No 7 February 1995.1
The February 8 broadcast of "Enjeux", a program on the French-language network of the CBC, captured the interest of many members of religious communities that have a long tradition of missionary activity. Many of them felt affirmed by the program. And yet it also raised some questions.
Where have all the missionaries gone?
Ads for the program emphasized that in the not-so-distant past, becoming a missionary was a much admired calling, and mentioned that a parallel would be drawn between missionaries past and present.
The first part of the program was called Survivors of another era. Starting it off in a cemetery might be considered suggestive. But it must be admitted that there was much that was positive in the way the "missionaries of yesterday" were depicted. Although recognized as a dying breed, these survivors were described as unknown heroes risking their lives for the good of others. Important missionaries of the past were singled out for praise. At the end of the show, there was even talk of rehabilitating the old-style missionaries, the forerunners of today's new-style lay ones.
Yes, it is true that missionary religious are declining in numbers, and that vocations from traditional religious communities are down. But did you know there are still close to 3,500 Canadian missionaries? Among these, 2,000 are from Quebec and work in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. They come from 40 communities of men and 67 communities of women. There are also more than 200 lay missionaries who are associated in one way or another with a missionary institute.
The services they offer in the sister Churches that welcome them are varied and sometimes innovative. They work at every level of education, in preventative and clinical medicine, in every shape and form of community work with all age groups, in every aspect of pastoral ministry as well as in crafts and specialized fields.
Yes, their numbers are much reduced from the 5,000 Quebec missionaries referred to by Canon Lionel Groulx in 1959. But they are still many, and their numbers do compare favourably with the 2,000 cooperants mentioned during the program.
Finally, it is true that more and more members of missionary communities hail from Third World countries. It was pointed out during the program that the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were finding new members in Cuba, Madagascar, Peru, Haiti, China and Bolivia.
There was a time when mission was strictly a one-way street: from Europe and North America to the Third World. Today, mission is more like a huge network operating in every direction, spreading the Good News from one people to another, sharing the Gospel between Churches on six continents. In this new image of mission, missionaries are like a multi-lane interchange designed to facilitate communication and solidarity within the global village. Fewer Quebecers are committing themselves to this kind of activity through a religious community than 40 years ago, that much is certain. However, the number of candidates coming to us from Africa, Asia and South America is growing.
But let's be careful not to overstate matters. The house may not be filled to the rafters, but it is not deserted either. The proof: those 3,500 Canadian missionaries.
The second part of the program, dealing with the "new missionaries" provides more in the way of food for thought. Cooperants -- represented on the program by Louis-André and Brigitte of the international cooperation agency CECI -- do remarkable work. The humanitarian aid they offer deserves admiration, as much for the boldness of the projects they undertake as for the selfless generosity that motivates them.
But can it really be said that the "new" missionaries have totally new faces and different beliefs? And that they will all be helping to improve the lot of the poor, but without the element of religion? Is it true that the cooperants are more objective in giving aid than the old generation of apostles? According to Louis-André, their assistance has no religious or political strings attached. If I build a water system or an irrigation project, he said, I don't make it a condition that we have to build a church. Did yesterday's church missionaries -- and do today's -- put conditions on their aid?
Central to the discussion is the very concept of mission, as it is understood by the members of religious communities.
The Church of yesteryear may have acted like a conqueror, but those days are past. In an address on October 1, 1991, then Archbishop of Montreal Jean-Claude Turcotte said: It is not a matter of rediscovering or rebuilding the Church Triumphant, a Church acceptable to society. We must join together in order to build a community that is more humble and much less powerful, but which truly serves the world. A Church that proclaims the Lord's preferential option for the poor, the underprivileged, for those without a voice.
The church missionaries of today and tomorrow must live in poverty, like the people to whom they are sent, without any hidden agenda or intention of proselytising.
Jean-Guy Dubuc, a journalist with the Montreal daily La Presse, once gave an apt description of what a missionary does: People have always thought that a missionary's work has to do with conversion, that is, a matter of faith. But the missionary's work is essentially one of charity and love. Faith is important: that is what moves these people to such bold and foolish actions. But they do not impose their faith on others: it lives in their hearts and takes the outward form of actions of solidarity, social commitment and sharing. Those who have witnessed their actions understand that, and their thanks are expressed through their survival.
A century ago, Cardinal Lavigerie, founder of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), wrote to his spiritual sons: Tend the sick, serve people in their afflictions. Don't discuss religion. Love and make yourselves loved, because God is Love.
Whoever works to provide a water system or a daycare service, whether church missionary or lay cooperant, must do so selflessly, regardless of the motivation for the project.
However, lasting development, as discussed by Louis-André, goes beyond this when it comes to the integral development of human beings. It may not be necessary to sprinkle holy water on every human endeavour, but that does not mean we should not offer Gospel values to men and women living in fear and worry, enslaved by spiritual or moral poverty. Inner freedom is one of the missionary's greatest achievements.
All missionaries, whether priests (800), religious (2,500) or lay persons (200), have one more service to render mission on the eve of the year 2000. If they continue to incarnate themselves among different peoples by learning their languages and customs and if they are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their struggles, their failures and their victories and even sometimes to be numbered among their wounded and their dead, then they will be living life at its most intense. Whatever their age, they will be the seed that bears its fruit in dying.
Missionaries a relic of the past? Not at all. They are alive and well, and their work goes on.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.