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

On looking into Neil Collins’ The Splendid Cause

These days, Christian parents are being blamed for not passing on their values and beliefs to their children and so causing the present religious vacuum. It sounds like an updated version of the prophets accusing the People of Israel of forgetting the God of their ancestors.  
Could the same be said of Columbans? Has the failure to pass on the story of our founders, what they stood for and how they tried to achieve it, led to a ‘disconnect’ in the Society?
These thoughts occurred to me when I was reading Neil CollinsThe Splendid Cause. They led me to ask Columbans I met, “Have you read the book yet?” While a few had, a significant number replied, “Not yet”, “I read a bit of it” or “I haven’t got it yet”. In general there seems a decided lack of enthusiasm for Columban history, no matter who wrote it.
As for the book itself, is it worth reading?
First, for anyone with the slightest interest in Columban history this has to be an important book. Neil put considerable effort and skill into bringing the various sources together but for over 25 years more than a dozen Columban and non-Columban experts  put thousands of hours into assembling and sorting those records. Neil’s book is the first work to emerge from this combined pool of resources so we cannot but have high hopes. 
What specifically might we look for? An international ‘family-like’ group, such as ours, continually needs to strengthen its sense of identity, so we might expect something to bolster our self image and give us pride in being Columbans.
That is the easier task. The men who went before us where in the heroic mold when it came to idealism and courage. They set out for the other side of the world, unconcerned that they were heading into political upheaval, a lack of modern amenities and an uncertain welcome. Neil’s book does justice to their bravery and the practical way in which they faced up to challenging circumstances.
The more difficult question is: Is there anything useful we can learn from their efforts, their successes and setbacks?  As he relates the story, Neil suggests some of the lessons we could pay more attention to today though he does not attempt to do so systematically.
In general, Columban thinking and practice were molded by the expectations expressed in Canon Law and the annual report to be submitted to the Vatican. (p 97). Only occasionally were doubts expressed about the effectiveness of these practices in the Orient.  For example, see the proposals of Joe O’Leary on p.135 and the doubts about the training of local clergy on p.177. This dutiful attention to the Vatican was both the strength and weakness of the early Columbans: they had a clear model to follow but no encouragement to reflect on its long term suitability.
In the earliest stage there was some independent thinking. Bishop Galvin had clear expectations for the first mission area the Columbans would accept, that it be highly populated, centered on an important city, be easy accessible. Later the basis for accepting a new mission area was more likely to be unquestioning acceptance of a Roman proposal. Eventually, Monsignor Usher was moved to suggest that the Society “should make a fight against being assigned the tail-ends of territories” (p 283)   
It would be interesting to hear a fuller explanation of how the Society’s critical missionary thinking drifted from evangelizing to pastoral concerns. Or, in concrete terms, how it moved from stating, “China remains the primary end of the Society”, to deciding to go to other “pagan countries” (like Korea), and finally to moving to a “non-mission country” (like the Philippines).  
Early into the book, the expression ‘Roman Catholic’ begins to pop up once or twice on almost every page. Perhaps Neil used the term for academic reasons, but in a missionary context it is less acceptable. It seems to indicate that we, as missionaries, are trying to extend a Roman church rather than help develop a universal one. Our liturgy might be the Roman Rite but surely we should be encouraging Local Churches to find a voice, a life and a tradition of their own. Repeated use of  ‘Roman Catholicism’ may indicate we are still living in our Columban past of failing to see a need for inculturation.
While Neil’s book is ambitious in trying to cover the early days, not only in China but also in the Philippines, Korea and Burma, I though it a pity that he did not give more attention to the inner operation of the Society. What did the early General Chapters deal with? How long did they last? How did leadership develop? Did Galvin in China make the major decisions or was it the headquarters in Ireland?
Neil mentions the effect of the Society’s financial crisis during the 20s and 30s on missionary budgets but surely it was a definitive event in the formation of  Society structures and activities. Did it set the foundations for the present financial security we enjoy, or did that come later? If, so how and when? Not all the important efforts made by Columbans were on the ‘mission fields’. The work in the ‘home Regions’ deserves equal attention.
            Reading the story, as told so well by Neil, may not be a priority for many Columbans because it deals with an era and individuals with whom the younger generations are not familiar. Yet, if our own family history was written it could be accused of the same outdated-ness. That would not stop us from reading it to find out where we came from and what events or family traits shaped us and made us what we are.      Today our most urgent need as a Society is to affirm our identity so that our members have a clear idea of what we stand for and what binds us together. This must find a basis and continuity in the vision and efforts of those who went before us. While it is the duty of our Society leaders to ensure that the original vision is passed on, books like Neil’s provide us with the background material we need for discussion and reflection.
            For those who would like more detail and narrative on Galvin and his companions, I recommend Venture Into the Unknown by Patricia Manion. While it is the story of the American Loretto Sister who came to Hanyang in 1923 at Bishop Galvin’s invitation, it is also a closely observed record of the early Columbans in action. With chapters beginning with such specifics as, “Galvin huddled closer to the small stove….” you can get a unique close-up view.     Hugh MacMahon.   2009

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