January 25 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Home & Away – the role of missionary work in the 21st century

Pope Francis has declared that 2019 will see an extraordinary mission month. Here, Fr Vincent Lockhart, national director of Missio Scotland, looks at the unique challenges facing 21st-century missionaries.

I am often asked: “Why carry out mission work if everyone goes to Heaven?” This presents a challenge to the entire notion of Christian Mission.

Why, after all, ‘go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News, Baptising in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ as Jesus commanded His followers just before He ascended to Heaven?

The fact is that our Faith must make a difference to life here on Earth—for we who are Christians, but also for all humanity whom we are called to love and serve.

Indeed, the ‘Missions,’ that great surge of modern Catholic missionary activity in Africa, Asia and the Americas, began in the latter part of the 19th century, in many ways catching up with the activity of the Protestant and Reformed churches, which had begun much earlier.

As examples, there was the evangelisation of Cameroon in West Africa by the German Pallotine Fathers and Sisters from 1890 onwards, and Bishop Joseph Shanahan, the Irish Holy Ghost Father, who used education as a means of building up the Church in eastern Nigeria from the 1920s onwards to great effect.

The 20th century saw rapid expansion of the Church in countries designated as ‘Mission Territories’ in Africa, Asia, Central and South America and Oceania.

Catholic missionaries employed a method of evangelisation in which the proclamation of the Gospel was accompanied by the provision of social, material, educational and medical assistance to local communities.

The question of whether the Church’s missionary activity was part of European imperialism and colonialism has been raised by historical commentators.

The truth is that while missionaries did at times receive assistance from colonial authorities in being able to establish a presence in a particular country, there were many instances where they were in direct opposition and conflict with colonial authorities over the latter’s governance and exploitation of indigenous peoples.

In 1919 in his Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud, Pope Benedict XV specifically directed missionaries not to see their vocation as promoting European culture, but rather the culture of the Gospel which included an active condemnation of imperialism, fascism and communism.

The last 40 years has seen the Church grow rapidly in ‘mission’ countries to such an extent that in many places the Church is being led and is run without the same dependency on expatriate personnel.

The provision of education, medical and social development still continues to be an essential part of the Church’s work. Countries are still designated as ‘missions’ because the Church has not yet reached the stage of being financially self-supporting.

Many of the mission countries have undergone great social change with a decline in traditional culture and social stability often the result of the legacy of colonialism, western exploitation and corruption.

Frequently, the Church is becoming a source not just of development but also of social stability and public opposition to the injustice being carried out by corrupt governments.

While the Church in mission lands is poor financially it is strong spiritually and Catholics have a strong sense of identity and community.

Is Scotland a ‘Mission Territory’? Scotland has never been self-sufficient in clergy and religious. Most clergy from the mid-1800s till the 1940s were German, Belgian and Irish. Since the 1950s there has been an increase in Scottish clergy, but Irish clergy still constituted a significant proportion up until recently.

Most of Scotland’s Catholic community are descended from immigrants from Ireland and other communities coming from the Highlands and Islands, from Poland, Lithuania and Italy. Discriminated against, they were mostly poor, working class with little social influence. They did, however, have a strong sense of identity and community and, because of their experience, became very involved in politics and social justice issues.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) paved the way for radical change in the life of the Church.

Vatican II recognised the need to move from a ‘fortress’ mentality to being open and engaging with a world it was called to evangelise.

The process has not always been an easy one. While, thankfully, fear (the Bad Fire) has been replaced by more of an emphasis on love, the sense of community has been replaced by individualism, the sense of mystery and the sacred by understanding and engagement, the integrity of the Church’s authority has been severely damaged by the scandals surrounding sexual abuse.

Why has all this come about? Are we seeing the death of the Church in the western world?

The answer to that question lies partly in the fact that what is happening in the Church reflects what is happening in the western world. The reality is that we have to accept the fact that we, the Church, are not in control of the process which is taking place.

The basic challenge facing Catholics in the western world is one of formation: intellectual (knowing precisely what our Faith teaches), spiritual (how to possess and develop a relationship with God and the implications that has for our relationship with humanity and creation), and social (how to live with others, creating a sense of community and an awareness of our responsibilities towards others in the Church and humanity).

The danger in this situation for Catholics is to tend towards a very individualistic Faith, to reduce our Faith to seeking refuge in ritual or simply helping people who are suffering and to retreating into an ever-diminishing, inward-looking little group without any regard for the outward mission given to us by Christ.

Our mission, as people called by Christ, is to give meaning to the darkness that people in our society experience. To bring light to the Dark Night of the Western Soul.

If we are asked what is it that constitutes the core experience of being the Church then we need look no further than Jesus’ description: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt. 18:20)

This is no longer the age of great saints, but rather of the Saint among us. However, there has to be an ‘us.’ To be granted the presence of Christ among us requires a readiness to die for one another in great and small ways.

In living this we will be led by the Holy Spirit to experience a divine community, which is what the Church seeks to attain and where we recognise existentially that we are part of something greater than ourselves.

It is important to form deep and honest relationships with others in our parish; that our relationship with others with whom we share our Faith goes beyond the occasional conversation about the weather or superficial issues at Mass on a Sunday.

It makes an enormous difference if we are part of a small group where we meet to pray, to discuss, to share our experience of the spiritual life, to socialise and be involved in one another’s lives. This gives the Holy Spirit the setting to be able to lead and guide us.

It is important that we continually develop a real connection with others in our parish, our diocese, and with the Church nationally and globally. That expands and strengthens the presence of Christ.

One important attitude we must develop is not to worry or allow ourselves to become despondent about the future of the Church.

Christ is in charge. The Church has gone through great trials before and grown from them. The Church will continue. The crisis affecting not just the Church, but western society is an opportunity for a new reality to be brought forth—in a way that we might not expect. People in our society will come to a realisation of the need to address the spiritual and to discover God.

‘Mission’ ultimately is a state of soul—of my soul and our soul. It is not activism and running around trying to solve problems we are incapable of sorting. It requires us to provide experience not so much fine words and that experience must be of Christ among us and Christ who shares our living and dying. After all is said and done, it is Christ who will save the world.


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