The religious congregation to which I belong, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, has a long, proud history of sending young men off to faraway lands.
More recently, however, our biggest challenge has not come from those former faraway lands, but from the place where our congregation itself first took its roots, Western Europe and North America. The toughest missionary territory in the world today is secular culture. It’s here where our churches are emptying and greying, where our seminaries and religious houses no longer receive a regular flow of new life, and where our preaching is often ineffective.
With this in mind, two years ago, we, the Oblates, launched a new mission, a pilot-project, to try to re-enter secular culture more deliberately as missionaries, akin to the way we previously used to go off to faraway lands.
Four young men, three priests and one brother, were chosen and sent to England to found this new mission. Two others, a priest and a seminarian, have joined them since. The team took as their setting the Bullring shopping district in central Birmingham, one of the largest shopping plazas in the world.
Before going there, the team spent nearly a year readying themselves. As part of their preparation, they spent some months together in reflection and retreat, pondering, among other things, what they might offer that’s unique, new. While doing this, they looked at a number of efforts that were already being made to be more deliberately missionaries within a secular culture.
What they saw were a number of commendable projects which, each in its own way, had a certain success. But, too often, a given project, despite its goodness and effort, would also be driven by a particular ecclesiology and ethos, which would make for a certain exclusivity in its embrace.
Some projects they examined focused on the sacraments and devotions and drew in a good number of people, including the young. A lot of the activity here happened in churches, in shrines, at pilgrimages, at World Youth Days. The approach here was quite traditional, as was the dress of the missionaries (clerical collars, cassocks, liturgical vestments). The appeal was to the mainstream and the invitation was for persons to make themselves solidly at home inside the institutional church.
Some of the other projects they looked at took a very different approach. Here there was no focus on sacraments and prayer at all, except in rare instances. The missionary venue was not a church, shrine, or pilgrimage, but a secular setting, a drinking bar, a hostel, a coffee house, a drug-laden street corner, a social agency, and the dress of the missionaries was not clerical, but casual, blue jeans, cut-offs, t-shirts. The appeal was not to the mainstream but to those on its edges and the invitation was not so much to make yourself at home in the institutional church as to a prophetic presence at its edges.
Looking at all of this, these young men asked themselves: “Why not both? Why not both sacraments and bars, clerical collars and blue jeans, justice and devotions, the prophetic edge and the institutional church, attention to the margins and to the mainstream? Why not all of these together inside one missionary team and one missionary project?”
What they could offer, they felt, that was new was precisely a wider inclusivity, an ecclesiology that would not force people to make false choices between churches and drinking bars, blue jeans and clerical dress, justice and the devotional life, the institutional and the prophetic. There’s a lesson in that.
“Sing to the Lord a new song!” How might we do that in terms of trying to make Christ credible today inside the secular world? What’s ourold song? What’s missing in what we are presently doing? What can we do that’s new? Haven’t we already tried almost everything imaginable? There are, after all, only so many ways of doing ministry, of trying to preach, of reaching out to those who do not come to church with us. What more can we do?
We can, I submit, learn a lesson from this group of young missionaries in Birmingham, England. Like them, we can strive for a wider ecclesial embrace, respect more people and more things. We can try to hold two worlds together. This would be a new song!
Giving witness to Christ today requires precisely that we build communities that are wide enough to hold our differences. What we need is not a new technique, but a new sanctity; not a cooler dress, but a more inclusive embrace; not some updating of the gospel to make it more acceptable to the world, but a more courageous radiating of its wide compassion; not some new secret that catches peoples’ curiosity, but a way of following Christ that can hold more of the tensions of our world in proper balance so that everyone, irrespective of temperament and ideology, will find themselves better understood and embraced by what we hold most dear.