Africana Plus

No50 May 2002.3


"For whenever I am weak, then I am strong."

(2Cor. 12, 10)

In a conference which François Richard, the Superior General of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), recently gave to his "confreres", he put this question: "Where are we going? What is the future for our little Society?" The figures tell their own story. In about thirty years, the membership of the Society has dropped from 3,500 to about 1,900. And the drop in numbers is continuing, as we lose at least sixty members a year through death.

Numbers have changed, but so have colors. There are at present 295 young people preparing to enter the Society. Of these 85% are Africans, and 12% come from new foundations like Brazil, Mexico, India and the Philippines. Only 3% are from Europe or North America. Hence Father Richard's question: "Where is out little Society going?"

In former times missionaries were seen as founders on both the ecclesiastical and the purely human levels. They started parishes, they opened and ran schools and hospitals. They still believe of course that it remains essential to proclaim Jesus Christ where he is not known and to spread his message of peace and love. But the new element is that the missionaries now wish to carry out this task in dialogue with other religions and in respect for the religious beliefs of every individual.

Missionary spirituality is now a spirituality of dialogue in interreligious encounter. Dialogue is the opposite of the will to power. Where the latter seeks to absorb the other by violence or persuasion, dialogue gives time and space for real human communication. Its primary characteristics are poverty, vulnerability and purification, and it is the only way in which fear can be conquered and mutual confidence established. A second quality of dialogue is willingness to listen. Not only talking but also quiet silence is necessary for building up a relationship. There are different stages as the partners discover each other and enter into commitments, there are moments of conflict and reconciliation. A third element is the search for truth. This is not a question of negotiating but of listening to the other's testimony and seeking mutual comprehension. The final stage of interreligious dialogue is its validation by the beautiful fruit of extending a joyful welcome to the other's difference. This is the real test of the authenticity of dialogue: am I really able to accept the other as different from me, without trying either to assimilate him or to trivialize our difference? This is the spirituality of dialogue. It calls for conversion and growth and maturity of faith. The experience of dialogue is a testing experience, and a price has to be paid.

All this does not mean that the missionary cannot carry out this dialogue in conformity with the priorities of the Society to which he belongs. For the White Fathers, the following priorities have been identified:

The modern missionaries of Africa refer to these priorities as "initial tasks" and they are the great challenge for the younger ones among them. These younger ones however belong to a generation, which makes a virtue out of sharing, of partnership, of dialogue, and they are well placed to carry out their vocation.

There is however an essential prerequisite. This is the quality of soul, which we call humility, the quality that makes us recognize our personal insignificance and weakness. This self-knowledge is eventually seen as an inevitable and necessary stage in preparing for contemporary Christian missionary work. As Christ endured His Passion, so this process of acquiring true self-knowledge is a kind of passion at the individual, communal and ecclesial levels. It amounts to the following of Jesus in the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection. The fruits of a humble heart for mission are immense, but its demands are also formidable. It requires the abandonment of all pretensions to superiority in meeting the other, however poor and weak he may be; it means putting aside all fear of the other's weakness, whether physical, moral or spiritual. The humble man has changed his attitude and does not seek to impose himself. His apostolic effectiveness is thereby enormously increased, for humility calls forth love in the other.

This was the thought of St Vincent de Paul who said to one of the Sisters of Charity, whom he founded: "It is not just a question of distributing bread and soup. Rich people can do that as well as you. But you are to be the servant of the poor, the daughter of Charity, always smiling and in good humor. The poor are your masters, and you will find them terribly sensitive and demanding masters. The more unattractive and dirty they are, the more unjust and uncultured, the more you must give them your love. For it is only your love that will enable the poor to forgive you for the bread which you give them."

We are speaking of a charity which is full of discernment but which is also the charity of the One who chose to share our human condition and to become like us "in all things but sin". In following Jesus who stripped himself of everything, we discover the spirituality of the empty hands. We realize that everything, including our weaknesses, can become gift and grace of God, a manifestation of the power of divine love, which alone can change human poverty into spiritual power. "My grace is sufficient for you, for the fullness of my power is made manifest in weakness." (2Cor. 12, 9)

So humility becomes strength, a nobility of soul which makes one capable of putting aside any advantages one may possess and of becoming "like everyone else", a small person among the smallest. There are Christian communities in Algeria, which have lived this kind of personal self-abandonment for decades. Here are some words written by a Jesuit priest, Paul Décisier, in the Newsletter of the diocese of Oran:

"It is not our services, even if they are real, which justify our presence here. Nor is it the dreams, which we may once have nurtured. Nor again is it popular support from a population of which the vast majority are simply unaware of our presence. Nor should we rely on expressions of encouragement and sympathy, which we receive from Christian communities in other parts of the world, precious although such expressions are to us. What justifies our presence in this part of the world is the theological virtue of hope which we can truly live here and experience in its fullness. The ordinary life of ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances is underpinned, like every Christian life, by the two commandments of love, love of God and love of neighbor, without our being too sure how the one leads to the other. It is because of Jesus that we are here for the people who surround us."

The missionary of the third millennium must always remember that he is the friend of the poor. It may well be that the fact of becoming "a small interracial community" will help its members to learn humility from the poor among whom they live. In coming to know the life of the poor, the missionary will experience their humiliations and weaknesses but also the depth of their faith and their keen sense of community. It is through the poor to whom he ministers that the missionary learns again what the Gospel means for himself. He learns again how to rejoice in the simple things of life. Really human values assume their proper importance in his life. He becomes a fellow-struggler with the poor in their efforts for a better world in which there is justice and equality for all.

In all this the missionary knows that he is not alone. He needs the Holy Spirit, "so that his faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God." (1Cor. 2, 5) Hence the necessity of contemplation, of which Pope John Paul spoke in his Letter for the New Millennium: "Mission is contemplation before it is action. It is the reflection, on the face of the Christian and of the Church, of the Face of the Lord. Our witness would be intolerably impoverished if we were not the first ones to contemplate the face of God." (n° 16) A more contemplative and a more patient missionary presence, marked by endurance, self-control and humility: this is needed today more than it was yesterday. Such a peaceful and undemanding presence will allow the seed of God's Word to take root in African soil and to grow by its own inner power until it finally produces fruit for a new life. Such is the program of those who aspire to the missionary life of the future.

In his book on Mission and Ministry in the Global Church, Anthony Bellegamba offers the following description: "Missionaries must be people who live, or have lived, in different cultural milieu, who have been in contact with many different nationalities, and who have prayed with the members of religions different from their own. They have to learn more than one language and they are at home everywhere, without being really at home anywhere. The move easily from one place to another and from one culture to another, without becoming lost or confused or dysfunctional. The missionary of the third millennium is the kind of person which everyone is called to become in the next stage of the development of humanity" namely, a "citizen of the world".

Michael Fortin, M. Afr.

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