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?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

New Insights into the Birth of the Modern Chinese Church

In recent years, attempts to understand China have moved from general descriptions of the nation=s long and complex past to more focused and detailed studies of people and events which have influenced its progress. 
One book which is broadening our appreciation of the role of the early Jesuits in China is Liam Brockey=s >Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579 - 1727'.
Here, Hugh MacMahon  draws some lessons from the early Jesuits= efforts
 which laid the foundations not only of the present Chinese Church but also of the Church in Korea and, to a lesser extent, Japan.

For too long there has been a perception that the Jesuits concentrated their energy on the educated elite of 16th and 17th century China and had little involvement with the ordinary people. The facts show a different picture. In 1582 when Ruggieri, the predecessor of Ricci by one year, entered China there were no Christians there but, due to his efforts and those of his colleagues, by 1606 there were 1000 Catholics and in 1610 there were 2,500.
By 1665 the Jesuits were administering the sacraments annually to over 105,000 people and in 1695 there were over 200,000 Catholics in the empire. Of that number only a handful were influential on the national level, a small number had some authority on the provincial level and the vast majority were lower class Chinese, living in small towns and rural villages scattered over wide areas of China.

Valignano, the Jesuit superior who masterminded the shape the mission would take, saw the need for a clear strategy if the efforts of a small band of missionaries were not be wasted in such a vast and complex country. From the mistakes made in the Japan mission he realized the importance of language and cultural studies before getting directly involved in the work of  evangelization. Newcomers were to spend their first three to four years in the country learning the language and the texts used were the Confucian classics. As a result students got a grounding in the culture at the same time as they learned to speak Chinese.
It was no accident, then, that the Jesuits were the first to study Mandarin in a formal way and the first to discover and crack the mystery of its tonal nature.
When it came to making contacts in China, the plan was to find patrons who would provide introductions and protection for the missionaries. If this meant cultivating the interest of the Chinese scholar class in Western science, then it was worth committing the first group of missionaries to introducing Western instruments, maps and astrology and in the process gaining their friendship.

Some might have had hopes that this approach would also gain speedy admission for the missionaries to the presence of the Emperor in his northern capital, and ultimately lead to his conversion. Then, if the rest of the population followed his example as happened in post-Reformation Europe where >the ruler=s faith became the faith of the people=, the whole empire would become Christian.
However they quickly realized this was not going to happen in China and instead they concentrated their energy on winning over a number of influential officials who would provide them with the political protection they needed to be present in the country. Only a few of these scholar-administrators actually became Christians but in the safely provided by this net of influential  friends the Jesuits were able to move among the lower classes who were to be the greatest source of converts. 

Attracting the Attention of the Populace
After establishing their presence in an area, the  next step for the missionaries was to find way of attracting the interest of ordinary people who were totally unfamiliar with Christian beliefs and world view. There was already a natural antipathy among them towards foreign beliefs due to their attachment to family religious traditions, the wide use of Buddhist emblems and charms, the popular practice of Buddhist fasts, a morality that encouraged more than one wife among the rich and a weakness for fortune telling and exorcisms.
What proved to have the greatest impact on the imagination and attitude of the people was the lifestyle of the missionaries. The Jesuits were recognized as men of learning and morality. The respect shown to them by high officials, their scholarly image, the simplicity of their houses, their ability to fit in with local society and the solemnity of their liturgy all made an immediate impression. People began to visit them either out of curiosity or on the recommendation of a friend.
 However, the early Jesuits also took a pro-active approach. Some of them instituted the practice, when visiting remote villages, of setting up an altar, waiting for a crowd to gather, bowing reverently to the image on the altar and the begin explaining about the God whom they honored. This often led to invitations to stay and explain further.    

Building on the Interest
As soon as people showed enough interest in learning more about their teaching, the Jesuits explained about the creator God, the human soul and salvation through a moral life. Those who eventually received baptism were given further instruction as opportunities allowed and were encouraged to keep the ten commandments, recite prayers regularly and join in community devotions. The latter became a daily routine in Christian villages where, morning and evening, under the direction of a local leader they recited or chanted responsorial prayers such as the >Our Father, the >Hail Mary= and other popular invocations. This custom survived in Catholic communities for many centuries and can still be found in traditional parts of China.
The use of rosaries, pendants, holy water and prayers for healing and exorcism were encouraged as ways of providing a Catholic alternative to traditional signs of religious allegiance and seeking other-worldly help. Marian devotions became popular in the Chinese Church due to the spirituality of the Jesuits though it was Joseph, not Mary, whom they made the patron of China. 

The Structure of Communities

Besides setting up local communities, often on a clan or family basis, the Jesuits developed the role of fraternities or hui to ensure that the newly baptized continued to practice and deepen their faith. In this development two cultural patterns merge, one Western and the other Eastern.
In renewing communities in post-Reformation Europe, the Jesuits had discovered the value of fraternities, sodalities and associations in  providing mutual spiritual support, deepening knowledge of the faith and encouraging involvement in works of charity.  
In China, too, there had long been a practice of people gathering in groups or hui for fellowship, cooperation and mutual benefit. Usually they were composed of  those of similar age, social class or commercial interests.
Thus, when the Jesuits introduced the sodalities and fraternities to China they were an immediate success and soon played an important role in developing and preserving the Church. There were devotional groups called the Sheng-mu hui (Our Lady=s Association,)  Funeral Societies (hui) that oversaw arrangements for Christian burials, St Francis Xavier hui for catechists and Holy Angels= hui for those teaching children.
Each hui had a leader, called a hui-zhang (zhang is pronounced jang, as in Korean, and means >leader=). The word was also used to denote both the honorary head of a community and the local catechist so each community was likely to have a number of huizhang.  The various hui enabled Catholics communities to survive in the1600s and 1700s when priests were few and the communities were small and scattered. As the priests left the country or went into hiding because of later persecutions it was the hui that kept the Catholics together and made sure the church survived

Continuity of the Legacy
Columbans working in China, Korea and Japan in the early and mid 20th century would come across and used, not only the hui, but many of the words, practices and institutions established by the Jesuits in China. It was the Jesuits who standardized the terms used in the Church for god, soul, grace, sin, sacrament and a hundred other basic words used in preaching and catechetics. They also introduced a system of registration for families. The community hui-zhang complied a list of those who were absent when the priest visited, the sick, those ready for baptism and the recently deceased. 
In China today, while the role of  huizhang survives as catechist or community leader,  hui as associations of the faithful no longer exist perhaps because the government fears their potential in organizing people outside state control.

Cultural Similarities
The story of the Jesuit=s cultural  breakthrough in China, as related above, might appear to have been a remarkable successful achievement. To their great credit the early missionaries were prepared to show a genuine respect for local tradition and language and put careful thought into how they could make the most of their limited opportunities and resources.
Some important elements in the culture favored them. The god preached by the Jesuits was remarkably familiar to that of the Chinese and the Church=s hierarchical system had its shadow in the paternalism and structures of Confucianism.  

The image of God, brought by the Jesuits to China, was heavily influenced by the contemporary European situation. In the heresy-fearing atmosphere of the post-Reformation Church, teaching correct doctrine was more important than encouraging private or communal study of the bible. The catechisms which were the gateway to baptism and the sacraments taught an unquestioning faith in the one creator God, the mysteries of the Church, the sacraments, the ten commandments and the laws of the Church. Jesus Christ was secondary, with emphasis on his role in the history of eternal salvation. As an African theologian noted recently, it was the time when mission moved from evangelizing to catechizing.
As it happened, Confucian society was also based on the belief in one god, Heaven, who set the moral standard for humans and who regulated society from far. Solemn ritual emphasized the supreme dignity and power of this remote Heaven. One of the Confucian criticisms of Buddhism was that it had created a myriad of unnecessary minor gods, reincarnated Buddha and esoteric dogmas. In siding with the Confucians, rather than the Buddhists, the Jesuits had further reason to emphasize the oneness of the Creator God and give less attention to a Son of God who had his own distinctive message, who had been executed and who rose from the dead.        
It was no accident, therefore, that the Catholic Church was, and still is, known as the >Church of the Lord of Heaven=, that is, of the One God.. The early writings of Ricci mentioned Jesus only incidently since it might have been difficult, at that stage, to explain how the One God had a son. Rather, the Jesuits concentrated on teaching the one creator God, his plan for salvation and the morality necessary to live a blameless life. It was only later, and with great care, that they introduced the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Trinity and the sacraments. Eventually sections of the bible were translated into Chinese but scripture never became the main teaching tool. 

Lessons for Today?  
This focus on a transcendent God was to continue in the Chinese Church, and indeed much of the universal Church,  into the 20th century and it was only with Vatican ll that the centrality of Christology in Catholic belief was reaffirmed. In China the effect of this change was delayed because the Church was suppressed by the government and deprived of a full generation of post-1950 leaders.
In the meantime, forced study of  Mao=s atheistic materialism had weakened the people=s  awareness of a heavenly creator. Today they are moving away from a hierarchical mindset and, as in the West, developing a more independent, personal and self-chosen life style. The questions they are now asking in their more reflective moments are more world-related and sophisticated than those in the 17th century.
While a new openness to the West has brought an initial interest in Christianity to China,  as in Korea and Japan secularization has a more immediate appeal and there is no reason to think there will be any more mass conversions or huge congregations. It will soon be obvious that the spiritual quest of a more individualistic, cosmopolitan and demanding population will not be met by traditional catechetical methods. The questions of modern Chinese will only be answered through a guided study of the bible with all its complexity and seeming contradictions.

A Role for Missionaries?
Today a Chinese Church exists and has limited freedom to operate but foreigners are not  allowed to participate openly in its ministerial or evangelical mission. This, however, does not mean there is no role for foreigners. There are a number of contributions they can still make to the development of the Church in China. However, they need to be as careful as the early Jesuits in planning what their contribution should be and how best to prepare for it. Today the number of trained missionaries is still comparatively small and the complexity of the Chinese situation has increased.

One opening for foreign missionaries is to facilitate Chinese Church leaders in acquiring  the vision, knowledge and skills they need to bring the spirit of Vatican ll into Chinese society today. 
This has already begun by those who are helping Chinese Church leaders to attend courses, and get experience of recent Church developments, both inside and outside their country. International Congregations are also making efforts to recruit candidates within China for the contribution they will be able to make within their own country from their contact with the wider Church. The lessons of using hui and of living in low-visibility communities or houses will need to be kept in mind. 
Another contribution foreigners can make is to make use of their >foreignness=. Through their service in China, as teachers, medical personnel or social workers, they can show what Christianity is in practice. Like the Jesuits, four hundred years ago, they can share the benefits of modern science while witnessing to the fact that the human mind is not limited to the material realm. As in the case of the Jesuits, it is the selflessness and authenticity of their witness that will make them credible. 

Something to be Brought Home
In the 16th and 17th centuries it was missionaries from the West who were journeying enthusiastically to the East, confident they had something valuable to share. Half of those who set out never arrived because of shipwreck or disease. Those who got there had no expectations of ever returning home. Yet their commitment never faltered.
Today it is different. The excitement of mission is gone from the West. Faith is less important  in people=s lives, it is more individualistic and Christianity is assumed as having nothing valuable or unique enough to warrant sharing it with others, especially those far away. Young people are willing to travel abroad to offer their services in humanitarian causes but do not regard any one faith as better than another. This would seem either to spell an end for mission in the Catholic church, or to leave it in the hands of fundamentalists who would not be the best facilitators of inculturation in Local Churches.
If the mainstream Western missionary movement is to continue in the spirit of Valignano, Ruggieri and Ricci, it may be time for missionaries who have worked in a predominantly non-Christian environment, such as China=s, to use that experience to help revitalize the faith in their home countries.
In their efforts to communicate the heart of the Christian message to people of different religious backgrounds they had to peel off the layers of later cultural additions and try to uncover the core message.
 If they have survived this far as missionaries it is because they have seen the value, even the urgency, of the message for themselves and others and this has motivated them to want to share it cross-culturally. Today that clarity of vision and ability to apply the Word to the questions of modern life is also needed in their home countries if the missionary spirit is ever to revive there.
 The human figure of Christ with his message of a compassionate God, of the Spirit active in the individual, the call to be part of a new creation, an answer to evil in the world and a spirituality that seeks the transcendent in ordinary life, reaffirm the individual while challenging him or her in the West as in the East.

Four hundred years ago missionaries took a confident faith from the West to the East. Now it is time to take that faith, refined and renewed, back to their home Churches to help meet the searching of the people there. 
                                                                  Hugh MacMahon 11/21/07

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