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Prophetic Dialogue
From the XV to the XVI General Chapter
Advances, Difficulties and Challenges

Antonio M. Pernia, SVD
Superior General

First of all, allow me to begin by conveying to all of you the greetings and good wishes of the general council and the entire generalate in Rome. Unfortunately, not all of them could come to this assembly. So they sent me to represent them. I hope I can do that in the course of the coming days.

Secondly, since our ever-amiable zonal coordinator, Jorge Fernandes, gave me the freedom to choose the topic for this talk, I have decided to take up the topic of “Prophetic Dialogue”, an idea of the last general chapter, and the theme of the coming general chapter. And I would like to do so by dividing my talk into three parts. First, I would like to trace the “itinerary” of prophetic dialogue from before and after the 15th General Chapter and speak about its advances and difficulties. Then, I would like to talk about the theme of the coming general chapter and speak of the challenges of prophetic dialogue. Finally, I would like to reflect on the general theological horizon of prophetic dialogue and speak about the conversions that it requires of us as missionaries.

Part 1
The XV General Chapter
Prophetic Dialogue and Its Itinerary

“Prophetic Dialogue” has had a long itinerary. I would like to trace that itinerary from the time of the preparation for the 15th General Chapter to the time after that general chapter and thus see the difficulties and advances of Prophetic Dialogue.

1. Background: Before the 15th General Chapter.

The 15th General Chapter took place in the context of two significant events, one in the Church in general and the other in the SVD in particular – namely, the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 and the 125th anniversary of the foundation of the SVD. In the context of the first event, there was the desire for renewal, and in the context of the second event, there was the desire to seek renewal in the light of the charism of the Founder.

Thus, one of the sentiments that accompanied the 15th general chapter was the desire to renew our Ad Gentes missionary commitment. What does it mean to be an Ad Gentes missionary congregation at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium? What does mission Ad Gentes mean in the 21st century and the third millennium?

Crucial in this effort at renewal was the question “Who are the ‘gentes’ to whom we are called to be missionaries? Who are the ‘gentes’ of today? The first response to this question was given by the first preparatory commission which elaborated the working paper for the chapter. The response was that “ad gentes mission” means going to the frontiers and announcing the gospel there, i.e., on the margins of Church and society. Four frontiers were identified, namely, the frontiers of Class-Culture-Creed-Creation. So, emphasis was placed on the work of liberation and option for the poor (class), inculturation and the evangelization of cultures (cultures), interreligious dialogue and dialogue with secular ideologies (creeds), ecology and integrity of creation (creation). At this time, then, the key-word was “Frontiers”. And this was the key-idea in the working paper which was sent out for discussion to all provinces/regions.

A discussion by the generalate on the responses of the provinces/regions led to a questioning of the notion of “frontiers”. This critique of the concept of “frontiers” was based on the following three observations:

(a) “frontiers” is difficult to define; thus, there was a tendency in the responses from the provinces/regions to consider as “frontiers” any missionary work that is not traditional (i.e., outside of the traditional work in the parish or school; for instance, any JPIC work, work among alcoholics, family ministry, youth apostolate, university work, social communications, etc.).

(b) “frontiers” puts the emphasis on the place rather than on persons; and so, to a certain extent, it continued the traditional understanding of mission along geographic lines (mission is there, here, or some particular place).

(c) “frontiers” connotes the idea of colonialism and conquest, i.e., like the colonialists of the past, the missionary is seen as someone who goes to conquer the frontiers (the image of the missionary as a conquering colonialist or a colonizing conquistador).

Thus, the second preparatory commission moved away from the concept of “frontiers” and adopted the idea of “dialogue”. In contrast to “frontiers”, “dialogue” puts the stress on the people with whom we are sent to dialogue; “dialogue” forces us to identify the groups of people we consider as our partners in dialogue; and “dialogue” connotes respect and humility in our relationship with other people (rather than conquest and domination). But while the key-concept changed (from “frontiers” to “dialogue”), the choice of the “four” groups of people we are called to serve remained. Thus, the second preparatory commission proposed four groups as dialogue partners: (a) faith-seekers or people who have no faith community or religious affiliation, (b) people who are poor and marginalized, (c) people of different cultures, and (d) people of different faith traditions and secular ideologies. And so, our mission was described as a call to primary evangelization and re-evangelization, commitment to the poor and marginalized, cross-cultural witness, and interreligious understanding. Thus, the basic insight behind the four “frontiers” was accepted, except that in place of the frontier of creation, the idea of faith-seekers was taken in order to include the work of primary evangelization and re-evangelization.

So, the idea of the “fourfold dialogue” was the idea that entered into the draft statement for the general chapter. And this was what the chapter discussed. The chapter eventually accepted the idea of the fourfold dialogue, but insisted to add the word “prophetic” before the word “dialogue”. Thus, we now have the notion of the “fourfold prophetic dialogue”. As far as I can see, the reason for the addition of “prophetic” was the desire that we do not dialogue from a neutral position but from our Christian faith and convictions. To quote the chapter document:

It is in dialogue ... that we are called to acknowledge our own sinfulness and to engage in constant conversion, and that we witness to God’s love by sharing our own convictions boldly and honestly, especially where that love has been obscured by prejudice, violence, and hate. It is clear that we do not dialogue from a neutral position, but out of our own faith. Together with our dialogue partners we hope to hear the voice of the Spirit of God calling us forward, and in this way our dialogue can be called prophetic (CS 54).

Some confreres often have difficulty with the combination of the terms “dialogue” and “prophetic”. Sometimes this difficulty lies in the mistaken assumption that “prophetism” only entails proclaiming while “dialogue” entails listening and talking. However, a correct understanding of prophecy and prophetism shows that the prophet not only proclaims but also listens – listens to the Word of God, in the first place, and listens to it wherever it is revealed – in his own religious-cultural tradition, as well as in that of others.

In the end, what can we say about this key-concept proposed by the 15th general chapter? I personally feel that the choice of the term “dialogue” is a happy one.

For me, “Dialogue” seems to be a very 21st-century word. For the 21st century is and needs to be an age of dialogue – both in the sense of the urgent need for dialogue in our deeply divided world and in the sense of the tremendous possibilities for dialogue offered by our globalized world. Somehow one gets a feeling that women and men of the 21st century need to dialogue in order to ensure their own – the world’s – very survival. Indeed, after September 11, 2001, dialogue takes on an added significance. The late Pope John Paul II, in his World Day of Peace Message for January 2002, states that:

... terrorism is often the outcome of that fanatic fundamentalism which springs from the conviction that one's own vision of the truth must be forced upon everyone else. Instead, even when the truth has been reached – and this can happen only in a limited and imperfect way – it can never be imposed. Respect for a person's conscience, where the image of God himself is reflected (cf. Gen 1:26-27), means that we can only propose the truth to others, who are then responsible for accepting it. To try to impose on others by violent means what we consider to be the truth is an offence against human dignity, and ultimately an offence against God whose image that person bears. For this reason, what is usually referred to as fundamentalism is an attitude radically opposed to belief in God.

Dialogue, on the contrary, is the refusal to force on anyone else our vision of the truth. It is the unwillingness to impose the truth – now matter how convinced we are that it is of God – on others. Dialogue is, rather, the acceptance of the conviction that we can only propose the truth to others and invite them to our vision of it. Dialogue is, therefore, the opposite of terrorism, as well as of fundamentalism. And in an age of organized terrorism and fanatic fundamentalism, dialogue is the only way forward. If our mission is indeed to bring hope to our present-day world, it can only be a mission understood in terms of dialogue. If our mission is to proclaim God’s Kingdom as the true source of hope for the world, then it can only be a mission carried out in dialogue with others.

2. After the 15th General Chapter: Difficulties and Advances.

So, what happened after the chapter? Well, there were difficulties and advances. Let us begin with some of the difficulties.

2.1. Difficulties.

(a) Misunderstanding: Something completely new. One of the first difficulties about “prophetic dialogue” was to think that it is something new that we have to do. Many confreres felt that the chapter was proposing an entirely new missionary activity. There was some confusion in this regard. Some confreres felt that they had to leave behind what they were doing and begin doing something else or something new. It was difficult for confreres to see that much of what they are already doing is “prophetic dialogue”, even if the word was never used before.

It was for this reason that we published “In Dialogue with the Word, No. 2” (2001), entitled simply “Prophetic Dialogue”, which is a sharing of experiences of various confreres regarding their work as prophetic dialogue. Various confreres agreed to share their experiences in their work among street children in Angola, in a university in Taiwan, among immigrants in Lisbon, with the Orthodox Church in Rumania, in a parish in Mexico City, among drug addicts in Poland, etc. The main point of this publication was to show that much of what confreres are actually doing is already, in one form or another, prophetic dialogue. There was no need to look for and start something completely new.

(b) Confusion with “Characteristic Dimensions”. Another difficulty is a certain confusion between the fourfold “prophetic dialogue” and the four “characteristic dimensions” (which was another major insight of the last general chapter). Some confreres tend to think that “prophetic dialogue” is about the “characteristic dimensions”. Thus, to the question, “how do you make a parish missionary”, many respond by saying we should implement the characteristic dimensions, no mention being made of the prophetic dialogue. Between these two ideas, it seems that confreres find the former (characteristic dimensions) easier to grasp and implement than the latter (prophetic dialogue). There could be many reasons for this – like, provinces have already been putting the dimensions in place in their provincial structures or plans although under another terminology (e.g., “priorities” or “areas”), or the dimensions are more visible (or can be more visible) than dialogue. Thus, in visits made by the general council and other generalate officials after the chapter, the observation was that there was more talk in the provinces/regions about the characteristic dimensions than about prophetic dialogue. In any case, it is important to note that according the general chapter, the fourfold prophetic dialogue is more fundamental to our SVD mission than the characteristic dimensions. To quote the Chapter Statement: “Our commitment to the fourfold prophetic dialogue is still more fundamental to our ad gentes missionary charism. In fact, the dimensions are more clearly ‘missionary’ when set in the context of the fourfold prophetic dialogue” (CS 76).

In this context, “In Dialogue with the Word, No. 3” (2002) was published after No. 2 which was on prophetic dialogue. The purpose of No. 3 was to clarify the notion of “characteristic dimensions” so that it would not be confused with “prophetic dialogue”. This was done by the sharing of reflections on and experiences of the characteristic dimensions by the secretaries and coordinators at the generalate.

(c) Fourth and first dialogues most difficult. Still another difficulty with “prophetic dialogue” refers to the fourth and first dialogues. It seems that, of the four dialogues, the most difficult to implement is the fourth (i.e., dialogue with people of other religions and secular ideologies), along with the first (dialogue with faith-seekers or people who have no faith community or religious affiliation). When we were preparing “In Dialogue with The Word, No. 2” (2001), which was about “prophetic dialogue”, we decided to ask some confreres, as mentioned earlier, to share their concrete experiences of dialogue. Even if often the four dialogues overlap each other (e.g., dialogue with another culture is often also dialogue with another religion), still we wanted to have an equal spread of the four dialogues. In going over names of confreres whom we could ask to share, we realized that it was easier to find confreres engaged in the dialogue with the poor and marginalized and in the dialogue with people of different cultures, and more difficult to find confreres engaged in the dialogue with people of different religious traditions and in the dialogue with people who have no faith community or religious affiliation (fourth and first dialogues).

Even in our provinces located in non-Christian countries, the tendency seems to be to work among the Catholic minority and not venture into contact with people of other religions and people who have no faith community. In this sense, we still tend to be more pastoral than missionary. Obviously, this is also a question of formation. Apparently the training of our students is geared more towards ministering to Catholics than dialoguing with people of other faiths. Again, venturing into the fourth and first dialogues does not have to be something completely new. One can always begin with small initiatives even in an existing parish or school.

2.2. Advances.

Let me now address the other side of the question, i.e., the advances or positive developments that have been made in regard to “prophetic dialogue”.

(a) Positive reception by the Society in general. First of all, I would like to refer to the positive reception of the idea of “prophetic dialogue” by the Society in general. It seems to me that in general the document of the last general chapter, along with the key-idea of “prophetic dialogue”, was well received by the confreres. There may have been some indifference on the part of some confreres, but I think there was no resistance or objection to the idea. To my knowledge, there has not been any letter or article or book or publication which contested or objected to the idea. There may have been some misunderstanding or lack of understanding of “prophetic dialogue”, but the idea has not caused any conflict or tension or division in the Society. The idea did not create groups for or against “prophetic dialogue”. And I think this fact alone says much about “prophetic dialogue”. I think we can say that “prophetic dialogue” has struck a positive chord in the hearts and minds of most confreres. I think what the chapter said about “prophetic dialogue” turned out to be true – that is, that “the deepest and best understanding of our SVD call to mission is expressed in the term “Dialogue,” or more specifically, “Prophetic Dialogue.” I believe this is one major “advance” or “achievement” in regard to prophetic dialogue.

(b) Efforts to deepen our understanding of Prophetic Dialogue. Another positive thing about prophetic dialogue is that there seems to be a general effort to try to understand it better. This can be seen in fact that “prophetic dialogue” has become the theme of several gatherings of all kinds. This was the theme of the recently held “ 2°. Congresso Verbita Brasileira” held in Sta. Isabel. Likewise, this was the theme of the zonal assembly of PANAM in 2001 and again this year in 2005, as well as in ASPAC in 2002. “Prophetic Dialogue” was also the theme of many provincial assemblies and chapters, as well as of the general visitations during this sexennium. “Prophetic Dialogue” is also a regular topic in the Nemi renewal courses, as well as in other similar courses, like the workshop for new provincials in 2002 and 2005, the workshop for OTP directors in 2002, the workshop for formators in 2003. This fact shows the interest confreres have in “prophetic dialogue” and their desire to deepen their understanding of it. I suspect that the international situation created by the September 11 terrorist attacks helped to raise the consciousness of our confreres about need and relevance of interreligious dialogue and the dialogue among cultures and nations.

(c) Response to new missionary situations. A third positive thing about “prophetic dialogue” is that it has helped our provinces/regions to have a particular focus in their mission statement, as well as in their missionary work itself. With the prodding of the generalate, provinces/regions have been motivated to try to clearly identify their dialogue partners in their province or region, i.e., identify the groups of people they feel they are called to minister to in their locality. But not just a focus in their mission statement or missionary work. In some provinces, “prophetic dialogue” has helped to identify new missionary situations. In EUROPE, for instance, some provinces have used the idea of “prophetic dialogue” to discover that they need to respond to such missionary challenges as migrants and refugees, faith-seekers in the secularized or postcommunist big cities (like Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, Moscow, etc.). In AFRAM, “prophetic dialogue” has helped provinces /regions to respond to missionary situations, like people with AIDS, street children, out-of-school youth, internally displaced people, refugees. In PANAM, “prophetic dialogue” has opened the eyes of confreres to see a missionary challenge in the phenomenon of the sects, the indigenous people, the excluded and the “new poor”. In ASPAC, “prophetic dialogue” has renewed confreres’ commitment of interreligious dialogue, ministry to non-Christian students in schools and universities, collaboration with Muslims in social projects (like relief work among the Tsunami victims in Banda Aceh).

Part 2
The XVI General Chapter
Challenges of Prophetic Dialogue

Let me pass on now to talk about the theme of the coming general chapter and speak of the challenges of prophetic dialogue.

1. The Theme.

As we all know by now, the theme chosen for the coming general chapter is “Living Prophetic Dialogue: Spirituality, Community, Formation, Leadership, Finances”. I would like to make two observations regarding the theme.

(a) The first observation is that the theme returns to the main insight of the last general chapter, namely: “prophetic dialogue”. This is in consideration of many provinces/regions which responded to the invitation to propose a theme for the chapter by saying that they felt that there was need to deepen our understanding of prophetic dialogue. In fact, one comment about our general chapters from many confreres is that we seem to be changing ideas and key-words too fast. At the 1988 chapter, the key-word was “passing-over”, at the 1994 chapter “communion”, and at the last chapter (2000) “prophetic dialogue”. Some say that we seem to move from one key-idea to another so quickly that there is hardly any time to really internalize each idea and implement it in our provinces/regions. With this theme, then, we do not expect to come up with another new idea or key-word but stay with the notion of “prophetic dialogue” and try to deepen our understanding of it.

(b) The second observation is that the theme says “living” prophetic dialogue, and not “doing” prophetic dialogue. In other words, the emphasis is on prophetic dialogue as a way of life rather than as our mission. Thus, the principal aim of the chapter is to renew our religious life in the light of our mission understood as prophetic dialogue. With the last general chapter, I think we have been able to renew our mission through the notion of prophetic dialogue. But it seems that we have not been able to renew our religious life in a similar way. In the coming general chapter, therefore, we wish to ask ourselves: “what kind of religious life is required if we want to carry out our mission as prophetic dialogue?” In other words, we need a renewed understanding of the religious life – one that would complement our understanding of our mission as prophetic dialogue. And just as prophetic dialogue was a key to renewing our understanding of mission, I believe prophetic dialogue can also provide the key for renewing our understanding of the religious life. Thus, with the lens of prophetic dialogue, we intend to look at our internal life, and examine five fundamental aspects of our religious life – spirituality, community, formation, leadership and finances.

So, we would like our religious life to be renewed in such a way that it harmonizes integrally with our mission of prophetic dialogue. It does not help, for instance, if we go out during the day to engage in dialogue with faith seekers and return to our community at night and be constrained to follow a monastic spirituality. Or, we go out during the day to engage in dialogue with Muslims and return at night to our community of confreres with whom we cannot even talk about Islam. Or, expect our young missionaries to engage in dialogue with people of other cultures and do not provide them with a course on cultural anthropology during their formation years. Or, expect our missionaries to be dialogical in their approach to mission but find themselves having to deal with superiors who are authoritarian in their exercise of leadership. Or, expect that our missionaries work with the poor and marginalized but have no commitment to promote self-reliance and the local sustainability in regard to social projects.

2. The Sub-themes.

Allow me now to speak briefly about each of the five sub-themes. I believe the five sub-themes were not chosen arbitrarily. They have to do with those aspects of our religious life which are treated explicitly by our constitutions. They also jibe with some recent developments that have been taking place in our Society:

  1. Spirituality:
    • cc. 201-220 (Evangelical Counsels) / cc. 401-417 (Life in Word and Sacrament)
    • The Arnold Janssen Spirituality Center
  2. Community:
    • cc. 301-316 (Community Life)
    • Increasing internationality of our Communities
  3. Formation:
    • cc. 501-523 (Formation and Education)
    • A New Mission Paradigm
  4. Leadership:
    • cc. 601-640 (Government of our Society)
    • The Zonal Structure
  5. Finances:
    • cc. 641-645 (Administration of Temporal Goods)
    • Dwindling Financial Resources

And now a word on each of these sub-themes.

2.1. Spirituality.

The questions on spirituality in the “Guide for Reflection” are the following: “How have your encounters with our dialogue partners affected your spiritual life? What practices most help you to cultivate your own ongoing conversion?”

Here, the development in the Society is the establishment of the Arnold Janssen Spirituality Center in Steyl. Since 1989, the AJSCenter has been trying to promote spiritual animation among our confreres. I am aware of the fact that some SVDs do have reservations regarding the team’s approach to SVD or Arnoldus spirituality or the way they concretely conduct spiritual animation. Nevertheless, I think it can be said that their existence and activities have underlined the importance of spiritual animation as an ongoing challenge for the Society.

I believe one important element in the spiritual renewal of the Society is the effort to achieve a greater harmony between the two aspects of our one vocation, namely, a harmony between the religious and missionary aspects. As religious-missionaries we always run the risk of separating these two aspects of our vocation – living our religious life without reference to our mission, and doing our missionary work without reference to our religious commitment. Achieving a greater harmony between these two aspects entails learning to live our religious life in such a way that it is always oriented to our mission, and learning to do our mission in such a way that it necessarily flows from our religious commitment.

Achieving a greater harmony between the two aspects of our vocation is really nothing else than developing a truly missionary spirituality. Fundamentally a missionary spirituality is one that arises from and is nourished by our mission engagement itself. The XIII general chapter was major step forward in this direction when it spoke of the spirituality of “passing over”. I believe the challenge is to develop those insights some more in the hope of developing a missionary spirituality.

2.2. Community.

The questions on community in the “Guide for Reflection” are the following: “What do you most expect from the members of your province, district, and house community? What do you do to help build up community?”

Here the development in the Society is the growing internationality and multiculturality of our communities. Obviously living or working in a multicultural community requires the development of additional gifts, talents or skills than living or working in culturally homogeneous community. One needs to be prepared to deal with cultural differences that can easily turn into cultural tensions and conflicts. One has to pay attention to greatly diverse needs and expectations and deal with differing mentalities and perceptions. One needs to help create a situation whereby cultural differences do not obstruct but truly enrich community life. One has to strike a delicate balance between promoting diversity and preserving unity.

In the future, SVD confreres will need to have not just a certain sensitivity to cultures in general but also a certain skill in working towards the integration of cultures in particular. Confreres will need to know how to negotiate between two or even more cultures – both in the SVD community he belongs to and among the people he is asked to work.

2.3. Formation.

The questions on community in the “Guide for Reflection” are the following: “What is needed in initial formation to assure we are prepared to live our commitment to Prophetic Dialogue? What experiences of ongoing formation are helpful?”

Here, the development in the Society is the change in our paradigm of mission. There are many ways of interpreting this new mission paradigm. Some say it is a move from an exclusively “Church-centered” to a “kingdom-centered” understanding of mission. Others say it is a move from a “conquest mode” to a “dialogue mode” of mission. However way we call it, this new mission paradigm has come to be connected in the SVD with such expressions as “the threefold passing over”, or “mission at the service of communion”, or “prophetic dialogue”.

The challenge here is how to revise our formation programs – both initial and ongoing – in such a way as to prepare our confreres to be missionaries under this new paradigm. In the majority of cases, it seems that our formation programs have not yet adapted themselves to this new mission paradigm. In many cases, our formation programs are still largely clerical and pastoral in orientation, and not yet sufficiently missionary. We need to revitalize our formation programs. In this regard, we need to strengthen such elements as:

(a) The OTP/CTP as a formation program of concrete immersion in a culture other than one’s own. From all indications, the OTP seems to be an immensely successful program. Many confreres have been helped by it. But how many of our candidates can join the OTP/CTP program. Of our candidates in Indonesia for instance, the percentage of those who undergo the program does not go beyond 2%. Of course, we have alternative programs like the regency program, the program of mission exposure, or the pastoral year. But often the accent of these programs is not like the OTP which is the exposure to another culture.

(b) Another element which needs to be strengthened is the study of cultural anthropology in our various academic curricula. Apparently the state of anthropological formation in our seminaries and centers of formation leaves much to be desired. The generalate has been trying to revitalize the Anthropos Institute, by de-centering it from St. Augustin’s in Germany and broadening its cope beyond just the publication work being done in St. Augustin. We do not know how this will proceed. But it is our hope that the Anthropos Institute could help in this area.

(c) Two other elements which need attention is, first, the more immediate program of preparation for departing missionaries in the province or country of origin, and second, the program of introduction of new missionaries in the receiving province or country. Not all provinces or countries have these programs yet. We need to insist that each province or group of provinces in a country organize these programs.

(d) Finally, our ongoing formation programs also need to be revitalized in the light of this new mission paradigm. Often it is our older confreres who need a new orientation in mission. Confreres in the province/region also need to know how to welcome new missionaries coming from other cultures and to regard internationality and multiculturality as a richness and an asset rather than a threat and a problem.

2.4. Leadership.

The questions on leadership in the “Guide for Reflection” are the following: “What qualities of leadership do you feel are most needed today in your community, your province, and in our Society? How do you exercise leadership? How do you cooperate with leadership?”

Here, the development in the Society is the emergence of the zonal structure. As we all know, the zones are not meant to be yet another level of authority in the Society. In fact, c. 635.1 explicitly states that “the zonal organization does not modify the norms of government of our Society and leaves the levels of authority unchanged.” They are meant, rather, to provide a complementary structure – hopefully, more charismatic or prophetic – to the juridical structure of the Society. Thus, if the juridical structure allows us to view the SVD as a vertically organized institution where authority flows from the generalate to the local communities, the zonal structure permits us to see the Society as a horizontally arranged community of provinces and regions, collaborating among themselves and coordinating their common activities and concerns.

The system of zones, therefore, changes the idea of authority and leadership in the Society – from one that is a purely hierarchical and centralized to one that is more collegial and participative. Leadership is no longer to be expected exclusively from the central administration, but also from the group of provincials in the zone, and even from the zonal coordinating committee or zonal secretariat. The zones, then, provide a structure for participative leadership and co-responsibility in the Society. Through the zones, the provincials participate in giving direction to the Society. Through the zones, they are responsible no longer just for their own individual provinces but for the entire Society as well.

Today, then, every SVD needs to develop the instinct for co-responsibility and participative leadership. He needs to have the ability to dialogue, consult, collaborate and coordinate.

2.5. Finances.

The questions on finances in the “Guide for Reflection” are the following: “How can we use our resources more responsibly? What resources can we share with our partners in dialogue? What resources do we hope that they will share with us?”

Here, the development in the Society is the progressive dwindling of our financial resources – a development which is causing serious preoccupations in the generalate. Several circular letters have been written about this topic. It should be noted that the money at the disposal of the generalate for distribution to the provinces/regions to help fund budget deficits (March Distribution), mission projects (September Distribution), and social needs (December Distribution) has never been sufficient to cover all the requests from the provinces/regions. That is why an appeal was made as early as 1990 for the provinces/regions to reduce their requests for subsidies. The response was positive, i.e., requests did decline. But the decline in the money available at the generalate was more drastic. In fact, in 2002, the money available for distribution was only a little over one-half (56.3%) of the amount of available money in 1993 (nine years earlier). Consequently, in 2002, there was money to respond to only 67.5% of the requests – the lowest percentage so far. This has been the trend since the last five or six years, and all indications are that this trend will continue in the years to come.

In response to this situation the generalate has insisted that provinces/regions take seriously the question of financial self-reliance. The provinces/regions have responded in a variety of ways, some on the personal level, others on the institutional level. Most reply that while they are beginning to take the first steps, it will still take years before they reach the goal of self-reliance.

This, however, is not just a financial problem. In the first place, it is a question of our way of doing mission. Our attitude and approach to mission work will have to change. Earlier we spoke of the “conquest mode” of mission, whereby mission is thought of as a one-way street where the missionary does everything for the people. In contrast, we saw the need for a “dialogue mode” of mission, whereby mission is seen as a two-way exchange of gifts between the missionary and the people. In this latter mode of mission, the missionary will seek not only to offer to the people the gifts he has or is but also to be dependent on the people and on their gifts. The missionary is one who comes seeking hospitality and not one who comes imposing his or her plans on the people.

Secondly, this development touches our vow of poverty and our commitment to a truly simple lifestyle. In the light of our financial crisis, we at the generalate have learned to negotiate with bishops by saying: “we will give you the men, but you will have to support them”. In response, most bishops are willing to support our missionaries, but of course only according to the level of support that they provide their local diocesan priests. Such a level of support will not be very comfortable, but neither will it be very poor. Sometimes I dare not answer the next question of the bishops: “Are your men able to live the kind of life at that level?” Here, then, is where our vow of poverty and our commitment to a simple lifestyle become crucial. Indeed, if we want to be one with the people, we will have to be one with them at this particular level.

Thirdly, this crisis is also a question of our attitude toward the Society. A basic change of mentality, a conversion of the mind, needs to take place – from thinking that the Society is there to financially support the confrere to thinking that each confrere needs to contribute to the support the Society. Or as c 213.2 says: “Whatever a confrere acquires through his own efforts or as a member of the Society, he acquires for the Society. The same holds good for pensions, insurance monies, etc.” We need a renewed attitude towards financial self-reliance. We need a new generation of missionaries who begin to get used to the idea that there is no money from abroad to support our missionary activities.

Part 3
“Missio Dei”
The Theological Horizon of Prophetic Dialogue

Let me now offer some reflections on the theological horizon that stands behind our new understanding of mission as “prophetic dialogue”. And this is the notion of “Missio Dei”, or God’s Mission. This is a fundamental insight that requires a fundamental change in our view of mission – that is, a change from seeing mission as “our mission” or the “Church’s mission” to seeing mission as primarily God’s mission. This is how the last general chapter puts it:

The starting point of ... [the] renewal [of mission] must always be the conviction that mission is first of all the work of God (Redemptoris Missio 24) and that our calling is but a call to share in the mission of the Triune God. By the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, the Divine Word mediates life to the world and thereby draws us into communion (34).

“Missio Dei” means that the origin of mission is not the church but the Triune God himself. Mission is there not because the church has mandated it but because God is a Triune God. The Triune God is communion and communication, interaction and dialogue, between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this inner communication or dialogue overflows into – or better, embraces – creation and history. Mission, then, is the Triune God’s ongoing dialogue with the world and with humanity – a dialogue that invites and draws humanity into full communion with the Divine community. Our call to mission is a call to participate in this ongoing dialogue. Thus, we say mission is God’s first and foremost. We, missionaries or the church, are called only to share and collaborate in this mission which is God’s.

This fundamental insight of “Missio Dei” implies at least four conversions:

1. From Activism to Contemplation.

Very often we are very “Pelagian” in our mission. We act as if mission depends more on our efforts than on God’s grace. And so we often fall into the danger of “activism” – that is, the danger of thinking that the best way to do mission is to become effective in what we do. And so we work and work and work, and give our attention almost exclusively to the effectivity of what we do, and no longer have the time to also pay attention to the quality of our lives and the credibility of our personal witness. This is the danger of behaving as if all that counts is what we do and thus neglect to care for who we are.

Seeing mission as “Missio Dei” makes us realize that our participation in mission is fundamentally an encounter with mystery – the mystery of the Triune God who calls all of humanity to share in his life and glory, the mystery of God’s salvific plan for the world, the mystery of the presence and action of Christ and the Spirit in the world. Thus, the very first challenge in mission is to seek out, discern and strengthen the presence of Christ and the action of the Spirit in the world. But it will be impossible to discern if we do not approach mission in contemplation. For to contemplate is precisely to look, to listen, to learn, to discern, to respond, to collaborate.

The missionary, then, evangelizes not primarily by doing things for the people but by being with them and enabling them to do things themselves. The missionary’s mission method will be marked not by frenetic activity but by contemplative presence among God's people. The missionary will not be tempted to explain away the mystery of God, but rather try to lead people into this very mystery through signs and symbols in respectful dialogue. He or she will give priority to being missionary over doing missionary things.

2. From Rugged Individualism to Collaboration.

A second conversion is from “rugged individualism” to collaboration and teamwork. Often we think that we are the only ones called to mission – whether in the sense of the individual or in the sense of our Society. “Rugged individualism” has long been a description of the SVD missionary. We do our work, and do it well, but it is our work and no one else’s. Another missionary is only a nuisance or a hindrance to our work or even a rival in mission. This can apply to the individual, e.g., I do not need any other confrere, no assistant, no companion. But this can also apply to our Society, e.g., we do our work when we do it by ourselves. We do not need other missionaries. Let them find some other work. We have our own work and we have no need of collaborators.

Seeing mission as “Missio Dei” makes us realize that our call to mission is really a call to share in God’s mission, which implies a call to collaborate with God, first of all, and with all others who are similarly called by God. “Missio Dei” implies that mission is larger than what each individual or each congregation can do. It is even larger than what all of us together can do. Collaboration, then, is not just a strategy for mission. We collaborate not just because we want to be more effective in mission. Collaboration, in fact, is an essential characteristic of mission. Collaboration is a statement about the nature of mission. By collaborating we are saying that mission is God’s in the first place and that the primary agent of mission is God’s Spirit.

Here again, we see the need for contemplation in mission. If mission is collaborating with God, then it requires being attuned, through contemplation, to God’s will.

3. From Conquest to Dialogue.

During the era of colonization mission was carried in the so-called “conquest” mode. Indeed, in those days, the missionaries often came on “the coat-tails of the colonizers”. This was the era of the marriage between church and state, when the missionary work of the church was undertaken under the patronage of kings and emperors. Friars and colonizers stood side by side – the one with cross and the other with sword in hand – to evangelize the natives, but also to subdue them into submission to foreign rule. This way of doing mission operated out of medieval theology where the Church believed herself to be the one and only bastion of truth. Other religions were regarded as in error at best and demonic at worst. The Church saw it to be her moral obligation to conquer, dominate and replace these religions.

Seeing mission as “Missio Dei” acknowledges that God has been in dialogue with all peoples from the beginning. Other religious and cultural traditions, therefore, contain “seeds of the Word or “rays of the Light”. They are not entirely evil or totally in error. Thus Vatican II introduced the theme of dialogue, especially dialogue with the rest of the world that owes no allegiance to the Church. Dialogue, of course, presupposes a certain respect and regard for the partner-indialogue. For no one engages in a dialogue with another who is regarded as unworthy or inferior. Thus, documents of Vatican II state that the Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in other religions, and urge Catholics to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.

This entails that today the missionary is called to evangelize from a position of lowliness and humility. He or she will not seek power – economic, cultural, technological, or even media power. The only power he or she will need is the power of the Word and of the Spirit. And that power is the power of love, which is manifested in self-giving. The ultimate reason for dialogue and humility in mission is that mission is God’s and not ours. Put differently, the Kingdom of God is an eschatological reality. And, even if we are called and sent to work for it, we do not know how, when and in what form the God’s Kingdom will emerge in the world.

4. From only evangelizing to also being evangelized.

In the past, mission was thought of as a one-directional activity. Evangelization was like a one-way street, where everything was done by the missionary for the people. The missionary was the evangelizer, the people the evangelized. The missionary was the bearer of good news, the people the recipient of the gospel. The missionary was the subject, the people the object. The missionary was the preacher who proclaimed the truth, the people the ones who needed conversion.

Seeing mission as “Missio Dei” which entails dialogue changes our view of mission. It corrects the notion of mission as a one-way street which puts the emphasis almost entirely on the great work done by missionaries and the great gift brought by them, with little attention paid to the recipients of this gift. Dialogue underlines the fact that the Spirit is at work in the people being evangelized as well as in the evangelizers, and that mission is a two-way exchange of gifts between missionaries and the people with whom they work.

Consequently the missionaries must be ready to give and receive, to evangelize and be evangelized, to speak and to listen. They must learn to walk with the people and respect the pace of the people’s walking. They must be prepared to change and be changed, to form and be formed, to invite to conversion and be converted. As a person of dialogue, the missionary must be one who facilitates rather than blocks the ongoing dialogue between God and God’s people.

So, the primary conversion required is seeing mission as “Mission Dei”, God’s mission, and not so much as “our mission” or even the “Church’s mission”. From this, flow four other subsequent conversions: From activism to contemplation, From rugged individualism to collaboration, From conquest to dialogue, and From only evangelizing to also being evangelized.

We have a phrase in our Constitutions that underline all this – “His mission is our mission, his life is our life”. Our mission is but a sharing of His mission, i.e., the mission of the Divine Word. May we all be true Divine Word Missionaries by striving to share the mission of the Divine Word who is primary agent of “Mission Dei”, God’s Mission.


Dear confreres, I believe it was prophetic of the last general chapter to have chosen “dialogue” as the term that best expresses our SVD call to mission. With this term, we connect our mission with one of the most pressing concerns of today’s world. But obviously, as a term that is rather new in SVD terminology, it is only to be expected that prophetic dialogue encounter difficulties. However, it has also made some positive advances. Above all, it continues to challenge us. I believe we have not yet been able to explore all the implications and possibilities of prophetic dialogue. We, indeed, need to deepen our understanding of it.

It is my hope, therefore, that the next general chapter will be able to address some of the basic challenges of prophetic dialogue, especially as it relates to our religious life. Let us pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit on the 16th general chapter. And let us ask for the intercession of our saints – Arnold Janssen and Joseph Freinademetz – so that the next general chapter will truly be an experience of a new Pentecost for the Society of the Divine Word.