This past summer, the religious community I belong to, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, sponsored a symposium, “Missionaries to Secularity”, at St. Paul University, Ottawa. We’re a missionary order who are now convinced that the most complex and demanding missionary task in the world today is that of being missionaries within the culture of secularity.
In the Western world, as we know, our churches do pretty well with those who walk through our doors on Sunday, but, and this is the problem, less and less people are walking through those doors. We seem to know what to do with people once they come to church but we no longer know how to get them there.
With this in mind, we gathered a group of people, lay and clergy, all of whom brought a depth of missionary and pastoral experience, for three days of reflection. Our resource persons included John Shea, Richard Rohr, Gilles Routhier, Michael Downey, and Vivian Labrie.
We didn’t write up any manifestos at the end, but, based on our conversations and the insights of our resource persons, we did write up a series of “missiological principles” which can, we feel, point us in the right direction. What are these principles? Here are ten of them:
1) We are at a new place today in terms of the faith. Adaptation of what has worked in the past may not be enough. We need to re-inflame the romantic imagination within Christianity.
2) Secularity is not the enemy, it’s our own child, sprung from Judeo- Christian roots. Like any adolescent child, suffering from an understandable youthful grandiosity, it’s not bad, just unfinished. Our relationship to it shouldn’t be adversarial but one of solicitude. The “soil” of secularity is defined by Jesus in the parable of the Sower – some ground is good, some hostile, some indifferent – but the fact that some ground is hostile or indifferent does not absolve us from the mandate to keep on sowing.
3) Spirituality is peoples’ birthright. The secular culture hungers for spirituality, but is largely spiritually illiterate. People go where they get fed.
4) Recovering the tradition is a great labour. We must seek to recover the core, heart, of our tradition, beyond its encrusted accretions, and then put our own passion to that heart. We must work at finding our own faith-voice and then speak in an invitational way. Part of this must be a profound ascesis of listening.
5) A potentially fertile image of Christ for our time might well be Christ as the kenosis of God. This perhaps can be the place of contact with the secular world. Christ, in his self-emptying, expresses a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return, incarnates God’s presence without pretence, reveals a God of total non-violence and vulnerability, a God of pure invitation, and a God who accepts the provisionality of everything. Jesus’ essential message is a universal message of vulnerability that all people need to hear.
6) Given this self-emptying God, we might remind ourselves that sharing in the mission of Christ does not always mean using words about Jesus. God can give us permission, when necessary, to take a holiday from religious language.
7) As a faith community we are in exile – from the power, possessiveness, and prestige of the past – but we should remember that all transformation happens in exile because that is the only time God can get at us. We need to stay with the pain, the exile, the kenosis, and hold the tension long enough until it changes us.
8) There are four aspects of the church that people still do accept: the church as an agency to serve the poor, the church as delivering the rites of passage, the church as a voice within ethical discourse, and the church as a “beautiful heritage”; but we must be careful to not let ourselves be identified with only these. Perhaps too we are asking our parishes to carry too many things, asking them to do some things they can no longer do. Parish and mission are not co-terminus. We need to ask ourselves: Do we need new structures, beyond and outside the parish, new “missiological” structures to supplement what parishes can do? Can we dream of new “ecclesial houses”?
9) The gospel is ultimately about God rescuing the poor. Part of evangelization is the movement to eliminate poverty. The church is a big international body and it could do a lot, internationally, as regards poverty. But, if we want to work for the poor, we must free ourselves from too much reliance on dogma and rely more upon human solidarity.
10) There are human foundations, solid ones, for moral progress within our culture and we need to accept this and widen the pool of sincere people with whom we form one body to work for a better world. Excessive stress on denominational identification can narrow the body. Interreligious dialogue must lead us back to a common humanity. We need to commit ourselves not just to the baptized, but to all people of sincerity and good-will.