in the 19th century they had lost their impact by the 20th. Ireland was not a colonial country and was in a rather anti-colonial mood when its missionary movement took off in the early 1900s. However, already Ireland and other western churches had a belief that Christianity was closely related with modern development. Missionaries were convinced they had social and economic benefits to bring to less developed countries which were non-Christian.
Until recent times combating famine, providing medical services and encouraging education in Third World countries were synonymous with mission. Yet the main impulse that moved the missionaries to leave their country and go to distant places was the conviction, embedded in the theology of that time, that the church and its sacraments were the most valuable aid they could provide.
Today the theology of salvation is more open and the pressure to set up local churches has been removed from mission institutes. It is now accepted that missionary motivation comes from a personal appreciation of what the Christian message offers the individual. This gratitude leads to a desire to share it with those who, for historical or cultural reasons, are unable to benefit from what it has to give. 
 I would suggest therefore that the origins of the missionary thrust are to be found not in a colonizing spirit but in a wish to share the “good news” whether it was seen (in earlier times) as essential for salvation and/or a help towards economic and social development or (in later times) as a starting point for spiritual awakening to a fuller life. 

2. But Where?
            Readers of Amaladoss’s articles might go on to ask, “But are those missionaries not needed just as much in the west today?”
            I am sure the majority of western missionaries would be the first to admit that their own countries are in need of evangelisation or re-evangelisation. Indeed evangelisation is an on-going and never ending task. However in the universal church there is a division of responsibilities and, traditionally, the special task of going out to unreached peoples has been given to missionaries Ad Gentes.
            Fr Amaladoss raises two other possible objections to their going out.
The first is that the church is already planted everywhere.
It is true that almost every country now has some form of local church. Yet a significant number of local churches are still too weak to tackle the challenges of evangelisation. China is but one example and today in China there are more people than there are Catholics in the whole world.
If the local Church, for example in China, is unable to meet the challenges it faces it needs help. Foreign missionaries, in a witnessing and serving capacity, can reach sectors of society that the local Christians are unable to touch. Their influence can attract young people to study the gospels and enquire about Christianity. An active local church is necessary to gather, form and guide the new Christians so helping to set up such a church is a logical goal for the missionaries and one to which they are accustomed.       
This brings up the second possible objection: foreign missionaries introduce the Graeco-Roman model of church and so hold back the development of a genuinely local church which responds to the Good News through the medium of the local culture.
It is true that the foreign missionaries brought a western church with them. Wherever local churches exist today they follow the western model and in many cases are “more Roman than Rome itself”. There are reasons why they are happy to remain this way. As young or minority churches they do not want to be seen as lacking in any aspect of orthodoxy – theologically, liturgically or ecclesiastically. They are encouraged by the universal church to conform to the Graeco-Roman model and chided if they diverge from it.
The international missionary institutes have belatedly come to realise the consequences of this and to promote inculturation. However they are already on the periphery of the local churches and are no longer in a position to directly influence the manner in which those churches develop. With their new cultural and theological sensitivity the institutes are likely to be more open to the need for inculturation than the majority of local Christians and freer to encourage and facilitate a drawing from “local wells”. 
Few others have the focus, commitment or resources for this task and so, for the foreseeable future, the presence and support of the mission institutes for inculturation will  be invaluable even in energetic young churches.  

3. Enrichment
            Another reason why mission institutes are needed is because of the contribution they can make to their home churches.
For many years lip-service has been given to the hope that the development of Asian and African churches would enrich the church in the west. So far this has not happened. Those most likely to stimulate the western church towards renewal are returned missionaries who have learnt from their experience in another religious tradition.
It is by seeing similarities and differences while traveling abroad that people become more aware of their own culture and even come to questioning some of it dearest assumptions. Similarly missionaries in a country with strong non-Christian religious traditions have the opportunity to see their faith in a new perspective. They will find themselves asking, “What is there in Christianity that is worth sharing with the people here?” All religions have much in common so what is unique in Christianity? Going deeper, what in our present church is particularly Christian and what was absorbed over the centuries from the universal heritage of religious beliefs, symbols and practices?
Returned missionaries are in the best position to raise these questions and they will find willing listeners among those seeking to renew their home church. From their experience in the non-Christian world they can help separate what is essential from what has been added and re-present from the original message what is fresh, inspiring and eternal.     

4.        A Future for Mission Institutes?
The need for mission institutes remains – to prepare and send personnel who can communicate across cultural barriers and also bring back to their home churches a fresh appreciation of Christianity. Therefore if a question mark hangs over the future of some institutes it comes from within. Can they meet the new demands?
Most of the existing institutes have an aging membership and may not be keen to see major changes. They had to struggle to find their feet in the debates after Vatican II. Are they Ad Gentes or Ad Extra? Should they be involved in dialogue, development or conscientisation? Should they be on “six continents” or only among unreached peoples?
They had renewal and discernment processes without, however, reaching any consensus. As a result their members had to work out a personal response, find a role for themselves in the new situation and become used to working independently. Now they are called upon to give up some of this independence and accept a communal vision of their identity in order that their institute may play a part in meeting the new needs of mission.
The fact that their numbers will be smaller is less of a problem – as long as those few are strategically positioned where they can make the greatest impact. There they will need to see themselves as facilitators of others rather than as individual servants and witnesses. By themselves they will at most do the work of two or three but by enabling others to take on the task they will have hundreds doing the work.
Can they adapt or must new institutions emerge to take on the task?

5. Conclusion
            A new image of mission as a specialized and demanding calling may not attract big numbers but the few who come will have the qualities and attitudes needed today.
            Even if they come from a variety of cultures it will not matter as the clear focus and sense of purpose set before them will help them put their differences into perspective.
However if an institute cannot adapt its future is not likely to be bright.
The myth that there are endless vocations in the young churches has been shown to be groundless and if candidates have a confused idea about the goals of mission there will be problems coordinating them later on.
Neither are lay missionaries the future until there is a radical reappraisal of ministry in the Catholic Church and laity are given the recognition and financial support that will make long term mission involvement practical for them.   
The new missionary situation is challenging but it can be a wake-up call for mission institutes rather than their death knell. However any revival should be motivated by more than just a desire to continue in existence. In a divided world where hope, concern for others and regard for the non-materialist is fading, the missionary has a special role and it is there that the Ad Gentes mission institutes can show their worth.     
   Hugh MacMahon 10/19/04

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