Fueled by a vision of Catholicism in dialogue
with the world, missionaries today tend to believe that building up the
church is a secondary aim. To be faithful followers of Jesus, their primary
work must be building the reign Jesus came to announce — peace, justice,
and solidarity among peoples. This does not make religious conversion irrelevant,
but it must be a fruit of a deeper sense of purpose.
|One of the rising stars of
the curia, 58-year-old Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, had a debut of
sorts Dec. 4. Appointed in February as the “red pope,” head of the Vatican
agency that oversees missionary work, Sepe visited his troops for the first
time on that Tuesday morning at SEDOS, the principal umbrella group for
Catholic missionary orders.
When his monologue at
the missionaries turned into a dialogue with them, some very interesting
sparks began to fly.
First, some background.
A sweeping re-definition of what “mission” means has taken place in the
years since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In the November 2001
issue of the SEDOS Bulletin, Fr. Peter C. Phan of the Catholic University
of America explains.
Before Vatican II, Phan
writes, Catholic missionary theology put its values in this order:
The top priority was the
physical extension of Catholicism, “implanting the church,” by making converts,
founding parishes, organizing dioceses and appointing bishops.
Reign of God
After Vatican II, Catholic
missionaries still hold the same values, but the order of importance has
Fueled by a vision of Catholicism
in dialogue with the world, missionaries today tend to believe that building
up the church is a secondary aim. To be faithful followers of Jesus, their
primary work must be building the reign Jesus came to announce — peace,
justice, and solidarity among peoples. This does not make religious conversion
irrelevant, but it must be a fruit of a deeper sense of purpose.
Reign of God
“It would be theologically
wrong,” as Phan puts the point, “to subordinate the Reign of God to the
Most of the missionaries
I know — members of orders with proud missionary traditions, such as Divine
Word Missionaries, the Combonis, the Xaverians, Missionaries of Africa
— identify with this new perspective. They don’t see themselves any longer
as mini-saviors swooping down with a bundle of truths, but as servants
who learn as much as they teach.
I have a missionary friend,
for example, who spent 20 years in Taiwan, and is proud of the fact that
he never preached a sermon. He simply listened, and in his broken Chinese,
occasionally tried to offer some small comfort or encouragement. The people
came to love him, and while he didn’t baptize many, he forever changed
their view of Christianity.
missionaries today tend to be some of the least church-centered people
you’ll ever meet. This became clear to me in mid-October when a missionary
peace and justice network, improbably enough, cosponsored a conference
on Africa with the Legionaries of Christ. The event brought a number of
members of missionary orders, with decades of experience in far-flung spots
in Africa and Asia, to the Legionaries’ Regina Apostolorum campus for the
Watching these missionaries,
in scruffy civilian attire and full of skepticism about ecclesiastical
power, mingle with the uniformly crew-cut, black-suited, Roman-collared
Legionaries was a hoot. It was also a reminder of how much diversity Catholicism
embraces. When James Joyce defined the church as “here comes everybody,”
he wasn’t kidding.
The modern redefinition
of mission isn’t uniformly popular, of course, least of all inside the
Vatican office on missionary work: the Congregation for the Evangelization
of Peoples, although everyone knows it by its earlier name, Propaganda
Fidei. The former head of that office, Slovakian Cardinal Jozef Tomko,
was notoriously hostile to the new vision.
Aware of this tension,
around 100 members of missionary orders flocked to the traditional SEDOS
gathering place, the Christian Brothers headquarters on Via Aurelia, to
hear Sepe Dec. 4.
They had invited Sepe
to come precisely because they realize how large a gap sometimes separates
their self-understanding from the official Vatican line, and they wanted
to open a dialogue.
Sepe’s debut was all
the more significant because he has no track record as a missionary. He
was born in 1943 in a small southern Italian town near Naples, and has
spent most of his career climbing the curial ladder: secretary of the Congregation
for Clergy, chief organizer of the Jubilee Year, and now prefect of Propaganda
Fidei. Missionaries were understandably curious for some indication of
what his thinking might be.
His speech, alas, will
not be remembered among his shining moments. It read like a piece of boilerplate
copy Tomko had left in the office computer, full of dense theological references
to Christ as the unique savior of the world and the need to proclaim this
truth rather than to relativize it or water it down.
(For those given to grasping
at straws, the fact that Sepe managed to say all this without once citing
Iesus might be food for thought.)
When he finished speaking,
I asked an Irish nun, who had spent the better part of two decades in New
Guinea and who happened to be sitting next to me, what she got out of it.
“Precious little,” she
replied. “My proclamation is my life, the way I live.”
To his credit, Sepe then
agreed to take questions. The tenor of the audience can be glimpsed from
the first four, which were put to him in rapid-fire succession before he
Question 1: “I come from
Japan, where Catholics are 0.3 percent of the population. Asian bishops
have been talking since 1975 about our way of being church as a living
dialogue with cultures and religions. This is our way of evangelizing —
offering our brothers and sisters an experience of God’s justice, God’s
peace, even if they’re not baptized. Can you clarify where that stands?”
Question 2: “You seem
to imply that the only motive for dialogue is to invite people to conversion.
Couldn’t there be other reasons, such as evangelizing the culture or promoting
religious tolerance? The plain truth is, many people are not likely to
accept an invitation to conversion.”
Question 3: “If we say
that Christ is the only truth, where is the space to enter into dialogue
with other religions?”
Question 4: “In recent
years the church has seemed like a nervous mother, always scolding her
wayward children. I’d say we have a much greater need of encouragement.
Why so much fear?”
Sepe did not have much
illuminating to say in response, although he did make a distinction critical
for many missionaries. He said that if announcing Christ as the lone savior
of the world is impossible in a given set of circumstances, missionaries
must at least maintain an “interior disposition” consonant with the teaching.
That loophole is vital for those who believe, like my Irish nun neighbor,
in proclamation by lifestyle rather than by speech.
Then the second wave
of questions hit. The highlight was an African sister who asked if the
Vatican is willing to invest as much in the formation of women as it always
has for men.
Sepe, perhaps not fully
understanding the question through the translation, said there was “no
problem,” earning the most audible round of muffled groans during the morning.
But more eloquent than
what Sepe said was his style, which remained open and friendly, even in
the face of challenges. He told an organizer afterwards he had enjoyed
the exchange, and seemed to mean it.
His concluding note was
his best, and it seemed to reflect awareness that he had to say something
reconciling: “We exist for the lone purpose of helping you. We are with
you and for you. Help us to help you, through your experience, your
testimony, your wisdom,” he said.
Sepe said he wanted the
dialogue to continue. Let’s hope he’s sincere, not merely because the subject
is interesting, but because it’s vitally important.
* * *
SEDOS (Servizio di
Documentazione e Studi) is made up of some 100 men and women’s missionary
orders. The executive secretary is a kind and keenly intelligent Dominican
named Fr. Bernard East, who once served as a secretary to the legendary
Dominican Master General Damien Byrne. Much of the content from the SEDOS
Bulletin can be found on the web at www.sedos.org.
For readers wanting to
explore the new understanding of mission I’ve sketched here, I recommend
in the Third Millennium (Orbis Books), edited by Fr. Robert Schreiter.
It’s based on a SEDOS conference in April 2000.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111