EVANGELIZING MISSION: MISSIONARY CONSIDERATIONS FROM FANGAK, SOUTH SUDAN
Created on Monday, 15 December 2014 02:50
15 December 2014 – (By Fr. Christian Carlassare – Nov. 2014) – Fr. Christian Carlassare is a Comboni Missionary and has been evangelising in a mission of first evangelisation in Old Fangak, in Jonglei state, South Sudan. Fr. Carlassare writes a missionary reflection from his own missionary experience.
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The beginning and the end of every missionary endeavour is the personal and ecclesial experience that Jesus Christ has transformed our lives. This comes with the certainty that only He can offer this change, a newness of life and eternal salvation for the person who believes, loves and hopes in his name. If this insight is missing, everything is missing. This point has been well expressed by Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio when he writes: “To the question, “why mission?” we reply with the Church’s faith and experience that true liberation consists in opening oneself to the love of Christ. In him, and only in him, are we set free from all alienation and doubt, from slavery to the power of sin and death. Christ is truly “our peace” (Eph 2:14); “the love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor 5:14), giving meaning and joy to our life. Mission is an issue of faith, an accurate indicator of our faith in Christ and his love for us.”
The love of Christ and the love for Christ are put into practice by loving the least of his brothers and sisters (Mt 25:40). Not those brothers that we choose, but those to whom we have been sent, or those who have been sent to us by divine providence. Not in order to get on in life, or to receive approval, or to seek self-realization, or to be known to have achieved something good, but because love demands a disinterested and free self-giving. It means, therefore, to come down from the throne or pulpit whatever it may be. It means also removing those masks that are obstacles to an authentic relationship between us and the people, overcoming our prejudices and self-made programs as well.
The people are not at the service of the mission, but the missionary is at the service of the people (Phil 2:5-11). And all this manifests itself in so many small, and at the same time important, attitudes: give time without losing time, learn to listen instead of thinking you know already, dedicate attention to the language and culture, and perceive the different vision of life (including values and the way of reasoning) without being judgmental. The missionary could be tempted to say: “If they don’t change this or that attitude, they will never understand the Gospel.” His behaviour would be like a rock in the sea against which the waves smash. Instead, the missionary should not concentrate so much in changing attitudes, but first understand and respect them. Later, the Gospel, once it has penetrated the culture, will make its way and bring the culture to maturity and facilitate those changes that are necessary. It is a transformation from within. The love for the people becomes always trust in the people.
Often, we speak of the mission as missio dei. This theological concept not only tells us that the mission belongs to God but also that we missionaries are not the protagonists. We are just servants, though not useless. It tells us also that the mission is a bigger reality than what we missionaries are or do: It precedes us in the preparation that God works in the hearts of the people and cultures. It precedes us through the work that other pastoral agents have done before us. And it continues even after our departure. The individual missionary isn’t the fulfilment of the missionary work. At the same time, when he has the courage to get fully involved and be a part of it, even if his contribution is small, it is still significant. Therefore, the missionary should be available for the mission with an attitude of deep humility, keeping the hope against all hope, sowing without seeing fruit, not losing interest even if he encounters lack of interest.
Everything that we transmit to the people also needs to contain and communicate clearly the message of the Gospel. This needs a particular pedagogy: It doesn’t matter what we think to convey, but what the people really perceive of our presence among them. It is important that all what we say and do makes visible what we are and doesn’t produce a dichotomy between what we do and what we claim to be. It is not enough to do good works to be a reflection of the gospel message, especially in these times in which there are numerous humanitarian agencies and organizations that have the dream of eliminating poverty from the face of the earth. Therefore, it is necessary to remain in contact with who we are in order to direct to a greater purpose all that we do, as pope John Paul II writes in Redemptoris Missio: “The first form of witness is the very life of the missionary, of the Christian family, and of the ecclesial community, which reveal a new way of living. The missionary who, despite all his or her human limitations and defects, lives a simple life, taking Christ as the model, is a sign of God and of transcendent realities.” (RM 42)
The whole missionary work and its activities have to be directed towards the proclamation of the Gospel; and in view of this task, they are all important. But in my opinion, the ordinary pastoral work, which at times is considered an outdated form of mission, is in reality the purest form of evangelization. The prayers, the visits to the families and to the sick, the catechesis and the celebration of the sacraments are those moments of grace where true liberation of the human being happens and one is able to savour that peace which the world cannot give.
For that reason, it is important in our missionary reflection to offer special attention to a pastoral theology so that every missionary is capable of developing an adequate pastoral program and a catechesis which the people can understand. We don’t lack creativity, though we need to be consistent. I have the impression that most of our attention – especially because of the ongoing “emergency situation” – is directed to human promotion and answering to the demands of the people. And I suspect that the pastoral work is often practiced like a performance of religious functions. I don’t deny that they are joyful and dynamic practices, but they remain just superficial religious functions when they aren’t part of an integral and inculturated pastoral program.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t want to distinguish pastoral from human promotion to elevate one to the detriment of the other and to create an artificial dichotomy. But I hear comments of a certain type, such as “We are not diocesan priests.”; “We don’t limit ourselves to parish work.”; “We are there for the integral development of the person.” I fear that we risk being caught up by the demands of the “horizontal” level and use the “vertical” orientation towards God only as personal motivation to do humanitarian work; almost as slogans are used in political campaigns. Instead, it is my intention to maintain that pastoral and human promotion are complementary like the two sides of a coin: both in service of proclaiming the Gospel.
In fact, preaching is not speaking of God according to what we think is good and lovely, a domesticated god that is at the service of implementing human rights, but it is a word that calls to conversion and to offer oneself completely. In the same way, human promotion is not just at the service of social and economic progress, deceiving people that they could find simple solutions to complex problems. Instead, it is the work of “humanizing” the individual and society. Like Jesus proclaimed the Gospel by making himself human, in the same way also our work of evangelization is the work of humanization so that every person finds his or her true humanity in Jesus Christ. And this becomes possible only if some basic conditions are met such as a just and sustainable development, peace and stability in a country, covering the basic needs to be able to live in dignity, a better quality of life, health and education, the respect of human dignity regardless of social status, sex, etc.
It is important to point out that the missionary is not the only agent in the work of evangelization. Already Daniel Comboni spoke of this in his plan when the missionary still had a very central role in the work of first evangelization. Today in South Sudan, we continue to speak of first evangelization because the announcement of the Gospel is characterized by discontinuity and fragmentation with the consequence that its values were internalized only partially. However today, the missionary finds himself inserted in a church that is young, with great hopes and desires to move ahead autonomously. I believe that the main agents of evangelization are the local people who have come to believe in Jesus. In many cases, those same people have founded the first Christian communities by gathering people to pray. They are the witnesses that the Lord has chosen to bring his Word to all. What could a missionary or parish priest do without his catechists?
The catechists of Fangak are our joy, even though they are often also our cross. But without them, we can’t reach anywhere. I say this not only because it is them who lead us from chapel to chapel through forests and swamps where we would only get lost, but also because they have taught us everything we know of their people. It is them who help us to communicate with the people and who continue to transmit the Gospel message where we can’t reach. The work of catechists is a ministry in the Church that is irreplaceable even by the most hard-working missionary. This applies also to the field of human promotion:
The missionary is easily tempted to answer to the needs as far as he is able to find funds and manage projects. And funds are easily found. He may believe he can perform miracles with those means. Obviously, the local people consent and applaud. But in reality, in this way, we restrict the autonomy, the creativity and the initiative of the people to participate in the work of the mission. And there is nothing more damaging than this. I have experienced several times that, when the people are consulted, they answer more than generously and solve a large part of the problems. The presence of the missionary in the field of human promotion is important so far as he evangelizes/humanizes through it. The missionary only motivates to begin the work which, later, has to be able to continue mainly with local resources.
The last thought reflects the relation between the missionaries and the local church (diocese). It is not surprising that, in the past, there have been tensions. The moments of passage are always delicate because they call for a change. During these years, the missionaries and the local church made steps to reconcile themselves with the past. But missionaries are still challenged to redefine their presence in the mission at the service of the local church. There are still uneasy situations. For example, there is the “stopgap” missionary who knows doing extraordinarily well what others can’t do. There is also the missionary who does nothing else than covering up the gaps and assumed shortcomings of the local church, and he does it according to his own plans and capacity.
Nevertheless, the local church with her hierarchy welcomes our presence and our work with great respect. But feelings can be mixed: of gratitude and frustration, of admiration and the awareness that we, after all, are different from them. For a better insertion in the local reality, I suggest that we should be fully part of the local church where the only space of freedom is at the service of the Holy Spirit who renews his Church. In fact, the missionary shouldn’t only “do mission” but also “be church”. There isn’t the one without the other.
(Translated from Italian by Fr. Gregor Schmidt)