I once knew a priest who was the life of the party but prone to take over any party he attended. Most people enjoyed his company but he was also said by many to “have a great welcome for himself”.
I think that could be said of the history of Western mission. We often had a great welcome for ourselves. We rarely asked the people what they wanted and presumed we knew. We were, after all, carrying the Gospel to people whom we assumed were devoid of any saving relationship with God. We saw ourselves as preachers to whom everyone should listen, because we were working for and guaranteed by God. But we did not have to listen and we did not expect to hear a Gospel word from our people.
This is changing mainly because of two strong forces. First, it is no longer a credible way of doing mission in a secular and plural society like Australia. People will not listen to preachers who seem to have all the answers and a “road map to heaven”. It is just too arrogant. We have lost their trust and have to win it back. People only listen to us when we seem to believe they have something worthwhile to say. That is why Pope Francis puts so much emphasis on getting close to people, listening and conversing rather than preaching to people. In Amoris Laetitia he says, “Take time, quality time. This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say. It requires the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right. Instead of offering an opinion or advice, we need to be sure that we have heard everything the other person has to say.” #135
In a conversation no one preaches. Instead together we patiently and respectfully engage mutual insights, questions and doubts. Both people give and receive, evangelise and are evangelised, change and are changed. In the most effective evangelisation there is a commitment to relationship and mutuality in transformation.
The other major influence has been the end of colonialism and the growth of the “Southern” churches. Although many missionaries challenged the Enlightenment, in retrospect we seem to have been heavily influenced by it and its stress on Western superiority, progress and the individual. But with the end of colonialism and the growth of the “Southern” churches we have been forced to take a humbler position. In churches where previously we would have supplied the leadership we may not even know when the most important meetings are happening. And in Australia we are now more of a missionary receiving than sending country.
Theologian, Fr Michael McCabe SMA reminds us, “The Church today is challenged to abandon the crusading spirit of the Enlightenment paradigm with its arrogant superiority complex, naïve optimism, and pragmatic activism, and to pursue its mission of witnessing to Christ in a more humble, contemplative and dialogic key.” And the Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, reminds us western missionaries that we need to give up our “crusading minds” and “teacher complexes” and take on what he calls a “crucified mind”, one which comes from being in relationship with and suffering with others. The age of one directional mission where the missionary does everything is over. Fr Antonio Pernia SVD, theologian, assures us we are not the “owners” of the faith and should not dictate how it must be understood, lived and celebrated.
As missionaries we are called to be with people, patiently waiting to discern with them what the Spirit is calling us all to. Our lives should be characterised by attentiveness, graciousness, humility and contemplation rather than frenetic activity.
We are not the centre of the party.
Fr Noel Connolly SSC is a Columban missionary priest. He is a member of the Columban Mission Institute in North Sydney and a lecturer in Missiology at both the Broken Bay Institute and the Catholic Institute of Sydney.
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