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?

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Whatever Happened to Mission?

            Recently I noted in a Furrow book review of D. Vincent Twomey’s The End of Irish Catholicism? that the author “suggests that missionary congregations lacked any coherent theological vision and so devoted their energies to issues of justice, peace and, latterly, ecology as a substitute for what they were originally founded to do”. Here in Hong Kong the  book itself is not available but the above statement on its own has a ring of truth that makes me want to pause and consider how mission arrived at such a critical state and what this might have to say to the Church today, in Ireland and elsewhere.
            I will draw on my own forty years experience of mission to reflect on what happened. Allowing for situational differences, I believe it is similar to what missionaries elsewhere also encountered during those years.   

The Accepted Attitude
            Back in the early 1900s, when the Columbans were founded as the Maynooth Mission to China, one of the first serious missiological debates was taking place. In question was the primary goal of mission and the discussion was in terms of which was more urgent: baptizing those in need or establishing the Church?
Some held that giving baptism, even to dying infants, was the more pressing need because the immortal life of people depended on it while others insisted that establishing the Church had priority because, once active, it would be more effective in providing the sacraments to greater numbers. 
            When I arrived in Korea in 1963 both approaches were still alive though in practice the priority was on establishing the Church: setting up new parishes and establishing dioceses in every province. Through parish work the missionaries offered the means of salvation but also gave material assistance to a population still suffering from the effects of the Korean War.

The Vision Eroded
            Vatican II undermined this understanding of mission on two fronts. The Council stated, cautiously at first, that neither baptism nor the Church was essential for the eternal welfare of individuals. The second blow to classical missionary thinking was the clarification that the Church is to be established not for its own sake but as a means of furthering the Kingdom of God in the world.
For the Columbans the implications of Vatican II were to surface in the marathon General Assembly of 1970. Normally General Assemblies last for some weeks but on that occasion discussions went on for three months. They were also heated. To quote the Assembly Report, “There are violent tensions in the Church today; many of them are reflected in our Columban family.” The notion of replacing a faith system hinging largely on fears for eternity with one emphasising love and hope in this life was too sensitive for many to accept immediately. The 200-page report of the Assembly tried to record faithfully the different viewpoints and sought respect for diversity. In doing so the pain of facing up to the new reality was postponed and subsequent Assemblies were reluctant to renew such a potentially divisive debate.
On the positive side, a new understanding of the Kingdom as active in the world was evident in the Assembly Report and for the first time issues such as socio-economic activity, witness among the poor and dialogue with other religions were mentioned.
            I was fortunate in having the chance to catch up on Vatican II at the end of the 60s while studying mission science in Canada. On my return to Korea in 1970 I joined the majority of my confreres in the expanding urban parish apostolate. However, I now saw the role of the Church differently: as spreading Kingdom values and forming Christians who would actively contribute to the improvement of their families and society. It was a time when young Korean professionals were flocking to the church and involving themselves actively in parish councils. Life was hectic but happy, with a strong sense of achievement. 
However not everyone remained satisfied with parish work. During the 70s some young missionaries began to move into “special apostolates”: areas not normally covered by parish work such as involvement with university students, factory workers, farmers and the handicapped.

Offering What?
I remember one incident from those days. During a classroom session with older catechumens I was trying to explain how the Mass was both sacrament and sacrifice. Between using church terminology unfamiliar to them and trying to preserve doctrinal orthodoxy I succeeded in tying myself up in verbal knots. The fact that oriental people, such as Koreans, are happier with concrete matters than with abstract ideas did not help. When the hour mercifully came to an end one man comforted me, “Don’t worry Father – we accept whatever you were trying to say.”
I was grateful for his sympathy but it made me wonder what aspect of the Church attracted him and, indeed, what I was offering him. Obviously it was not the relevance of all its doctrines. When asked why they came out to the church most newcomers said they liked its atmosphere of order, solemnity and community. They had a strong natural sense of the sacred and the Church helped them express it through conformity to set practices. But was this mirror image of a Church that was losing its relevance in the West all that we had to offer? Only later did it strike me that our tradition of worshipping a merciful but remote God did little to introduce individuals to Jesus’ image of an accessible and accompanying Father. At that time I just felt that something was missing and wondered what it might be.   
At the end of the 70s I returned to Ireland to work for the Irish Mission Union and had the pleasure of working alongside a well known Irish theologian. Most days we went out to lunch together and I would say to him, “Now, what is unique about Christianity that it has to offer to the world and to other religions?” He would begin his reply by saying, “Well, actually that is not the right question,” and proceed to tell me what he thought the right question was. But for me it was the key question for mission: if Christianity had nothing unique to offer mankind in the area of religion why bother to share it? It was only when I moved to China, and a new missionary situation, in the mid-1990s that I began to see where the crux of the problem lay.  

China: Recovery of Mission
Because it puts limits on direct evangelization, China challenges traditional mission. Foreigners cannot get involved in church work so their contribution must be through witness and service. When approached by young Chinese wanting to know where their patience and lack of self interest came from, they had to search for words to express adequately what inspired them. Young Chinese are immune to indoctrination so dogmatic and impersonal statements are of no avail.
Perhaps for the first time the Christian has to ask “What motivates me?” and seek to express their basic belief in simple language. The answer is in their relationship with the Father they know through Jesus. It is this faith that has molded their own life and led them to want to share it with others. Spiritual and scriptural imagery are best suited to describing their convictions.
The new generation of missionaries in places like China insists that their approach is not a second class way – a temporary measure until restrictions are removed and the Church can once more become the principal agent for spreading the gospel. The natural, and original, process of sharing the message is to show what it means in practice, explain the reasons behind it to those who ask and then gather the new believers together for support, witness and worship as a community. They are the ones who, eventually and in dialogue with the universal Church, should develop the structures, theologies and liturgies that will help them implement and share the Good News in their own culture.   

Revaluating the Past
In Korea we had started at the other end: we believed that providing the structures, theologies and liturgy of our Western Church would lead the people to unearth for themselves the original message and inspiration of Jesus. However, this did not happen. We were following a tradition, going back to the Middle Ages, which was God-centered rather than Christ-centered. Hence the hierarchical system we brought with us — clergy as representative of a distant God/Judge, acceptance of doctrines rather than an understanding of the gospel teaching, the practice of popular devotions rather than the development of a personal spirituality.
In Korea, when the parish appeared too inward-looking to exemplify the message of Christ to the world, it was thought necessary to promote Kingdom values directly: solidarity with the poor, the struggle for justice and democracy and concern for the earth. We hoped that such efforts would stir up an interest in Christianity and lead people to encounter Jesus. But more often than not, while our stand and support was appreciated by activists in those fields and often by the general population, it failed to lead them on to enquire about Christ, the Kingdom and the Church. And those who came to the Church, expecting it to be an example of equality and dialogue, were likely to find its institutions as impersonal, rule-bound and narrow as society itself.
The Chinese would call such a situation, “Releasing a captive before capturing him.” People do not change their habits easily, even if they are made aware that their present life style is not good for themselves, for the majority (who are poor) or for the world we live in. Only a deep awareness of God’s presence, and the rest of the gospel story, can open people to move beyond selfishness. First they must be caught by a personal faith, and then released to express it in care of each other and the earth.

Test for Missionaries
If proof is needed that somewhere along the line missionaries wandered from their original task, it can be found in the lack of Catholic scholars specializing in the key mission issues.
The questions ordinary people ask are basic: what sort of being is God, what is God’s attitude to me, why does God let his believers suffer hardship, how can I enter into a close relationship with God? Responding to those queries in a country like China is not simple.
The missionary is immediately faced with challenges such as the following. How far can we go in isolating the basic message of Jesus? (Downplaying our Western interpretation of it and presenting it as impartially as possible.)  Is Christianity for the few or the many? (Practicing folk Catholicism is often more popular than seeking a personal relationship with Christ.) How much freedom can a local Church be given to develop its own theology, liturgy and structures? How to balance charismatic and fundamentalist tendencies? (Chinese today are attracted to evangelistic fundamentalism.) How to revitalise a Church that is caught in the past without damaging the faith of its people? (Another problem in China.)  How much at one with humanity is God? (A question facing Christians in dialogue with Oriental spirituality.)
            Rather than suggesting solutions to these questions, the few theologians with mission connections are inclined to specialise in areas such as ecology, globalisation and genetic engineering. They see themselves as conveying the concerns of the Third World to a largely uninformed West. While they are making a valuable contribution in these fields, and get the local Church involved, they are not giving their colleagues in the field the support they need. As a result many of today’s missionaries face considerable frustration in their work and can easily drift from the down-to-earth issues of transmitting the faith to the geo-political concerns of the day.    

And Ireland
            By now some readers may recognize challenges that are as pertinent for Ireland as for China, or other non-Christian societies, because Ireland is close to becoming a post-Christian country. The external authority of the Church no longer commands obedience and moral teachings are neglected because no deeper foundation has been shown for them.
            People need to be helped to recover a sense of God in their life and in the world, just as Irish spirituality once did.
            Let me summarise my reflection in more precise terms.
            Dr James Fowler, the pioneer of faith development studies, divides faith progress into six steps. The majority of believers progress to stage three: from childhood imagination to unreflecting religious conformity. Only some, usually in their mid-thirties, go on to stage four at which they begin a serious search into who they are and how they relate to God and others.  This is the moment at which missionaries would like to reach out to individuals in a non-Christian society – stimulating their interest in religion by witness of life and deepening it though discussion.
            It is only after further reflection and growth at Stage Five that the believer reaches the final stage at which he/she is ready to commit themselves to a vision such as the Kingdom and it associated values of justice, peace and ecological concern.
            The missionary’s rightful field is at stages four and five, where they can sow the seed and till the newly cultivated soil. Reaping the harvest of a committed faith (at Stage Six) and calling for involvement in the great social issues is the task of others – the pastoral prophets in a developed Church.

                                                                                                      Hugh MacMahon      2/3/04

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