The “liquid mission” is the same mission of old: do not make your plans, trust Jesus and follow Him.
Walk with the excluded, the poor, and you shall discover, step by step, where He wants you to go.
He is ahead, He waits for us in ‘Galilee’
The old missionaries that I knew when I was young, many years ago, used to say that departures to the mission—and the last embraces with relatives and friends—became more difficult as they grew older. Every time could be the last time. Their departures were few, the first time in general when they were in their early twenties, followed by a long stay in Africa, then maybe a second departure, and when there was a third, it was almost certainly the last. The travel from Europe to Sudan or Uganda lasted weeks and weeks, was dangerous and expensive.
As a novice, I was asked to accompany a Comboni Sister home; she had left Italy in 1938. It was 1964, and I saw the then elderly nun burst into tears because she was no longer able to locate the street and the house where she had grown up and the stream where she used to play as a child. The stream had been covered by a large paved road. I had to call her relatives to come and collect her at the railway station. I realized that the returns could be even more painful than the departures.
If one asked these missionaries why they had left their home and went far away to announce the Gospel, one was given motivations that today would make one smile, as it seemed simplistic and childish: saving souls; baptising, and sending to heaven even a single dying person; bringing the light of the Gospel; healing the sick children. If one deepened the exchange, one understood that the basic motivation was authentically evangelical: love for God and love of neighbour. If one had the patience to continue to listen to their endless stories, one could understand that they were deeply rooted in a spirit of service and sacrifice. They were ready for anything, even forfeiting their lives for the persons to whom they were sent and with whom they had entered into communion of life.
Today, the departures have multiplied and the reasons have become more sophisticated. Missionaries go and come back at least every three years, sometimes even more often with three months’ vacation, and then back, almost unnoticed. One is lucky if the parishes and the dioceses of origin show some sign of interest. A Dutch missionary told me: “I come from a large family, with eight children, now my seven brothers and sisters have a total of five children. The grandchildren are just three. No-one is a practising Catholic. Worse, there is not even the sense of being a family. When I go on vacation I feel an alien in my country of origin.”
Secularization and globalization have cancelled the geographical dimension of the mission. The motivations are increasingly sophisticated—elaborated in seminars, meetings and workshops with avant-garde theologians. Still, the number of European missionaries is fast collapsing, and some missionary congregations, such as the Bethlehem Missionaries based in Switzerland, are about to become extinct. The commitment of the very few new missionaries is not enough to revive the institutions. Of course, even today there are those who are willing to give their lives to the end for the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, as we are reminded every year by the list of women and men killed as serving missionaries.
The “new mission” is a new challenge, not necessarily a physical border, and begins in the very heart of the same missionary, extending to the whole world. It is based on the awareness of the need of one’s own conversion before that of others.
The liquid mission. Some speak of “liquid mission” analogous with the concept of “liquid society” by Zygmunt Bauman. According to Baumann, we live in a situation of crisis of traditional communities; community values plummeted, and, lacking a point of reference, everything dissolves into a kind of liquidity. Individual salvation is found in “appearing” and “consuming”. One must be seen, and one must consume, in order to be recognized as a person. An unbridled individualism becomes the core value of society. There are no longer travelling companions, but rivals to be opposed and defeated. If one does not appear, one does not exist. If one does not consume, one does not have any value. What could be more distant from the Gospel values?
To be a missionary in this “liquid society” is a new, difficult, sometimes scary situation. Instead of taking advantage of the new opportunities, we may be afraid about the possible risks and we may close up in our mental castles, be on the defensive. The motivations become deeper, often take a personal colouring, to the extent of becoming ungraspable, evanescent, sometimes the person himself cannot explain them. The centrality of Jesus the Lord is encrusted by different elements. Liquidity by its nature tends to make everything level, flattens everything on the lowest common denominator. It is no surprise if the mission of the Church becomes more and more similar to the worthy activity of a humanitarian NGO, as Pope Francis has repeatedly noted.
Yet, now is the time when Pope Francis calls the Church to “go out”, to be a missionary Church, to put at the centre of her proclamation the Gospel of mercy, a God who is a merciful Father, as proclaimed by Jesus. It is a call certainly understood and shared by the missionaries. The institutions, however, have more trouble than individuals to understand and practise the direction given by the Pope. Institutions, even if religious institutions with eminently missionary vocation, by their very nature tend to favour stability and preservation. They tend to follow the logic of hierarchy, control, power. They have difficulty living by the values of openness, freedom, enthusiasm, risk. An individual can decide on his own to go on a risky mission, while an institution, especially an institution that feels threatened by the world, would establish a commission to study all the possible options, and subscribe to an insurance. We have seen this in Europe where missionary institutes are struggling to implement the exhortations of Pope Francis, and rather prefer to live in a status of peaceful continuity, of security, rather than making available their potential and their homes to the service of migrants in answer to Pope Francis’s call.
Audacious as a child. It is hard nowadays to be adventurous and audacious as the missionaries of old. I heard as a child the story of father Giovanni Mazzucconi, a young missionary from my home town, who was killed in Papua New Guinea, almost exactly the other side of the world, in 1855. It was a story full of adventures, exotic places, people with strange traditions, a story of sacrifices, love and dedication to God, all the ingredients to fire up the imagination of a child. Today, there are no new continents to be explored; peoples not reached by the message of the Gospel live in countries and places where my home town friends go for business and holidays. The discriminations, injustices, wars they suffer are brought to us every day by the news and they have become so commonplace that we do not care. We can still go into a war zone—too many of them in Africa—we can go and bring comfort to a Christian community far away and isolated, we can face hunger, disease, danger of all sorts but all the romantic appeal of the old missionaries’ stories is gone. The heroic missionary opening up an entire land to the Gospel is no more, and we haven’t found any substitute. The new frontiers are dry and septic, and they frighten us more than the deserts, the jungles and the oceans.
Last year, we saw the Italian missionary institutes close down MISNA, the only European news missionary agency which provided world news in four languages. It had a missionary perspective: the Gospel seen in action in the justice, peace, reconciliation and ecological activities going on around the world, a solid presentation and interpretation of the facts. Its closure—taken at the highest levels of the Italian missionary institutes—baffled many missionaries as well as journalists. Closing a highly respected news agency just months after the publication of Laudato Si’, is the most absurd thing that can be done by people who are called to be announcers of the Good News. Improve it, transform it according to the needs and new technologies, yes, but close without proposing alternatives? The high seas of communication are scary.
The communication challenge. It is true that the frontier missionaries do not feel at ease in the mass media world. Those who live by the Gospel and communicate their faith through the gestures of everyday life, nurturing deep human relations with their communities, feel out of place in preparing press statements and appearing in television programmes. They have a deep distrust of a world where the most important thing is “to appear”, they do not feel much empathy with the “TV missionaries” who are rarely seen in the field. They share the spiritual attitude of John the Baptist, wishing to disappear so that Jesus can grow, and to appear in a TV programme seems to them a useless vanity. Often when these missionaries are made known by the media they feel inadequate, even soiled by contact with that world.
Yet the missionaries should not stop in the face of risks. “I dream of a missionary option that transforms all things” (Evangelii Gaudium, 27) wrote Pope Francis. This idea constantly returns in all his speeches, it is the soil in which his words and all his actions are rooted. For Pope Francis, “going out”—of which the missionary was until recently the clearest icon—is not one of the many activities, but the very breath of the life of the Church.
Of this missionary option capable of transforming all things, there are few signs in the official documents of the missionary institutes. Their recent General Chapters held after Pope Francis had already made very clear his vision for a Church open to the world and at the service of the poor, have interpreted his words as pious exhortations rather than as indication of concrete changes that must take place. Yes, they keep talking as they had done in the last four of five decades of peace, justice, ecology, refugees, immigrants. In everyday life, the most important concerns remain the relationships with the bishops, the decline in donations, and, at least in Europe, the property management.
The “new” aged badly. An old missionary, one of those who has spent all of his life in Africa told me: “From the days of my ordination, I hear everyone speaking about a ‘new mission’. Yet, when I arrived in the middle of nowhere in Africa in 1969, I found a superior who was the embodiment of the old mission. He loved the people and he loved me, in spite of what he considered my mistakes and that is the whole Gospel, isn’t it? I’ve always respected him, and tried to learn the many positive lessons he had to give. Then I read books, articles, papers to keep updated. The ‘new mission’ remained a mystery, so many words and little or no new substance. In the Evangelii Nuntiandi, in 1975, Pope Paul VI said everything there was to say, and even today it is the reference on how to put the Second Vatican Council into practice. However, nothing changed. In Rome, Vatican II was quickly forgotten. When I proposed new initiatives, the provincial superiors blocked me. ‘New mission’ became an old joke! Then here he comes, Pope Francis. Everything he says and does is at the same time very old and very new. It has the perfume of the Gospel. I confess that I find it hard to follow in his footsteps, even if I am a few years younger than him. He is the Pope I was dreaming for when I left for Africa. Now, I have less strength, maybe even less enthusiasm. Many fellow missionaries of my age are not able to keep up to his pace and they grumble. To regain the enthusiasm, I reread the lives of the first Comboni Missionaries, not because I regret the disappearance of that world. I would simply like to recharge my spirit with the faith with which they faced difficulties that seemed insurmountable. Instead, I lose heart when I hear young confrères worrying about the future. Missionaries who programme the time of retirement? We really deserve to disappear; we are no longer the salt of the earth!”
When I point out that it was not all so beautiful, that in the past there were inabilities or unwillingness to understand the modern world, rigid attitudes and complete closures, just think of the clash with the Muslim world experienced as hostile, and the difficult relationship with local cultures often deemed inadequate or unable to receive the Gospel, the old missionary says: “But they went, they took risks! Now that Pope Francis invites us to go out, because it is better to go out rather than suffocate in our safe homes, we seem paralysed, unable to think big. We are frightened of the audacity of the Pope, we prefer to walk on safe ground, or maybe we are also waiting for the ‘cyclone Francis’ to pass and return to our quiet routine?”
These memories of meetings, fragments of life, contradictory reflections come to my mind while I’m yet again on the move. Another departure, moving to a new context—shall I programme new initiatives? It will take effort, sweat and tears before they become concrete initiatives, or failures.
Again on the move. Why, what for? What was initiated needs time to germinate, the seedling needs more time to grow. There are first of all the people with whom I’ve walked together, and while now my pace slows down they are ready to encourage me. The street children and boys and girls in Nairobi and Lusaka, the Nuba entangled in a never-ending struggle, the refugees, the peacemakers, will I have enough time to do anything at all?
I could think of “going out” to new suburbs, but where? Maybe, I could organize a group of youngsters and go around with them proclaiming joy and peace… Crazy! Maybe better not to try, simply better to remain vigilant and recognize the new when it comes to visit.
Actions instead of words. At the Nairobi airport lounge where I am waiting for the connection to Zambia, an elderly woman approaches me. Simple dress, gentle smile: “Father Kizito, can I steal a few minutes?” she asks me and then introduces herself. She is from Peru, a nun in a local religious congregation, her name is Rosa, as the most popular saint of her country. She works with street children in Lima and is on her way back from the second visit to her younger sister, also a nun, who works in another African country, a nurse at a clinic in the bush. Both have studied in Rome, and since that time have been avid readers of all missionary publications, including Nigrizia. She wants to talk about Africa, and I cannot stop her. She tells me of her first visit to her sister, four years ago. “I went to see her because she was in crisis. I wanted to find out why. The first impact was extraordinary. I was impressed by the dedication of many people, hospital staff and pastoral agents of all levels. I saw an extraordinary spiritual beauty in the people, the simple villagers, but I got the impression that the structures of the Church are still an external body. People do not own the Church. The Church is perceived as a structure living on another level, with another way of reasoning, too linked to power and wealth. My sister, even though working in daily physical contact with the poor, had been in crisis because she felt she was considered like the officer of an institution. We talked together, how to change? Now I’m coming back from the second trip. I thought Pope Francis had caused a change, yet I noticed even more fatigue, resistance to change, grumbling, isolation.” Sister Rose’s Latin American soul comes out: “Of course people work with a lot of faith—but there is no admission of mistakes, of the weakness of the Church, no real community work, no human growth to match the Christian instruction, no political awareness. I love this Church, it is my Church, we have to answer the call of Pope Francis to renew her with love and commitment. With my sister, I realized that we need to strengthen our spirituality, not the one made of memorised prayers from old devotional books, one that is born of shared life. The action, even the wrong action, if done in good faith is more important than the words. Social changes are coming fast, the kind world of the village tradition can disappear faster than expected. Nairobi is already a very bad imitation of the worst of the capitalistic world. I see Africa moving fast towards economic wealth and losing her soul. We must be ready to change, be open to the action of the Spirit, or we fail our mission of announcing Jesus, the Lord of History!”
Trusting and following Jesus. Sister Rosa has realized that her fervent homily has attracted the attention of some other passengers in the lounge, and lowers her voice “As I grow older, I have learned to trust Jesus and His Spirit more and myself less. When I am rooted in Jesus, I can withstand all the disappointments, all the misunderstandings, all the betrayals. The only certainty comes from following Him.”
The PA system of the airport calls her flight. Without knowing she has answered the questions I had in my heart; Sister Rosa greets and leaves. The “liquid mission” is the same mission of old: do not make your plans, trust Jesus and follow Him. Walk with the excluded, the poor, and you shall discover, step by step, where He wants you to go. He is ahead, He waits for us in ‘Galilee’.