One of the most confusing vocations in the post-Vatican II Church is being a missionary. When the Council Fathers came out with their historic statements about religious freedom and the existence of “salvific elements” in other religions, they threw many missionaries into a quandary. To convert or not to convert? A baffling question. Father Joseph Donders, an Orbis author and member of the venerable White Fathers of Africa, admits, “Many missionaries are still struggling inside themselves over this matter.”
According to Donders, the White Fathers, an order which symbolizes the missionary vocation for many Europeans the same way Maryknoll does for Americans, waged a bitter, internal battle over the role of the missionary in the twentieth century. It occurred at a general chapter held in Rome in 1968 — the hundredth anniversary of the society’s founding in Algiers by Cardinal Lavigerie and three years after the Vatican Council ended. A general chapter for the White Fathers generally lasts about six weeks. This one took a year. Donders was a delegate from the Dutch province.
As Father Donders remembers it, the debate centered on how missionaries should balance the spiritual and social justice aspects of their vocations. “There was a split,” Donders said, “between those who said, ‘No, No, our work is purely spiritual,’ and those who said we also should be busy with development work.” “We had a very great fight,” the priest remembered, “over what the miracles of Jesus mean. I insisted that the miracles are signs of what’s going to come but that Jesus definitely helped people in this world. I thought it was very strange when missionaries preached to people about Heaven but did nothing about their runny noses and the flies in their eyes.”
Although the White Fathers officially debate the question in 1968, it still goes on quietly. The uncertainty may have cost vocations: there were more than 4,000 White Fathers in 1964. Donders thinks that the numbers hover around 2,500 today. But some White Fathers have managed to come to grips with the seemingly conflicting views. “To bring the Gospel message to people and ignore their needs,” said Father Hebert, a Louisiana-born White Father now stationed on the West Coast, “is wrong. We’ve (always) coupled evangelization with development.” “But,” Hebert continued, “we still have Christ’s mandate to fulfill — go to all nations. A lot of people have never heard of Jesus. The Vatican Council didn’t rule out telling them. It is inhumane not to do so.”
One of the little-noticed events of last November’s Hunthausen-dominated meeting of the U.S. hierarchy in Washington was a pastoral letter on the role of the foreign missionary. Entitled To the Ends of the Earth, it addressed some of the questions which have troubled missionaries since the Second Vatican Council. It will be cold comfort to the faction that orients its missionary activity toward the next world.
Written in the hierarchy’s inimitable pastoral style, the letter urges a “holistic approach” to mission work in a chapter headed “Mission of Jesus was Liberation.” Such an approach “recognizes that humanity’s hungers are so interwoven that the spirit cannot be satisfied without attending to the body.” Nothing all that revolutionary here. But the letter’s focus does seem overwhelmingly on this world; it states, for instance, that “people are saved not only as individuals but also as members of socio-political groups,” It goes on: “They must experience the redemption not only of their souls but also of their whole bodily existence, not only in the world to come but also beginning here on earth.”
Historically, missionaries have “gone native” to assimilate with the cultures in which they found themselves. But the U.S. bishops hint that a bit more might be required of a contemporary American missionary abroad. A modern missionary may be called upon — surprise! surprise! — to criticize U.S. policy. Listen to the bishops: “When missionaries come from a country like the United States which has great political and economic interests throughout the world, their participation in the life of the local church can place them in conflict with the policies of their own government or, indeed, of their host government.”
Significantly, special mention for “heroic witness” goes to the four El Salvador martyrs. Laywoman Jean Donovan and Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel are cited by name. Presumably, they “overcame colonial attitudes,” as the bishops urged in the letter. “Nor can we forget,” the paragraph concludes in a seeming afterthought, “missionaries like Bishops Francis X. Ford and James E. Walsh who have suffered imprisonment or exile because of their Christian witness.”
After pointing out the special relevance of the hierarchy’s two best known pastoral letters — one on nuclear arms and one on the U.S. economy — to mission work, the bishops go into the need for ecumenical “dialogue” and the need for “true inculturation.” Far from being over zealously neo-colonial, the bishops urge “sharing” of the missionaries’ religious experiences with those to be evangelized.
ALAS, some other world religions aren’t quite so tolerant today. Buddhism, for instance, recently proclaimed itself a world religion with the intention of spreading to the ends of the earth. Islam is gaining footholds in Africa south of the Sahara and its resurgence in the Middle East needn’t be belabored. One can only hope that, if Christian missionaries can’t find strength within, the challenge from without will galvanize them.