While some tend to find the security of the past in ritualistic or rhetorical revivals, the breadth and depth
of today’s changes, due to an inhumane global economic system that enslaves and destroys, including life
on earth, requires from missionaries a new attitude and a fresh start. As in Jesus’ times, they are required
to deal with the amazing forms of suffering of their brothers and sisters and, as Pope Francis
does not cease to recommend, go to the peripheries to heal conflicts and the origins of so much pain
BECOMING A BLESSING TO THE NATIONS. Abraham was called to be a blessing to the nations (Gen 12: 2–3). In the same way, a missionary is called to be a blessing to society as a whole and a “force for good” amidst diverse human agonies. His helpful intervention has become all the more relevant in a world that has grown closely interdependent, where everyone needs to help everyone in pain. Martin Luther King used to say that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” That is what made Chiara Lubich suggest an “Interdependence Day. Everyone’s anxiety is mine.”
PROPOSING AN EVANGELICAL RESPONSE. Of all actors in the social arena, the missionary’s specific contribution is to offer an evangelical response to every social agony, to every human tragedy. He/she does not fulfil this mission merely by denouncing wrongdoers, lamenting evil, bewailing difficulties, but taking on reality as it is at a given time, and confronting it with the best resources that the Gospel offers.
• He fails in his duty if he stands idle or helpless before today’s growing violence, corruption, weakening of ethical values, fragmentation of families, abuse of children, ethnic conflicts, unfairness to weaker communities and to migrants, trafficking in women and children, massive deforestation, falling water levels, pollution of rivers, pollution of air, over-exploitation of the soil, over-tapping of natural resources; threat to cultural identities, low literacy levels, lack of skills to find a place in the modern economy, growing inequality, and most of all, before the loss of spiritual convictions.
• God may be asking each missionary today as he asked Adam, “Where are you?” (Gen 3: 9). Where is your creativity in response to these problems?
JESUS REACHES OUT TO THE DESPERATE. In Jesus, we find an eagerness to reach out to the most desperate. José Antonio Pagola, a Spanish theologian, points out how the Gospels do not refer to any visit of Jesus to the prosperous city of Sepphoris near Nazareth, but describes in detail His intense activity in the poor villages of Galilee. He poured out His life on behalf of the poorest of the poor, the desperate, debt-ridden families who kept losing their land and becoming daily labourers; people who, not finding employment, were reduced to beggary and even to slavery.
• Among those who were drawn to Him by His stirring message of God’s mercy, were persons driven to despair and had become bandits, highwaymen, or prostitutes. We do not see Him seeking the comforts of the Romanized urban centres for a change. On the contrary, we find Him pitching His tent among the poor who struggled with growing inequality, insecurity, poverty, indebtedness, loss of land, disintegration of families. We see Him continuously reaching out to the ‘periphery’ and confronting every human agony.
“PRESS ON TO THE PERIPHERY”. Speaking to young people at Rio de Janeiro in 2013, Pope Francis raised his voice, “I want the Church to get out into the street, I want us to avoid… being closed in upon ourselves.” Pope Francis does not want a self-referential and inward-looking Church, but one that continuously looks out for an opportunity to come to the aid of people, most of all those at the periphery: geographical, psychological, social, cultural, religious.
• For frontline missionaries, this challenge would include visiting the most interior villages, forgotten families, and praying with the least co-operative communities. It would also include giving attention to the culturally excluded, socially marginalized, psychologically complex-ridden, and religiously guilt-laden people.
• His “frontier vision” enables Pope Francis to look at reality from the outskirts, not the centre; from the point of view of individuals and communities that are struggling to eke out a human existence and straining to live their Christian life. Adopting a personal approach, he urges a situational, personal, and human understanding of problems, holding out hope even in the worst circumstances (Amoris Laetitia, 305). He is not asking us to re-write our moral theologies, but to interpret God’s mercy in context—that is being missionary.
• When 366 Somalis and Eritreans died in a boat near Lampedusa, he declared a “day of tears”. That created a sensation, and the public attitude changed to one of helpfulness. The Pope seems to be saying, “Get going, make the first move: see, think, act. Take responsibility.” Help.
DEFENDING HUMAN DIGNITY. Jesus was sold like a mere chattel for 30 pieces of silver. He was living in an age when the slave trade raged. Today, we think that slavery is abolished, but are blind to the fact that quasi-slavery has returned in new forms to the very heart of the harsh realities created by the New Economy. Only a generation ago, communist regimes herded workers into production camps and reduced them to the level of forced labour; it was this reality that Pope John Paul II took on courageously, inviting people to take responsibility for their destiny into their own hands. The message caught on and people were set free.
Today, Pope Francis seems to be struggling in a similar fashion against the impersonal forces launched by ‘market fundamentalism’ that are reducing human beings to the status of ‘production machines’. Inequalities are being introduced in an inconspicuous way even into traditionally egalitarian societies round the world. Indigenous values of honesty, uprightness, and concern for each other are being thrown overboard. Local ethnic identities are eroding fast.
• The inequalities grow. With the possibility of politicians allying themselves with business magnates and big companies, forests, natural resources, and traditional products and skills are being sold out to an impersonal economy. Quasi-monopolies are being created, upstarts are emerging as multimillionaires. Pope Francis is very clear in his The joy of the Gospel that if inequalities grow, violence is bound to come (Evangelii Gaudium, 59–60).
PLAYING A HELPFUL ROLE IN SOCIAL ISSUES. The Pope believes that the Church ought to play a healthy role in all social issues. Self-renouncing social commitment has an eloquence of its own. Mother Teresa struck a deep chord in the Indian heart. John Allen believes that South Korea’s Catholic growth can partly be explained by the healthy role the Church played towards the nation’s smooth transition to democracy. In all these endeavours, Christians must learn to work hand in hand with the followers of other faiths and even with professed agnostics and atheists and profit by their competences.
WORKING FOR PEACE. Chiara Lubich rightly remarks that the Fraternity proclaimed by the French Revolution has become a lost value amidst the aggressive claims of ‘equality and liberty’ on every side. Conflicts keep raging around the world: over scarce resources, colliding interests, rising expectations, diminishing opportunities, deadly competition in the market, affirmation of identity, fear of social exclusion, loss of privileges.
• On the other hand, human beings are growing more and more conscious that they are made for companionship. Even amidst the most severe dissensions, people long for peace, pine for unity. Actual conflicts only point to the need we have of the ‘other’, friend or foe. When we lose the ‘other’, there is emptiness. When we rebuild our relationships we become ourselves, regain balance, and see things in harmony and relationship. We see the complementary nature of persons, things, talents, characters, psychological and social strengths, wealth of experiences and competences. Helping people to see this reality is peacemaking.
PETTY INTERNAL CONFLICTS, LOSS OF COLLECTIVE ENERGY. What can be more worrying are internal wranglings within the Christian community that weaken the motivation and reduce the collective effectiveness of a missionary team. Confusing ideological and theological stands (e.g. about evangelization, inculturation, justice, authority) can blur the Christian vision even of well-meaning apostolic personnel. Then there are the ego clashes and collision of interests of associations, prayer groups, religious societies over attention, resources, prominence. Pope Francis refers to them often.
• In all these cases, productive energy gets trapped within church walls. The result is: cynicism, mutual ridicule, unpleasant comparisons, and endless rivalries. Similarly, as institutions multiply, if those in charge are not careful, possessiveness takes over and bends the will even of the noblest men; and distances with people lengthen.
• Excessive verbiage has never helped a cause. ‘Option for the poor,’ for example, can ultimately turn out to be endless talk about the poor by armchair activists and missionary theoreticians. ‘Theological elite’ often fail to interpret the cultural pulse of the community and the nature of their spiritual longings, and the direction is lost. Bergoglio used to criticize the ‘arrogance of the enlightened’, and contrasted it with the ‘special wisdom’ of the people of God.
THE ART OF MAKING DIFFICULT DECISIONS: DISCERNMENT. When human perspectives clash, decision-making becomes difficult, ‘incalculables’ multiply. The path to conclusions turn tortuous. That is where the Gospel must come alive. Even the most ardent missionary needs to master several ‘spiritual technologies’ to negotiate his way forward. He/she must not confuse fervour with fundamentalism. He must develop the skill of becoming an intuitive discerner, seeking a midpoint between extremes. He must leave space for opponents, critics and stubborn rivals.
• Sincerity of purpose arms the missionary with moral authority. Personal integrity ensures sturdiness, a humble attitude wins collaboration. Clearness of vision builds confidence, generates enthusiasm. Nearness to people elicits a generous response. Mastering relationship skills leads to pastoral miracles.
• Further, the following cautions too are necessary. Though all work for success, success-mongering overdone can lead to depression, ulcers and heart attacks. Unfortunately, too many Church personnel suffer from such ailments. Nor will addiction to appreciation or mania for perfection help. Learning to accept painful realities in life like failure, defeat, a sense of rejection, slow results, and unpleasant surprises is basic to missionary spirituality.
• A missionary looks into the distance. During his visit to Jordan, Pope John Paul II eagerly sought to go to Mount Nebo and gaze towards the ‘promised land’ as Moses did. A farsighted missionary looks into the distance. He is not just carrying out projects, but shaping the destinies of communities.
• Jonathan Sacks, a Jewish rabbi, says that the Hebrew Bible is written in the future tense. We already belong to the future. As the Roman Empire was collapsing St Augustine was able to see a new world emerging.
• While a missionary is conscious of the past and is fully engaged with the present, he looks to the future with a firm gaze. The chaos around him does not confuse his vision. He/she is a shaper of things to be. The Church thinks in centuries.
LEADERS INSPIRE AND UNITE. Visionless mission leaders get lost in administration, amidst endless problems, in factions and groups, petty prominences, or in successes that have no long-term significance. Those with vision on the contrary seek to inspire and unite communities towards great and noble goals on behalf of the Kingdom of God. With this approach, problems gradually yield space by themselves, withdraw further, and disappear altogether; or, they change nature and become an asset and a help in unexpected ways.
• The age of larger-than-life leaders is over. Today what finds acceptability are leaders who know how to relate, serve, take trouble, motivate, seek advice and take initiative. They create a climate where everyone can function as a leader in his/her own respective roles. Leadership begins at the bottom.
• “A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders” (Jonathan Sacks). Consequently, the good they do continues to live on through others. This is particularly true of missionary leaders who keep close to youth, thinkers, artists, scientists, writers… and get them to think and take responsibility. The impact they make is of immeasurable consequence, influencing every walk of life and several generations of their society.
A MISSIONARY LEADER HAS DEPTH. An effective missionary is a contemplative. A deep ‘within’ leads to a great ‘without’. On the contrary, those who do not have introspective moments, “bluster ahead blissfully, fearless because they are clueless about their own weaknesses,” shipwrecking parishes and pastoral institutions. Karl Rahner once said that the Christian of the future would have to be a mystic, or else he would fail to be a Christian totally.
• Those who invest in self-awareness, produce a better version of themselves year after year. George Weigel says that Fr Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, contemplated even in the Paris Metro when he visited the city as a student. Traditional forms and rhythms of prayer too have a spiritual pedagogy of their own.
• Blessings come from prayer, depth comes from sufferings. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus said, “Wisdom comes from suffering alone.” It is not a lesson easy to accept, no matter how great the proposer. Job struggled with pain even in the company of his sympathizing friends. Jesus asked that the bitter chalice be lifted from His lips.
• When a missionary leader is severely criticized, opposed or rejected; when his/her intentions are misrepresented and his/her words misquoted or misapplied; when the work grows burdensome and failures multiply, he can go through inner agonies, but the moment one is able to see purpose and meaning in suffering, it seems to change its nature; it generates power.
• Pope St John Paul II brought the suffering of the world before the Lord every day. He interceded “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8: 26). In this way he expressed his supreme love.
• The pastoral leader who is able to relate suffering to love discovers its profoundest meaning; he acquires depth, becomes a ‘powerful force for good’, and becomes like Mount Zion that cannot be shaken (Ps 125: 1).