Today, Sunday, the delegates to the General Chapter took a well deserved ‘breather’, with some venturing out to London or visiting a place redolent with Mill Hill tradition like Courtfield, whilst others enjoyed a day of quiet relaxation by just staying put.
In the week ahead the Chapter will enter the crucial phase of formulating an inspirational vision and a strategy for the Mill Hill Missionary Society for the coming five years and beyond in line with and building on what previous Chapters discerned under the guidance of the Spirit.
A brief extract from an extensive interview with Pope Francis on the subject of mission may help to sketch the overall direction and take the plunge.
(From a book-length interview of Gianni Valente published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana and Edizioni San Paolo.)
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, you often repeat that the Church grows by attraction. What do you mean? Who attracts? Who is attracted?
Jesus says it in the Gospel of John, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself”. And in the same Gospel, he also says: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him”. The Church has always recognized that this is the proper form of every movement that brings us closer to Jesus and the Gospel. It is not a conviction, a rationalization, it’s not taking a position; not a pressure, or a constraint. It is always an attraction. The Prophet Jeremiah already said “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped”. And this applies to the apostles, to the missionaries, and to their work.
How does what you have just described take place?
The Lord’s mandate to go out and evangelize comes from within, by falling in love, by loving attraction. One does not follow Christ, and even less become an evangelizer, because of a decision made sitting around a table, or by one’s own activism. Even missionary thrust can be fruitful only if it takes place within this attraction, and transmits it to others.
What is the meaning of these words with respect to the mission and the proclamation of the Gospel?
It means that if you have been attracted by Christ, if you move and do things because you are attracted by Christ, others will notice it without effort. There is no need to prove it, let alone flaunt it. Instead, anyone who thinks he or she is the protagonist or manager of the mission, with all the best intentions and declarations of purpose, often ends up attracting no one.
In the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, you recognize that all this can “can cause us to feel disoriented”. It’s like those who dive into the ocean not knowing what they will find. What did you want to suggest with this image? Do these words also concern mission?
Mission is not a tried and tested company plan. Neither is it a public spectacle organized to flaunt how many people are associated with it thanks to our marketing. The Holy Spirit works as He wills, when He wills and where He wills. And this can lead to “vertigo”. Yet the high point of freedom rests precisely in this letting oneself be carried by the Spirit, renouncing the need to calculate and control everything. This is precisely how we imitate Christ Himself, who in the mystery of His Resurrection learned to rest in the tenderness of the Father’s embrace. Mission’s mysterious fruitfulness does not consist in our intentions, in our methods, in our impulses and in our initiatives, but rests precisely in this “vertigo”: the “vertigo” we perceive when we hear Jesus’ words: “without me you can do nothing”.
You also often repeat that the Church grows “by witnessing”. What are you trying to suggest by insisting on this?
The fact that attraction makes us witnesses. This witness testifies to what the work of Christ and His Spirit have really accomplished in our life. After His Resurrection, it is Christ himself who reveals Himself to the apostles. It is He who makes them witnesses. In addition, this witness is not self-serving. We are witnesses to the Lord’s works.
Something else you repeat often, in this case in a negative sense: the Church does not grow through proselytizing, and the mission of the Church is not proselytism. Why do you insist on this so much? Is it to maintain good relations with other Churches and dialogue with other religious traditions?
The problem with proselytism is not only the fact that it contradicts the ecumenical journey and interreligious dialogue. There is proselytism wherever there is the idea of making the Church grow by putting less emphasis on this attraction on the part of Christ and the work of the Spirit, focusing everything on any type of “wise discourse”. Therefore, proselytism first of all cuts out Christ Himself and the Holy Spirit from the mission, even when we claim to speak and act nominally in Christ’s name. Proselytism is always violent by nature, even when it is hidden or exercised with white gloves. It does not tolerate the freedom and graciousness with which faith can be transmitted from person to person by grace. This is why proselytism is not only something of the past, of bygone colonialist times, or conversions forced or bought with the promise of material advantages. Proselytism can also exist today even in parishes, communities, movements, religious congregations.
So what does it mean to evangelize?
To evangelize means delivering Christ’s own testimony in simple and precise words, like the apostles did. But there is no need to invent persuasive discourses. The proclamation of the Gospel can even be whispered, but it always passes through the overwhelming power of the scandal of the cross. And it has always followed the path indicated in the letter of the Apostle Peter, which consists in simply “providing reasons” of one’s hope to others, a hope that remains a scandal and foolishness in the eyes of the world.
How do we recognize a Christian “missionary”?
A distinctive feature is that of acting as facilitators, and not as controllers of the faith. Facilitating, making easy, without us placing obstacles to Jesus’ desire to embrace everyone, to heal everyone, to save everyone, not being selective, not imposing “pastoral tariffs”, not playing the part of the guard at the door controlling who has the right to enter. I remember parish priests and communities in Buenos Aires who set up many initiatives to facilitate access to baptism. In the last few years, they realized the number was growing of those not being baptized for various reasons, even sociological ones, and they wanted to remind everyone that being baptized is something simple, that everyone can request it, for themselves and for their own children. The path taken by those parish priests and those communities had one objective: not to add burdens, not to make claims, to remove any cultural, psychological or practical difficulties that could push people to postpone or drop the intention to baptize their own children.
Gallery of Delegates: