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ROME DECEMBER 06, 2008
Centennial Symposium

COMEDY AND MISSIONARY COMPASSION

Pio Estepa SVD
(in response to Maria Burke SSpS)

e normally associate ‘comedy’ with joy and laughter … whereas ‘compassion’ with tears of sympathetic sorrow over situational tragedies of others. For this reason, linking ‘mission’ with ‘compassion’ sounds harmonious. But linking ‘missionary compassion’ further with ‘comedy’ is at first hearing out of tune. In fact it offended the theological and spiritual sensibilities of some pious serious souls in our own community.

‘By the waters of Babylon, we hung our harps,’ laments psalm 137, ‘for how can we sing joyful praises to the Lord in a land of oppressive exile?’ Echoing on the psalm, we can further ask: how can we dare to laugh in our present-day world … where children are hunger and slave while being robbed of carefree childhood? … where terrorists kill masses of innocent lives –even in God’s name– to sow worldwide fear and panic? …where our consumerist cultures are pushing our home planet toward rapid ecological extinction?

To this poignant question, Sr Burke’s reflection gave no explicit response. Yet she has left us enough insightful cues for us to figure out personal answers for ourselves.

Firstly, she said that comedy or sense of humor is above all a spiritual ‘vantage point’. As a frame of mind, comedy consists of mentally linking what are clashing or incongruous ideas and experiences. She even goes further to assert that as a frame of faith, comedy enables us to welcome incongruities in human life as mysterious ways by which God lovingly leads us to provident surprises.

Secondly, Sr Burke sums up the SSpS mission project as ‘intercultural evangelization’. Evangelization as witnessing to the Glad News of Jesus Christ bears saving fruit only to the extent that compassion is both its motive and process. On the other hand, interculturality is a chaotic mission field whose promise of a new ecclesial or sociocultural order can neither be planned nor foreseen. All that the Holy Spirit expect from us is an openness and readiness to welcome whatever comic letdowns and surprises come our way.

As early as in learning a foreign language we as missionaries already start experiencing such comic incongruities. We struggle to say what we want to mean, but often end up being dismayed to know what our listeners understood that we did not mean. Just to give an example…

In the early 1980s I was a young and raw ‘bush missionary’ in Congo (when the country was still known as Zaire). Once I was preparing there a group of adolescents for first communion through a series of catechism classes. I devoted a session to explaining who Mary was, and began by narrating St Luke’s narrative of the Annunciation.

Usual question-and-answer followed to find out how much the young ones understood. So I asked: ‘What does the word “virgin” mean?’ There was silence. So I persisted by pointing to one of them who was a shy 12-year girl: ‘What about Suzanne here, is she a virgin or not?’

This time the response came in loud chorus: ‘No, Father!’ In my puzzlement I blurted, ‘Why not?’ Soon enough a brave and bright one spoke while the others nodded in assent: ‘…because she has not yet conceived by the Holy Spirit.’

This single case shows how language learning is not just a matter of grammar and vocabulary. As a Slovak proverb tersely put it: 'Learning to speak a new language is putting on a new soul.’ It demands feeling with and feeling for how cultural others think, judge and act.

After language, the next series of comic letdowns and surprises comes with having to live with confreres not of our prior choice. In addition to the experiential examples given by Sr Burke and Fr Pernia, let me share still another one where generation gap further complicates intercultural communal living. In the year 2000 I had the privilege to be initiated into the Australian culture and local church by living with two diocesan priests: an elderly Irish monsignor 15 years my senior, and his young Australian vicar 15 years my junior. Because their pastoral visions and approaches were at odds, we rarely had friendly chats at our meal table… just lively arguments. Both of them welcomed me as their common brother mainly because I served as their referee. Most of what the elder priest said to the younger began with ‘don’t’, whereas the latter often began with ‘why?’

Only once did they swap starters. That was when the elder said, ‘Why do you insist on your project proposal, Father? With my 41 years of pastoral experience, I’m telling you: it won’t work!’ His assistant snapped back: ‘Don’t lie to me, Monsignor. All you had was just one year of pastoral experience –repeated 40 times!’ I had fun listening to both of them argue, yet I felt sorry. For if only they could hear their brilliant duel of ideas with a sense of humor, they would have learned to welcome their differences, and come to see how the pastoral wisdom of one could vitally complement the pastoral passion of the other.

The final series of comic letdowns and surprises emerges from the never closing gap between our active mission presence and our actual mission impact. That is why we often find ourselves failing to achieve the goals we have worked for, while achieving results that we could no longer wish away.

Let me narrate still another experience I had as an inexperienced missionary in Congo. In one village that I regularly visited I developed a friendly and even joking relationship with an outgoing and outspoken grandmother. One of the few times she upset me with her serious joking happened like this:

She: Are the sisters in the convent your wives?
— Mamá, how dare you suspect so! Don’t you know that the youngest among them is twice my age!
She: You really have no wife at all, not even from where you come from?
— Of course not!
She: Then you’re very selfish!
— Me, selfish? I left family, country and culture to be of service here among you… and you say I’m selfish?
She: Of course! Listen… your grandparents handed down life to your parents, who in turn brought you to life in this world. What else beside selfishness made you decide to keep that life force just for yourself, when that life force is not yours?

She left me speechless. I was taken aback that, from her native African worldview, the celibate life did not mean generous sacrifice but scandalous egoism. But then she concluded: ‘Just the same, I like you as you are. You’re happier than any married man I know in this village.’

What consoled me then was the mystery that pestered the neatness of her worldview: if this God-preaching foreigner can be unmarried and happy at the same time, where is that joy coming from?

Let me end this response to Sr Burke’s talk by reverting and responding to the question I began with: how can missionaries dare to laugh when so many people they serve are in pain or in tears? As she pointed out, it is surely true that comedy without compassion only ends up turning people passive and cynic. On the other hand, compassion without comedy has finally no ‘glad news’ … no saving gospel to share with those who suffer.