"Mission Accomplished!" - President George W. Bush, May 2, 2003.
If those words were true, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time praying, when either one of my brothers travels to Iraq.
It is s a strange lead in, I know, but stick with me.
I’m in Mumbai today, which is funny, because yesterday I was at Holy Ghost parish in Bangalore, only to come to Mumbai to hear Fr Cyril, a Redemptorist priest, who comes from Holy Ghost Parish in Bangalore. Crazy. I am staying at Seva Niketan, a facility operated by the Jesuits to support their work with CLCs (Christian Life Communities). I went the near by Jesuit parish which is called St. Anne’s Parish.
The parish had invited Fr Cyril to come and give what is known in Catholic parishes as a “Mission.” These are dedicated periods of time, usually a week, in which communities rededicate themselves to the Christian life, by spending deliberate time, renewing the spirit of their faith. Missions are usually adorned by very gifted speakers, who come and shed new light on the Scriptures, while telling a lot of funny jokes to keep people entertained. St. Anne’s parish was packed. The people seemed very moved by the experience. I guess we can say...
I have had the privilege of speaking to many missionaries during my stay here in Asia. One of the more disturbing things that I have heard them say, more than once, from more than one missionary, is that “mission is over.” Christianity is now present, in some form, in every nation of the world. There is still persecution going on, but we can rest assured that the missionaries have done their work.
Still, the idea that “mission is over” is a bit discomforting to me. It seems almost like a defeatist attitude. (And it also makes me wonder why American parishes give money every summer to the missions on “Mission Sunday,” our annual missions appeal.)
India is only 2% Catholic. China is 1% Catholic. How can you say that there is no more need for missionaries? Haven’t you seen the world! We’re in a global economy. People are crossing overseas all the time to do business, but there is a significant lacking of any Christian spirituality behind the global economy, especially for the poor.
The funny thing is that when I have encountered foreign priests in Asia, more often than not, they are here not to spread the Gospel to the country, but to minister to the foreigners who are living abroad.
The new thrust is not mission, but development, that is to say, Christianity is already in these countries, what the Church is now doing, is training Catholics within these countries, to continue the work of mission. This Church does this 1) because it is more effective, 2) native people are more credible among native people because they appreciate the customs that foreigners lack, and 3) many governments (especially in Asia), are suspicious of foreigners, and will not grant them stay in a country for religious purposes. If there are missionaries in Asia, they usually enter the country clandestine. They will pose as businessmen or teachers, and then seek to promote Christianity on the side. If they are discovered, they are usually deported.
But the good news is that we’ve won! Christianity can now be found everywhere! In every country!
In America, there is a repulsed cynicism to using those two words in our current lexicon. It all comes from the bitter taste of President Bush claiming victory in Iraq, only to be faced with greater difficulties, cruelties, and loss of life, after declaring victory.
The Christian should always give another human being the best possible interpretation. So, giving President Bush the best interpretation that I can, I will say that Bush was right. The mission was accomplished, but what we must always remember is that the end of one mission is the beginning of a new, and usually that mission is more difficult than the previous. I’ve never played a computer game where the levels got progressively easier. Life is the same way.
Christian missionaries may be a thing of the past. The mission is over, but a new one has begun, and it is one which makes the translation of texts, departure from family and friends, defiance of governments, and torturing of martyrs, actually seem easy. The new mission of the Church is, from within, to transform the world. We travel, and support our brothers and sisters in faith overseas, not to spread the Gospel, but to help build strong relationships within the Church, concern for all its members, concern for the Church’s work, and advancement of peace and justice for all people, regardless of religious background.
I think it may have been easier when all we had to do was get the message out that a guy from Nazareth had risen from the dead.