The future of Missionary Societies

As Vicar General I played a role in an important international discussion. It concerned the future of societies such as Mill Hill was and is.

Missionary Societies had sprung up during the nineteenth century in response to the discovery and opening up of new countries in Asia and Africa. Male Religious Orders, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and the Jesuits, had been sending out missionaries for many centuries before. But there was a need for simpler totally mission-oriented organizations to step in, and these had been the missionary societies. However, there were clouds on the horizon.

Because mission societies had come in with the wave of western colonialism, many people in the Third World saw them as relics of an unwelcome colonial past. In 1967 Ivan Illich called for a moratorium on North American and European missionaries invading Latin America. Rev John Gatu from Kenya, chairman of the general committee of the All Africa Conference of Churches, stated in 1971 that all foreign missionaries should be withdrawn from Africa for some years to allow local churches to develop on their own. In 1973 Cardinal Mulala of Kinshasa, Zaire, proclaimed that mission in Africa should be done by Africans, not by foreign missionaries. These and other ‘Go Home Missionary’ calls made many members of our Society uneasy.

There were undeniable arguments in favour of a ‘western withdrawal’. When in the late 1970’s the Malaysian government expelled 40 Mill Hill missionaries from the north of Kalimantan, affecting our dioceses in Kuching, Miri and Sabah. Interior mission stations suffered for years – but local vocations increased phenomenally and soon the parishes were thriving again. The Catholic community seemed much healthier without western input . . . And with its heavy emphasis on building structures: schools, hospitals and cathedrals, the western approach carried the aura of business efficiency rather than spiritual enlightenment.

On the other hand, it was ridiculous to claim that mission had been accomplished. The Church had made an impact on South America through its Portuguese and Spanish background. What about the rest of the world?  Only a tiny percentage of the Asian population had accepted, or even heard,  the Good News. The young indigenous Christian communities in Africa could not possibly cope with the demands of meaningful expansion.

But all of it pointed to a real crisis. What were the real mission priorities in our complex post-colonial world? Did missionary societies such as Mill Hill still offer the best answer? Should we adopt new targets and new strategies? Or even more fundamentally: should Mill Hill hand on the torch and die? The question was not academic. In fact Cardinal Vaughan, the founder of Mill Hill Society, had foreseen this development. He wrote in 1866 (!) when the society still existed mainly as a college:

“It must ever be borne in mind that a foreign missionary college is, by its very nature, only provisional and introductory; the end must be kept in view being to provide everywhere good native clergy . . . It may be said, therefore, that the duty of a foreign missionary college is to work towards its own extinction, by rendering its own existence superfluous through the formation of a sufficient native clergy.”[i]

I felt that the situation demanded action.

The SEDOS Seminar

In June 1978 I attended a research workshop organized by Pro Mundi Vita in Louvain. The topic was the future of mission. On return to London, I suggested to our General Council that we should take the initiative in organizing an international seminar on the question. Noel Hanrahan, our Superior General, armed with Pro Mundi Vita material, spoke about this to the annual meeting of Superior Generals of Missionary Societies. He found allies in James Noonan, Superior General of the Maryknoll Missionaries,  and Joseph Amstutz, Superior General of the Bethlehem Fathers.

They adopted the proposal and submitted it to SEDOS, the Roman secretariat specifically established to study developments related to religious life and the apostolate. They also promised to fund an international research seminar on the future of mission.

Myself (in the middle) during a seminar session.
Myself (in the middle) during a seminar session.

To make a long story short, at the start of 1979 I was invited to Rome to attend a planning meeting. There I met Willie Jenkinson (Holy Ghost Father), executive secretary of SEDOS, Bernard Lang (Maryknoll) and Mary Motte (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary). I shared with them my experience in India of organizing such research seminars. After all, I had participated in major all India seminars, such the one on Non-Christian Scriptures and the Bible, on Muslim Apostolate and Priestly Formation. I had also been an organizer of the All India Seminar on Vatican Renewal in which almost 400 delegates represented India’s 100+ dioceses and 300+ religious congregations.

The most productive formula we had found in India was:

  • to invite key persons to write research papers;
  • to share copies of all these papers with all participants at the central seminar event;
  • to allow the participants to personally evaluate the contents of these papers and, based on this judgment, spontaneously form discussion groups on the key findings;
  • to allow the groups to report to general assembly sessions followed by general discussion – this would bring out the main findings of collective reflection;
  • to collect the findings on main trends and conclusions in a final report to the general assembly which was again discussed and then adopted – with amendments if needed.
  • to publish all the original research papers, the conclusions of specific groups and the final seminar statement in a book.

This process, though cumbersome, allowed maximum creative input from all participants. The planning group accepted my suggestion. Experts from all over the world were invited to send in research documents. Forty-two eventually did. Their contributions were wide-ranging and rich.

The planning group then felt overwhelmed by the amount of material. They panicked, I think. Without involving me any further, they devised another procedure. In July-August 1980 the documents were sent to eighteen persons residing in Rome, no doubt members of procures or headquarters of various religious congregations. Two persons looked at each paper and decided what was important and what not. Their opinions were collected and used to devise the structure of the seminar.

The actual event took place in Rome on March 8-19, 1981. Roughly half of the participants were the experts. The other half was made up by ‘professional mission organisers’:  heads of religious congregations, administrators of mission centers, staff of funding agencies and promotion offices.  A very worthwhile group indeed of 110 men and women. But I was aghast when I found out the methodology.

The SEDOS disappointment

We, participants, did not see any of the actual research papers. The contents of the seminar had been chopped up into eight topics. The topics were discussed on consecutive days. After a short introduction in the general assembly on each day, we were divided into ten pre-arranged discussion groups of about ten participants each – no freedom on our part to choose. The discussion paper on the topic of the day consisted of a catalogue of short, disjointed excerpts lifted from some of the original papers – which were thus presented out of context. One and a half hour’s discussion on the topic – a topic which usually lay outside our personal experience. Then time for ‘personal reflection’. Afterwards, in the afternoon, another short discussion and reporting to the general assembly.

A session of the general assembly of the seminar. No 1 is Noel Hanrahan, Mill Hill Superior General, no 2 is me.
A session of the general assembly of the seminar. No 1 is Noel Hanrahan, Mill Hill Superior General, no 2 is me.

I protested strongly to the organisers, recalling my mother’s injunction: “You have a Dutch mouth!” – by which she meant: “Dare to speak your mind!” True creativity had been cut out. The process led to superficial, disjointed, often trivial conclusions. No major new trends were discovered, no major new insights gained, Many of the crucial questions were – really – ignored and remained unanswered. However, my protests were in vain.

The Seminar did bring out some overall issues, corresponding to what the organisers had gleaned from the original papers. These included the need of distinguishing four elements of mission: proclamation, dialogue, inculturation and liberation. It also highlighted the central role of the local churches. But the fragmented nature of the whole event is reflected in its final conclusion: the Agenda for Future Planning. It presents more than a hundred observations/proposals/questions spread over nine subsections.

In spite of being tied down in the pre-planned, often incoherent and rambling workshops, some of us managed to meet on what we considered principal areas of mission. I took part in such a crucial workshop on mission to, and dialogue, with Islam. Direct contact with Islam is truly one of greatest tasks facing mission. Yet in Pakistan, for instance,  no priests, religious or lay catechists had any depth of knowledge of Muslim belief and practice. Mission personnel might teach hundreds of thousands of Muslim children in our schools and cared for thousands of Muslim patients in our hospitals. Only a handful of priests and religious had really empathy with Islam, could talk directly to Muslims about their religion, were actually in ‘dialogue’. The same applied to Indonesia, India and Bangladesh, each with vast Muslim populations.

Our Muslim group concluded that it was time to allocate far more resources in finance and personnel to outreach to Islam. Now, 35 years later with Islamic communities in turmoil in many countries, we can see how prophetic our concerns were. We submitted the findings of our workshop to the Steering Committee and the General Council. But, as what happened to the work of other such spontaneous groups, our report and its conclusions have been omitted from the published documentation of the Seminar. They did not fit into the pre-planned concerns of the organisers  . . .

The results of the Seminar were published in a 688-page page volume, entitled “Mission in Dialogue”, editors Mary Motte and Bernard Lang, Orbis Books, Maryknoll 1982. The most valuable part in it are the original research papers. One chapter on the problems facing missionary societies, Wayfarers in a New Age (pages 317-352), was written by me and Mill Hill missiologist Piet Dirven.

Piet and I list the challenges facing missionary societies. We then argue that such institutes are still needed. However they should be transformed and adapted to the new situation they find themselves in. The transformation requires new values and priorities. It implies structural reforms. It should be guided by fresh models of the ideal missionary for our own age. The full chapter has been published online.

[i] Herbert Vaughan, Missionary College Chiefly for Pagan Natives, Knowles, London 1866, pp. 15-16.