Frank McCarthy MHM describes the ups and downs of 2,000 years of missionary endeavour ardinal Herbert Vaughan, the founder of the Mill Hill Missionaries,
declare at St Joseph was the first foreign missionary when he took Jesus and Mary to the land of Egypt to escape from King Herod. Vaughan, a soldier's son, was far from being a fanciful character. ("No mere sentimental practices of piety will suffice," he told his men.) He wanted to express the fundamental truth about missionary activity that we have to be constantly aware that we are instruments in the hands of the Master and need his presence with us. St Augustine told his disciples that he might pour out a torrent of words but unless God was with them he was talking to the deaf.
The glory of being the first foreign missionary from among the Apostles belongs to St Paul. As told in Acts, he responded to the vision of the man of Macedonia who urged him: "Cross over into Macedonia and help us", and brought the Faith from the East to our own continent of Europe.
What is the balance sheet after 2,000 years of apostolic work?
First of all, regardless of success or failure, we have to salute the unremitting zeal of the Church. Thrown out from one field of work we immediately look for another. Over the centuries the discovery of a new land was hailed as a new opportunity. The driving force has been Christ's own command to preach the Good News to the ends of the earth. A recent issue of New Scientist asked: "Have we finally found life's true purpose?" The Good News replies that the purpose of life is to come to the knowledge of God's love and to share eternal happiness with him.
Our own island has had a typically up-and-down missionary history. Britain was brought to the knowledge of Christ by unknown soldiers and traders of the Roman occupation and as early as 314 AD was represented by the bishops of York, Lincoln and London at the Council of Arles.
It was flourishing church. In the British Museum you can admire elegant RomanoBritish silverware, bowls, trays, plates and spoons decorated with the Christian symbol, the Chi-Rho, still worn as a badge by our Catholic Scouts.
Later, Saxon invaders almost eradicated the Church, but Britain, by then "England", was recovered for Christ by missionaries sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great in 570 AD. As the Roman missionaries pushed north, they were aided by brother missionaries heading south. These Irish monks were repaying the debt owed to Britain from where their great apostle Patrick, the son of a RomanoBritish official, had come.
Some historians describe the Celtic Church as "independent from Rome". But St Columbanus. himself a missionary, puts the matter beyond doubt: "I believe that the Pillar of the Church is always unmoved in Rome ... all of us Irish, dwellers on the edge of the world, are disciples of St Peter and St Paul.
"We need nothing outside this evangelical and apostolic teaching. We are bound to the Chair of Peter. Far-famed as Rome is, we Irish honour it only for the sake of this Chair."
Against success in the West, we had to lament losses in the East, the cradle of Christianity. Over the centuries Muslim advances practically obliterated the faith in Asia Minor and North Africa. The practice of giving modern auxiliarybishops the titles of long extinct sees, such as Pella and Cambysepolis, is a nostalgic reminder of the destruction of once flourishing local churches. These sad losses were aggravated by the breakaway from Rome of what was left of the Eastern Church until Constantinople itself fell to the Muslim Turks in 1453.
e fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of the Age of Discovery opened new doors to the Church.
Spain and Portugal carried the Faith to the New World. But European greed for the gold and riches of the Indies marred the history of heroic missionary endeavour.
Spanish and Portuguese monarchs kept the same tight grip on local churches in the New World that they exerted at home. The King of Spain might air his title of "Catholic King", but the interests of the monarch came before the interests of the Catholic Church.
In 1622, Rome finally set about rectifying the situation and achieved at least partial success. The great institution, known as Propaganda Fide for short (and incidentally responsible for giving us a sinister modern word), shouldered the oversight of worldwide missionary work. There were to be closer ties with Rome, more dioceses, more local clergy, and these local clergy should be secular priests rather than Franciscans or Dominicans, heroic missionaries though the friars had been. Regular reports were to be sent from the missions to Rome so that needs and problems could be assessed and personnel and money allocated accordingly.
This seventeenth century institution has stood the test of time. Every year the national directors of the Association for the Propagation of the Faith meet to advise Propaganda Fide on how best to distribute the available funds in the light of requests from missionary bishops. With nearly 400 years of experience behind it Propaganda Fide does not require that contributions from the better off parts of the Church are sent to Rome. Instead, it tells each local church which mission territory to send that year's contribution to, with a consequent saving in administration costs.
This year the Association in England and Wales sent help to about a dozen specified countries. As a Mill Hill man in New Zealand said: "The coin dropping into the red box in Gainsborough is like a pebble in pond sending its ripples all the way to the Maori."
Both with a view to training young churches in missionary responsibility and to give them the dignity of sharing in the work, Rome requires even mission territories to contribute to the Association. It's an example of the widow's mite and a proclamation of our belief that God blesses all our efforts, great and small.
The nineteenth century saw a new world map with Britain's red pre-eminent. This gave Protestantism a head start on us, though in the long run we profited by not being too closely identified with the colonising power. The experience of French missionaries in the newly independent Algeria of 1963 was precisely the opposite, with churches sequestered and the great cathedral of Algiers turned into a library.
The history of mission, like all human history, is a patchwork of success and of failure, of trying again, of adaptatation to changed circumstances. For the most part Propaganda Fide got it right. But, disastrously, it suppressed the efforts of Ricci in sixteenth century China and de Nobili in seventeenth-century India to re-cast the expression of the Faith in acceptable Eastern modes and languages. Sad to relate, all too-human rivalries helped to bring about this chapter of lost opportunities. Church historian Stephen Neill says of missionary work in the East: "The inflamed disputes between the various Orders must bear a heavy weight for the limited success of the work." Nationalism took a heavy toll. Even in the twentieth century, the future Bishop Shanahan, the Apostle of Eastern Nigeria, was told by his French parish priest that you could never make a missionary out of an Irishman.
Energy spent in fighting among ourselves detracted from our power to evangelise. We must admit also that our reluctance to translate the Scriptures and make them freely available went far to hamstring our efforts. Set against Propaganda Fide's mistakes is its encouragement to missionaries to take a leap in the dark, to try the untried, in a word to, show faith in their vocation. In 1926, for example, it took the massive authority of Pius XI to impose the first Chinese-born bishops on reluctant missionaries who had held that "the time is not ripe". On the contrary, it was too late. Subsequent political developments in China, where the Church has been too easily portrayed as being foreign, have severely hampered the work In Africa, however, where mission-work has been relatively untrammelled, priests and bishops, sons of the country, are forming their own foreign missionary societies and sending apostles to other lands.
Also in Africa we have been able to move forward from the old stern discipline of the Roman Liturgy. It had become antiquated in Europe itself. "How," asked a French scholar, "could we impose the Roman Mass on the Africans — this silent Mass, so admirably western, so inward, so reserved, wherein the mightiest religious feelings find expression in perfect decorum?"
An important aspect of the Christianising of Africa is the growth of contemplative communities of both men and women. Mount St Bernard, a Cistercian house in Leicestershire with its own Nigerian, Blessed Cyprian Tansi, helped to found a daughter monastery in Cameroon to be a powerhouse of prayer.
In 1990, Pope John Paul II gave the world his great Encyclical on evangelisation, Redemptoris Missio. Typically, he faces unpleasant facts: "The difficulties seem insuperable. If it were merely a question of relying on human enterprise these difficulties could cause discouragement". Some countries, (commonly, but not invariably Muslim) are barred to missionaries; some prohibit all evangelisation; some prohibit even the practice of the faith; some are inextricably bound in their own traditions. (Call to mind the uncompromising attitude of the Saudis during the Gulf War when even relatively non-religious Christmas observances were prohibited.)
But, the Pope continues, the most painful difficulties are found among the People of God. He quotes Paul VI and detects "lack of fervour showing itself in fatigue, frustration, compromise, lack of interest" and "above all, lack of joy and hope".
Anyone with mission experience knows that "lack of hope and and joy" is not a typical phenomenon in mission lands. In many ways, especially in using the talents of the laity, the missions are years ahead of the home church — we had no option if the work was to be done.
Most missionaries encourage their people to help the great work, to "put hand" as they say in West Coast Pidgin — sometimes in the building work, sometimes in picking the right words in their own language to express some theological concept, sometimes advising how far we could go in "baptising" a local custom in the spirit of St Gregory's advice to St Augustine of Canterbury. Perhaps this explains their "hope and joy".
The remedy for our own sickness of the heart, says the Pope, is confidence rooted in faith: "By this we know that not we but Christ and his Spirit are principal agents of the Church's mission."
Well into the Third Millennium this great Encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, will serve as a ground plan for the Church"s response to the Great Commission, to "preach the Good News to all the world".
The fields of activity open to the Church of the coming age are well compared by the Pope to the Greeks listening to St Paul on the Areopagus, the cultural centre of Athens. He mentions the media world which has turned us into the famous "global village". Even in the few years since he wrote in 1990, the world of communications has developed beyond all prediction. In the end, as a comedian said half a century ago. "they'll spray the news on your eyeballs".
We are called not merely to use the media but to integrate the Christian message into the "new culture" created by modern technology. And this is not a sop to gimmickry. Modern tools are there to be used in the service of the Gospel.
While we never forget the unconditional primacy of preaching the Good News, the light of that Good News must irradiate every legitimate human endeavour for peace, for genuine prosperity and the achievement of human rights.
Above all, the sheer immensity of the non-Christian world should engender in us a hunger to make the Lord known, primarily by our witness.