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Comedy and Missionary Communion
“Mission As Holy Folly”
Antonio M. Pernia, SVD
The topic assigned to me for this symposium is “Comedy and Missionary Communion.” After “Contemplation” and “Compassion,” “Communion” is the third panel in the mission triptych that we are attempting to build in today’s reflection on “Mission as Holy Folly”. And the question which this third talk is supposed to raise, if not to answer, is: “What wisdom can religious congregations reap from living through the drama of forming multi-cultural communities?”
Allow me to develop this topic in three steps – following the Latin American scheme of “See”, “Judge” and “Act”. First, an observation (“see”) about “disorder in religious orders”. Secondly, a reflection (“judge”) on “wisdom from disorder”. And thirdly, a recommendation (“act”), consisting of a few points about “forming inter-cultural communities”.
1. Disorder in Religious Orders
Let us begin, then, with the observation about “disorder in religious orders”.
1.1. Order in Religious Orders.
It is interesting to note that religious institutes are generally known to the outside world as “religious orders”. Of course, not all religious institutes are “religious orders”. Most are, in fact, actually “religious congregations”. But for most in the outside world (and even for some in religious life), this distinction is not known.1 In any case, our interest here is not so much in this distinction as in the word “order”.
The word “order” has, of course, many meanings. One meaning is “order” as a body, a group of people, an association, a society, an institution. As the Webster’s Dictionary puts it,2 “a group of people united in a formal way as in a fraternal society”. The examples given are: “monastic order” or “masonic order”. More specifically, in this sense, Webster’s refers to a “community under a religious rule”. In this sense, then, “order” is a group of people or a community bound together by the following of a rule of life. In the monastic tradition, the more known “rules of life” are those of Pachomius and St. Basil in the East, and St. Augustine and St. Benedict in the West. The more modern religious congregations speak of “constitutions” rather than “rule of life”.
The notion of a common “rule of life” or “constitutions” brings us to another meaning of the word “order”, namely, “order” in the sense of “orderly”. Webster’s says3: “a straight row” or “a regular series”, and so we have such expressions as to “set in order” or to “put in orderly arrangement”. This entails “following the law”, “observing the rule”, or “following a pattern”, creating thereby “a state of peace and serenity” and “an orderly conduct”.
Both senses of the word “order” are present in the concept of religious orders. Religious orders are a community of people committed to following the same “rule of life” and thereby creating among their members an orderly and disciplined lifestyle and a peaceful and harmonious life in common. Order in religious orders is, obviously, a fundamental feature. It is essential for the unity of heart and mind required for the order to fulfill its purpose and attain its goals – whether this be seeking God alone, striving after perfection, or commitment to a particular apostolic work (e.g., education, health care, proclamation of the Gospel). A “daily order” regulates what members have to do during the day and when they have to do it. Regularity often becomes uniformity. The fact that members wear the same habit projects a powerful image of order.
The order that is created in religious orders is reinforced by the fact that, at least in the past, there was one common culture underpinning its life and work. Most religious orders, in the past or at the beginning of their existence, were generally mono-cultural. Thus, there was a common understanding of such things as “community”, “silence”, “prayer”, “poverty”, “obedience”, “chastity”. The substructure of mono-culturality assured regularity, uniformity, order.
1.2. Disorder in Religious Orders.
(a) Multi-cultural Membership.
Order in religious orders is threatened when they become multi-cultural. When multi-culturality replaces mono-culturality as the substructure of religious orders, uniformity and order begin to be jeopardized. A certain kind of “disorder” replaces order, and in a certain sense, religious orders become “religious disorders”. Here, however, we need to note two moments.
The first moment, coinciding largely with the period before Vatican II, entails the phenomenon of religious orders, like the SVD and the SSpS, having an international membership early in their congregational history. At this early stage, however, little attention was given to the specificity of the cultures of members originating from other countries or continents. Instead, the unconscious trend was to expect that these members learn, and adapt themselves to, the dominant culture of the congregation, usually the European culture. Indeed, what usually happened was that the formation program of the “mother province” in Europe was largely transported and copied in the “mission provinces” in America, Asia, Africa and Oceania. In the SVD, what was done in Europe (that is, in Steyl and Vienna) was largely repeated in such places as Argentina, the US, Brazil, the Philippines, India, Indonesia. While the religious congregation was present in America, Asia and Africa, it was present as a largely European congregation. As one observer has noted:
At this time, what was at work was a certain centralized uniformity rather than genuine multi-culturality. While this gave a strong sense of unity to the congregation, it also did not take into account the particular richness of each specific culture. Only one kind of SVD was being created, and obviously only one way of living the religious life and doing missionary work, based on the congregation’s dominant culture. Indeed, at this stage, one had the feeling that in order to an SVD one had to give up being an Indonesian, Japanese, Brazilian or African. This did not create “disorder” – that is, to the congregation as such, although it may have created “disorder” in the hearts and minds of the members from other cultures. Indeed, order was maintained and simply extended to and transplanted in other places.
The second moment came with Vatican II and its positive evaluation of the cultures of peoples. Theology began speaking of inculturation and the building up of the local Church. There was no longer just one way of being Church or being Christian in the world. There are as many modalities as there are cultures. Similarly, in the SVD, the insight began to develop that there was not just one way of being SVD and that the charism of the Founder could find different expressions among the various cultures of different peoples. Like the Gospel, the original charism of the Society not only could enrich but also could be enriched by the cultures in which it incarnates itself. This led to a situation whereby the Society came to be seen as being composed no longer of members from different nationalities all learning the one “SVD culture” but of members from different nationalities sharing the richness of their cultural diversity. Gradually the congregation became not just the home of one culture but the place for the interaction of various cultures.
And this creates a certain “disorder” in the religious community.
And so, disorder in religious orders. The point here is that multi-cultural membership creates disorder in religious orders, or at least, disturbs the normal order.
(b) Multi-directional Mission.
There is still another phenomenon – closely related to multi-culturality – which creates disorder in religious orders, especially in specifically missionary congregations. In the past, missionaries moved from Christian Europe to the rest of the pagan world in America, Africa, Asia, Oceania. Christian mission was about the white missionary who went to far away lands and lived among the natives, largely people of color – black, brown, yellow, red. They claimed to bring the Gospel of Jesus, but unconsciously also carried along what was viewed as a superior culture, buttressed by advanced scientific knowledge and developed technology. At a certain period in the history of Christian mission, missionaries came “on the coattails of the colonizers”, in such a way that often it was difficult to distinguish between missionary activity and colonial rule. At this time, then, mission was an “orderly”, one-way movement from West to East, from North to South, or from the center to the periphery.
In recent years, however, this “order” has been disturbed. For today, in many missionary congregations, most missionaries originate no longer from Europe but from Asia, Africa and Latin America. This is certainly the case in the SVD and the SSpS. In the SVD, this turn of events began to take place in a rather massive way around the beginning of the 1980’s, when what used to be “mission-receiving” provinces began to regularly send missionaries to other parts of the world. This was reinforced by what is known in the SVD as the “Roscommon Consensus”, i.e., the statement of the provincial superiors of the European zone gathered in Roscommon (Ireland) in 1990 which declared secularized Europe to be also a “mission territory” analogous to the mission situations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Thus, it was felt that Europe also had the right to ask for and receive missionaries from elsewhere.
Thus, to date, we now have some 600 Asian SVD missionaries working outside their own countries in Europe, the US, Latin America, Africa, Oceania and other parts of Asia. Similarly, but on a smaller scale, we have around 50 African SVD missionaries working outside Africa, and about the same number of Latin American SVD missionaries working outside Latin America. It should be noted that this is not only a question of what is sometimes called “reverse mission” – that is, missionaries from the former mission territories going as missionaries to Europe. For missionaries from the south also go as missionaries to Asia, Africa and Latin America. Thus, we also speak today of a “south-to-south” mission, in contrast to the earlier situation where mission was largely a “north-to-south” phenomenon.
Thus, from an “orderly” one-way movement from North to South, mission has become what appears to be a “disorderly” multi-directional movement, or even a “chaotic” movement from all directions and to all directions – South to North, South to South, East to West, East to East, periphery to center, periphery to periphery. In other words, the Church is no longer neatly divided into the “missionary church” here and the “mission churches” there. Just as the world is no longer neatly divided into the center of faith and the periphery of unbelief, with the “people of God” here and the “gentes” (or the “pagan” nations) there. For, today, there are also “gentes” here and “people of God” there. Today, we speak of mission in all five continents. Mission has become multi-directional – a movement from all directions and to all directions.
This creates “disorder” in missionary orders.
And so, disorder in missionary orders. Multi-directional mission creates disorder in mission, or at least, disturbs the normal order.
2. Wisdom From Disorder
So, what can we learn from this disorder in religious orders caused by multi-cultural membership and multi-directional mission? Let me now move on to the second step of this talk, that is, a reflection on “wisdom from disorder”.
I believe disorder makes us realize that things do not have to be the way they are, that things can be different, that there can be a new order of things. Disorder allows us to free ourselves from the stagnating weight of the way things are and permits us to see new possibilities hidden in the present order of things, and waiting to be allowed to emerge fully. Disorder gives us a sense that there is such a thing as a “new heaven and a new earth”.
Thus, there is wisdom in disorder – from which we can learn many things. Allow me underline just three basic things. About God, about religious life, and about mission. That is, the folly of divine love, the folly of religious consecration, and the folly of cross-cultural mission.
2.1. God: The Folly of Self-emptying Love.
The first verses of Genesis tell how God created the world. God’s Spirit hovered over the formless void, and order was created out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos. For the first human beings, however, this order was not good enough. They wanted to be gods themselves and create their own order. They built Babel and installed that as the order of the world. Since then the order of the world has been one great disorder and confusion. And God’s saving plan has been to subvert this order and restore the original order created by his Word.
Human beings wanting to be like God is the height of presumption. In the Psalms God mocks them and all those who consider themselves important or mighty. Ps 2 says: “Kings on earth rise up and princes plot together against the LORD and his anointed: ‘Let us break their shackles and cast off their chains!’ The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord derides them, then speaks to them in anger, terrifies them in wrath: “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain” (Ps 2:2-4).
To counter the human beings’ desire to be God, God himself became human in Jesus Christ – as if to say that the way to salvation is not through power and might and wealth, normally connected with being God, but though humility and lowliness and poverty, basic characteristics of being human. By doing so, God re-defined what being God means – not the fullness of mighty power, but self-emptying love (Ph 2:6-8).
So, God reveals himself not to “the wise and the learned but to children” (Mt. 11:25). Indeed, he chooses “the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and chooses the weak of the world to shame the strong; he chooses the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:27-28.25).
He chose to be born of a young virgin, poor and uneducated, politically insignificant. But through her, God would disperse the arrogant of mind and heart, throw down the mighty from their thrones and raise up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty (Lk 1:51-53).
To those who wish to be his disciples, he says: “whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:38-39). Those who are truly happy are not those who are mighty and rich, but those who are poor, meek, merciful, clean of heart, peacemakers, persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Mt 5:3-10). And only those who become like little children will enter his kingdom (Mt 18:3). For the one “exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14).
Eventually he became a threat to the powers of this world. He had to be eliminated from this world in order to subvert the present order of things. The messiah on the cross is the ultimate incongruity of salvation history. But it is also the ultimate act of self-emptying love. With God nailed to it, the cross is turned from being a symbol of shame and punishment to being a sign of salvation and hope. Indeed, as St. Paul puts it:
2.2. Religious Life: The Folly of Whole-hearted Consecration.
According to standard ecclesiology, the consecrated life does not belong to the “hierarchical order” of the Church, i.e., the Pope, bishops, priests, the laity. As we know, both clerics and lay can be part of the consecrated life. Religious do not form another “order” in the hierarchy of the Church between the ordained clergy and the unordained laity. Rather, the consecrated life belongs to the so-called “charismatic structure” of the Church.
“Charismatic structure” is somewhat of a misnomer, a “contradiction in terms”, since charisms usually defy structure and ordering. According to St. Paul in 1 Cor 12, charisms are various gifts which the Spirit freely distributes for the building up of the Church. Charisms, then, imply spontaneity, plurality, diversity. This diversity is essential to the Church as the body of Christ. As St. Paul puts it: “ Now the body is not a single part, but many (1Cor 12:14); if they were all one part, where would the body be?” (v 19). It is in this context that we can speak of the various forms of religious life as giving shape to the various charisms of the Spirit. Through the founders of religious congregations, the gifts of the Spirit are called forth in response to various needs of the Church.
In 1 Cor 13, however, St. Paul explains that the “more excellent” charism is love. Love never fails. The gifts of prophecy, of tongues, of knowledge will pass away. In the end, faith, hope and love will remain; and the greatest of these is love. This highest of all charisms also forms the foundation of religious life. For the consecration entailed in religious life is a consecration of one’s entire self to God – that is, in the words of Deuteronomy (Dt 6:5), a consecration that entails “loving God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength”. This is expressed in the three vows of chastity (loving God with all one’s heart), obedience (loving God with all one’s soul or mind), and poverty (loving God with all one’s strength).
Religious life is, therefore, a radical following of Jesus, the Son of God made man – chaste, poor and obedient. In doing so, the consecrated person makes God her true wealth, her only love and her genuine freedom. The consecrated person commits herself to living in the present the values of the future kingdom of God. Thus, she provides a counter-cultural witness, proclaiming that God’s kingdom entails overturning the order of the world. There is, therefore, a prophetic dimension to the evangelical counsels. For poverty, chastity and obedience appear incongruous in a world which values the power to own and possess, the need for exclusive intimacy, and the freedom to regulate one’s life.
From the perspective of the world, consecrated persons appear as “fools for the sake of Christ”. As St. Paul puts it:
Part of consecrated life is, therefore, what we might call a “destabilizing character”, or a capacity for disorder. Thus, disorder should never be foreign to religious orders. And only by preserving such a character will religious be able to give witness to the eschatological order of God’s kingdom.
2.3. Mission: The Folly of Cross-cultural Witness.
Traditionally, the biblical basis for the missionary activity of the Church is Mt 28:19-20 – “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations ....” The missionary task of the Church is based on the conviction about the universal significance of Jesus Christ. The conviction is that the gospel of Jesus is good news not only for its original hearers in the Mediterranean world or in Europe where Christianity grew and developed rapidly, but also for people of other times and places, of other generations and cultures. The proclamation of the gospel across cultures is therefore seen as a Christian imperative. In this sense, mission, by its very nature, is cross-cultural.
Missionaries of the past and the present are fired by their personal experience of the gospel of Jesus as good news. Because of this, they leave behind the familiar (home, country, culture) and set out for the unfamiliar in order to share this good news with other people. There was a certain madness, a certain fool-hardiness in this. For there was never a certainty that they would be welcome and their message accepted. In fact, in many cases, missionaries were not welcome and their message was rejected, thereby experiencing untold suffering and hardship, and even death. In some cases, missionaries were seen as invaders and colonizers, impostors and soul-stealers. But, in many other cases, missionaries were also received as genuine friends and benefactors, respected teachers and ministers, trusted pastors and spiritual guides.
St. Francis Xavier, one of the patrons of mission, once wrote:
We may have reservations about the theological vision behind this statement, but it alludes to a certain madness in cross-cultural mission.
Recent theological reflection has underlined even more strongly the cross-cultural character of mission. In line with the theological vision of Vatican II, the foundation of mission is seen as the dialogue of love which is at the heart of the Trinity. This inner dialogue between Father, Son and Holy Spirit overflows into the world through the mission of the Word and the sending of the Spirit. The incarnation of the Son of God entails a passing over from the realm of the divinity to the world of humanity, a border-crossing not just between different cultures but between different worlds. Divine love did not remain within the divinity. It passed on to what was different from it. This passing over to another realm, this border-crossing, is a manifestation of the gratuitousness of God’s love.
This gratuitousness is brought out clearly by cross-cultural mission. Indeed, if mission were confined to one’s own culture or world, something essential would be lost in mission. If missionaries were to work only in their own culture or country, one could suspect that they are motivated by the human ties that bind them with their people. But to work in another culture or country? No human ties would explain that, but only the experience of the beauty of the gospel which proclaims that God is love. As one missionary once wrote in his memoirs: “How was it that I should be listening to night crickets and wading through swamps in an African forest to help a dying human being I had never known?”6
No human ties could explain that. Only the gospel of Jesus. Caritas Christi urget nos. This is the folly of cross-cultural mission.
3. Forming Inter-cultural Communities
Let me now pass on to the third step of this talk, and suggest a few ideas about forming inter-cultural communities. Here I will limit myself to three short points.
3.1. Theological motive.
First of all, it should be clear that we form international or inter-cultural communities for a theological purpose, that is, to provide a witness to the unity and diversity of the kingdom of God. We form international or inter-cultural communities not simply because we like it, or because it is nice (because, in fact, quite often it is not nice!), or because we want to imitate the United Nations. Neither do we form international or inter-cultural communities because we are compelled to accept members from other continents due to the dearth of vocations in the West. Rather we form international or inter-cultural communities because we are called to witness both to the universality of God’s kingdom and its openness to diversity. This witness is especially urgent in the context of globalization which tends, on the hand, to exclude and, on the other hand, to eliminate all differences. In view of this, there is particular need today to witness that God’s Kingdom is a kingdom of love that includes absolutely everyone and, at the same time, is open to the particularity of every person and people.
3.2. Intentional community.
Secondly, it follows from the first point that international or inter-cultural communities need to be intentional communities. In other words, it is essential that members consciously intend to be an international or inter-cultural community for a specific purpose. Each member needs to be convinced that internationality or inter-culturality is an ideal to be sought after or a value to be promoted. International or inter-cultural communities do not just happen by chance, or by simply putting together under the same roof people of different nations or cultures. Rather, true international or inter-cultural communities need to be consciously created, intentionally promoted, carefully cared for and attentively nurtured. They require some basic personal attitudes, certain community structures, and a particular spirituality. Consequently, members need a specific program of formation, both initial and ongoing, which prepares them to live effectively and meaningfully in international or inter-cultural communities.
3.3. Interaction among cultures.
Thirdly, I believe our ideal is not just a community composed of people from different nationalities or cultures – this is what is normally described by the term “internationality”. Nor is it simply a community where people of different cultures or nationalities can co-exist side by side each other – this is what is expressed by the term “multi-culturality”. Our ideal is a community where the different cultures of the members can interact with each other and thereby mutually enrich the individual members and the community as a whole – this is what would be designated by the term “inter-culturality”. A genuine inter-cultural community is characterized by three things7, namely: (1) the recognition of other cultures (i.e., allowing minority cultures to be visible in the community), (2) respect for cultural difference (i.e., avoiding any attempt to level off cultural differences by subsuming the minority cultures into the dominant culture), and (3) the promotion of a healthy interaction between cultures (i.e., seeking to create a climate whereby each culture allows itself to be transformed or enriched by the other). In this way, an inter-cultural community will be one where members from different cultures will feel they belong.
In the end, perhaps we can liken cultures with the charisms about which St. Paul speaks in 1 Cor 12. Paraphrasing Paul we can then say:
Let me conclude with a word on the saints in whose memory we are holding this symposium, St. Arnold Janssen, our Founder, and St. Joseph Freinademetz, our pioneer missionary to China. Two men who are now saints because they were fools for Christ’s sake.
In 1905, as Arnold Janssen was deciding whether or not to accept mission work among the Afro-Americans in the United States, he wrote:
And from Joseph Freinademetz, we read the following from two of his letters from China:
From these citations we sense a certain “light-heartedness” in the face of important decisions to make or grave situations in the mission. Or even perhaps a tinge of humor, which relativizes their self-importance in the awareness that it is God who is in control. It is said that humility is the foundation of humor,11 for humility gives us a true sense of our self-worth and leads us to the realization of our smallness before the greatness of God. Only the truly humble person can acknowledge God’s actions in the world as “mirabilia Dei” – wonderful works of God.
What we see, then, in these citations is the humility of both Arnold and Joseph, which gives them a sense of humor and an unshakeable trust in God. May we learn from both saints that we are not indispensable in mission, that mission is God’s and not ours. May we learn from them that we are not the main protagonists in mission, that we are only collaborators. Or, as the words attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero put it, “We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future that is not our own”. It may seem folly to give one’s whole life to such a future. But if it is God’s future, then it can only be “holy folly”.