By John Wijngaards MHM

Millhilliana 33 (1981) No. 2

AFTER VATICAN II the major missionary societies and religious orders of the Catholic Church decided to combine their resources in a common centre of information called SEDOS-“Service of Documentation and Studies”. SEDOS stimulates research on mission, acts as a clearing-house for data, organises meetings and seminars on specific topics and promotes communication among all missionary bodies.

In March of this year SEDOS undertook its greatest venture yet: a ten- day international research seminar on the future of mission. It was attended by 105 men and women who reflected the whole spectrum of missionary involvement. Half of the participants represented the ‘top brass’ of the missionary bodies: the superiors general of missionary societies and the mission secretaries of the major religious orders. The other half consisted of persons in responsible positions throughout the world: directors of pastoral centres, chairmen of episcopal commissions, professors at universities, leaders of apostolic programmes. In terms of missionary experience no less than of executive power it was an impressive gathering. The mood was optimistic, but thoughtful. There was no need for long introductions to show that the world has become a different place. They knew.

Living on a globe

Many of us are still inclined to consider the world the ‘orbis terrarum’, the disk of countries round the Mediterranean. For us the centre of gravity, politically and otherwise, has always remained in Europe. It was from our lands that navies went out to discover and colonise the continents that were, so to say, on the fringes of the earth. Political control remained with Europe. It was from Europe too that missionaries set out to conquer nations for Christ. We were ‘the Church’, the Christian part of the world; they were unevangelised, in short’ ‘missions’.

Such thinking has not caught up with present-day reality. Europe’s predominance has waned politically. For the Church, too, the position has changed. Christianity now covers many sides of the globe, and a globe does not have a ‘centre’ the way a disk does. I know the papacy still resides in Rome, but this purely accidental. A Pope might well decide to move his see to Rio de Janeiro, or Kinshasa, or Peking; as Peter decided to leave Antioch and stay at Rome. The journeys of the Holy Father, begun by Paul VI and so vigorously pursued by John Paul 11, demonstrate the same thing. The Pope belongs to the whole Church; he is not a European asset.

The new situation is reflected in the way the Church is organised hierarchically. Until the Second World War the greatest part of what was then the missionary world was directly under Propaganda Fide, which in turn handed over responsibility to missionary orders and societies. Now the area has been divided into dioceses, each of which is entrusted to a local bishop. Eighty per cent of these bishops are indigenous. The bishops themselves are joined in national Bishops’ Conferences. The process of de-centralisation, started in Vatican II, is now bearing fruit with the local bishops having the main say in determining Church policy.

Urgent questions

Missionaries have been affected both by the political and by the ecclesiastical aspects of the new world order. In previous years every nook and corner of the globe was accessible. At present many countries place restrictions on the entry of missionaries; at times for religious reasons, often in retaliation for the stricter immigration laws applied in Europe. The typical life story of a missionary may see him expelled from one country after ten years’ service, then refused entrance into another one after a long period of fruitless application, then admitted into a third to find himself caught up in a civil war. This is hard on anyone’s nerves and extremely demanding in powers of adaptation.

The authority of the local bishops-though a very good thing in itself- is also posing problems of an organisatorial kind. In the past, when territories were entrusted to the various orders and societies, planning was relatively easy. The Mill Hill Missionaries, for instance, had 14 areas in Asia, Africa and South America; headquarters could channel the flow of funds and personnel according to the needs of each. At present Mill Hill Missionaries work in 45 Third-World dioceses with many more dioceses requesting their help. With conflicting entreaties from the bishops of Yagoua in Cameroon, of Itaguai in Brazil and of Agats-Asmat in Irian-Jaya, who is to determine where the need is greatest? The Third World counts 66 Bishops; Conferences that span 1,539 dioceses. They are served by hundreds of orders, societies and lay institutes. Communication and planning have become more complex.

With vocations having become scarce at home, the question of future priorities emerges as of paramount importance. What will be the main challenge of mission in the future? To which objectives should our planning be geared? What will be the role of full-time missionaries and of missionary societies in tomorrow’s Church? It was the search for guidance on such questions that led to the SEDOS Research Seminar.

The need for proclamation

There is no part of the earth that has not been, somehow or other, incorporated in an ecclesiastical subdivision. Every square foot of land belongs to a diocese, vicariate, prelature or prefecture apostolic. This might create the false impression that the missionary era has passed because ‘the Church has been established everywhere’. But is this the case? Let us review a number of specific situations.

Some of the traditional mission territories have made phenomenal progress. Take for example Zaire. Of its population of 26 million, almost half (44%) are Catholics. This is no mean achievement if we remember that in England and Wales all Christian Churches together claim only 18% of the population. The Church in Zaire still needs outside help to strengthen its apostolate at all levels. It has only one priest for every 5,000 faithful-in England the figure is one for every 576-and then only one-third of the clergy is indigenous. But the Zairian Church is young and dynamic. In a number of years it will be as vigorous as the Church in any part of Europe: if not more so! The same applies to many African countries such as Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Congo Republic, Gabon, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

In other mission territories the going has been hard. In spite of tremendous efforts and centuries of apostolic witness, little has been achieved. Jesuit, Dominican and Augustinian missionaries visited what is now Bangladesh as early as the 16th century. Yet of a total population of 83 million, Bangladesh has only 150,000 Catholics (0.18%). And even this figure is somewhat misleading because a large proportion of the Catholics are immigrants from elsewhere; the Biharis and Bengalis have hardly been touched. Of the 142 priests only 25 are indigenous. The Church here is only a beginning Church, a ‘mustard seed Church’. We find the same picture in most Asian countries: China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Siam and Taiwan. It also obtains in the Middle East and in African countries such as Egypt, Lybia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia.

This may suffice to show that much still needs to be done. When Christ said, “You shall be my witnesses to the ends of the earth”(Acts 1,8), He wanted his message to be heard and understood by all men and women.

This has by no means been accomplished. According to the medium-growth hypothesis of world expansion, Asia will host 3,578 million inhabitants by the year 2000. Three out of every five members of the human family will be Asians. But of this important group, Christians will number no more than four per cent. The same holds good on a smaller scale. Even in countries

with a strong Christian presence there remain large sections that need to be evangelised. Here we should think not only of the dozens of tribes in Africa that have not been approached but also of the hundreds of millions of the de-Christianised in Europe and North America! Small wonder that the Seminar stressed the continued need for proclaiming the Gospel.

The hub of the problem

If such a tremendous task remains to be done, the key question arises: Who will be responsible for it? Until now a great share of the burden has been borne by an army of volunteers, by hundreds of thousands of priests, religious and lay people who left their homes and their countries to devote themselves fully to this work. Such a full-time commitment will remain necessary in the future, as I will explain later, but it is not an adequate solution. First of all, such massive movements of personnel from one part of the world to another may no longer be feasible. Secondly, the resurgence of national pride and cultural self-discovery will reduce the effectiveness of a message proclaimed by ‘foreigners’. And, most of all, the duty of extending the Kingdom is a duty that may not be relegated to a handful of volunteers.

The Second Vatican Council stated emphatically that the whole Church is missionary by its very nature. This means that everybody in the Church shares in this responsibility and that bishops are missionaries by nature of their office. In practical terms: every local Church should be a missionary centre, radiating Christ within its own area. The Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples recognised the principle even structurally by giving the local bishop full charge of the local Church’s missionary operations.

It is a pleasure to see how this policy is bearing fruit. Even in countries where they are a tiny minority, Christians can have a great impact by their witness and apostolic involvement. The dedication of local priests, religious and lay persons often surpasses in a short time whatever could be achieved by missionaries from abroad. In many parts of the world the Bishops’ Con- ferences have taken charge of their own territories and have launched imaginative and courageous apostolic programmes. It heralds the beginning of a new missionary era.

However, as a Church we carry a tradition of being both clerical and in- ward-looking. We are paying a heavy toll here for our experience in Western Europe. Having been under persecution most of the time, the Church was concerned mainly with defending its boundaries. Pastors were inclined to spend most of their time on those ‘of the flock’. In opposition to the Reformation, priestly and sacramental functions were stressed so much that the laity acquired a passive role. These characteristics have been exported to the young Churches. Father Joseph Hiroshi, director of the Missionary and Pastoral Centre in Tokyo, told me, “In my country only three out of every thousand inhabitants are Catholics. Every community would need to reach out. But the opposite often happens. As soon as a new community of believers has been formed, it becomes a parish and turns inwards. It spells the end of evangelisation. From now on the priest only looks after the faithful; and the faithful sit back’ to be looked after.”

One of the great challenges of the coming years will be to bring about that the Church everywhere, at home as well as abroad, in every diocese, parish and institution, wakes up to its missionary responsibility. “Missionary activity wells up from the Church’s innermost nature.” This should not remain a dead letter. Our theology, our liturgy, our catechetics and spirituality should be geared to witness and involvement. Priests, religious and laity will have to adopt new attitudes and new roles. The spreading of the Kingdom may not be left to a small band of ‘professionals’. It will have to become once more a natural ingredient of being a Christian.


The first missionaries came to Uganda in 1879, just over a hundred years ago. Within that short time more than half of its inhabitants have come to embrace Christianity. Apart from God’s grace, a success of this nature can be attributed to many favourable factors: the bankruptcy of animistic religion, the prestige of the West, the leadership of the early converts, and so on. But a glance at the world today makes one realise that such success stories will not easily be repeated in the near future. The time of easy ‘conquests’ is over. The walls that need to be scaled look more forbidding.

Let us be honest, the conquest was easy because animistic religion soon caves in when confronted by something superior. It presents, to some extent, a vacuum that can readily be filled. Strong ideologies or militant religions offer greater resistance. In fact, because they do contain a lot of good, they cannot be lightly shaken off; they need to be transformed rather than defeated.

Muslims total more than 650 millions. Although Islam has coexisted with the Church for thirteen centuries, it has proved almost completely impervious to missionary approaches. This is not due to Muslims being harder of heart than animists; rather, Muslims already possess many of the values Christianity wants to offer: submission to the one God, Creator of all; a demanding moral code; a profound spirituality; the support of a community of believers. In the past, Christian strategy frequently aimed at attacking Islam itself. A renunciation of all it stood for was seen as a necessary condition for becoming a Christian. But as Father Farid Jabre, an Arab himself and Professor of Islamic Studies at Beyrut, pointed out, this approach was doomed to fail. “We cannot speak to Muslims, let alone convince them of the truth of the Gospel, unless we are first prepared to appreciate the riches of Muslim culture and religion.”

In her first centuries, Mother Church spread her arms widely. She still knew the art of retaining the essential message, while adopting foreign cultures and new patterns of thought. Sprung from a Jewish environment, she soon enriched herself with the customs and institutions from the Hellenistic, Roman, North-African, Germanic, Celtic and Slavonic nations. She expressed herself happily through many liturgies: Coptic, Syriac, Maronite, Greek, Byzantine, Roman, Gothic and Gallic. This is the approach the Church is in need of again. She should be ready to relinquish cultural trappings and whatever is not essential. She should listen and learn, observing whatever is good, being prepared to assimilate such values into her own body. The listening and learning part is called ‘dialogue’; the assimilation ‘inculturation’ .

When Christ became man, He took our human condition seriously. He became like us in all things but sin. This is the ‘mind of Christ’ we have to put on. Dialogue proceeds from a genuine love of the other, from respect, from a concern to build up and not to destroy. Dialogue is sharing the fulness of salvation, after emptying oneself and becoming the other. This will require a renewed spirituality, as also an overhaul of our missionary strategies. We should shed our anxiety for quick results. Quality of presence rather than efficiency of action should become our first objective.


Another feature of today’s world is the sharp division between the rich and the poor. In global terms Europe, North America, Russia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand constitute the rich nations; compared to them all other countries are poor. According to a recent Unesco report, the difference can be expressed in some simple vital statistics. In the poor countries the average life expectancy is 57 years; in the rich ones 72. Out of every thousand children born, in the less developed countries 110 die; only 20 die in the more developed ones. These latter countries can afford £104 on public health services per person per year; in the poorer half of the world the figure is £3Y>. Members of the affluent countries eat well. Their daily calorie intake is 3,200, half of which consists of high-value protein. Their poorer neighbours consume only 2,200 calories, of which only 1 0% consists of proteins. In rich countries 93% of the population has access to a safe water supply; in all other countries this is only 39%. Reading these figures we should remember that they are averages. Even among the poor countries the Unesco report distinguishes six further subdivisions of poverty. And then each country has its own groups of underprivileged and poverty-stricken, pointing to hundreds of millions who cannot afford even one normal meal a day.

The Christian missions, as is well known, have tried to alleviate this problem by initiating innumerable relief works and development projects. What is new is the recognition that poverty is eradicated best by removing its causes. Such causes often lie in structural injustices: in one class of society oppressing the other, in one nation exploiting another to its own advantage. What is then required is an assertion of fundamental rights, a confrontation with the oppressor, a struggle for liberation. The question that arises is: To what extent should the Church, and its missionaries, be involved in this struggle?

Those familiar with the discussions in South America since Medellin and Puebla will realise the complexity of the question and the impossibility of my doing justice to it here within such a short article. Moreover, at the Research Seminar views diverged, as could be expected considering the many implications. There was, however, consensus on the need to face the problem courageously. In the decades that lie before us the plight of the underprivileged will worsen rather than improve. The Church cannot and may not stand aloof from their rightful struggle for liberation. Christians will have to opt for the poor, side with them in conflicts and be prepared to bear the consequences of such a prophetic stand. The controversial issues are: Are Marxists reliable partners in the struggle? To what extent should priests join in politics? In what circumstances is violence justified?

To express the mood of the Seminar, I can think of no better example than the intervention of a Filipina social worker, Sister Christine Tan. Referring to her experience in the slums of Quezon City, she stated: “Confronted with the hunger, the sickness, helplessness and sheer frustration of the poor our Christian response must be shown in action. It is not words that will count but brave deeds.”

Full-time missionaries

The Church of the future will continue to need the charisma of full-time missionaries. They are the ones to cross boundaries, break new ground and take new initiatives. Mobile and unencumbered by family ties, they will be in a position to go where the need is greatest. Through their unstinted dedication they can become the cutting edge of the Church, outposts in non-Christian surroundings, instruments of the Spirit in daring apostolic ventures.

The missionaries of the future will have to avoid the pitfalls of the colonial age. Wherever they go they will have to support the local Church and work under its leadership. Even less than in former years will there be room for considering one’s own customs and culture superior. Instead, assimilation of the vernacular language and of local social and religious values will become an absolute requirement. If Western drive and efficiency were the hallmark of the previous campaign, the future one should be distinguished by the Gospel values of meekness and poverty of spirit.

The traditional distinction between home Churches and mission lands has become blurred. All countries are in need of mission and the local Church has a missionary task at home and abroad. On a world-wide scale this will mean that missionaries will proceed more and more from the Third World countries themselves. The exchange of personnel between Africa and Asia is in progress. Mexico, Nicaragua, India and the Philippines have founded their own missionary societies. This is a development that should be strongly promoted. The Church everywhere is feeling the wholesome vibrations of life in its younger members.

A final word

In summarising the conclusions of the Seminar, I have of necessity simplified them and presented them in my own way. Those who wish to read the official report -“The Agenda for Future Planning, Study and Research in Mission”- can apply directly to SEDOS, Via dei Verbiti 1, 00154-Roma, Italy. Moreover, later this year, fifty research papers written in preparation of the Seminar will be published as one volume by SEDOS. From a preview of this material I can heartily recommend this future publication.

The Christians of Antioch, who discerned the presence of the Spirit in their discussion and prayers, saw the need for extending the Kingdom. It was the beginning of Paul’s missionary journeys (Acts, 13, 1-3). Our deliberations and prayers today will lead to similar revolutionary and lasting results. The Spirit won’t have it otherwise.