The Pope's Favorite Film: "Mission"
In the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church reacted to the secularist offensive in Europe with a spectacular missionary expansion on the other continents. Benedict XVI wants the miracle to be repeated today. His next voyage: to Africa
ROME, October 10, 2011 – In forty days, Benedict XVI will make a stop in Africa, in Benin.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the continent than in the last century showed the most impressive increase in the number of Christians. There were 7 million in 1900, and 470 million today. Of these, more than 170 million belong to the Catholic Church.
On November 20, in Cotonou, pope Joseph Ratzinger will sign the apostolic exhortation that emerged from the special synod expressly dedicated to Africa in 2009, and will deliver it to representatives of the continent's bishops.
In a pontificate that is intended to give rise to a "new evangelization" above all in the historically Catholic regions that are now dechristianized, there is still a lively desire to proclaim the Christian faith where it has never arrived.
It is not the first time that the Catholic Church has responded in this way – with a renewed missionary impulse "to the ends of the earth" – to the offensive of a culture that is eroding the faith in countries of ancient Christian tradition.
In the essay presented below, the historian Gianpaolo Romanato shows how the last great missionary expansion of the Catholic Church in Africa, Asia, and Oceania took place precisely after the French Revolution and in reaction to the relentless advance in Europe of a culture and of powers hostile to Christianity.
Today, however, within the Church itself there some who make objections against going back on mission "according to the old style." Benedict XVI, in his pre-Christmas address to the Roman curia on December 21, 2007, summarized these objections this way:
"Is it still permissible to 'evangelize' today? Shouldn't all the religions and conceptions of the world instead coexist peacefully and seek, together, to do what is best for humanity, each in its own way?"
To this the pope responded that, yes, it is right that there be common action among the different religions "in defense of the effective respect of the dignity of each human person, to build a more just and supportive society." And he will dedicate the prayer encounter in Assisi next October 27 to this.
But he immediately added that this does not preclude the proclamation of Jesus to society; on the contrary:
"Those who have recognized a great truth, those who have found a great joy must transmit it; they simply cannot keep it for themselves. [...] In Jesus Christ there has arisen for us a great light, 'the' great Light: we cannot put it under a bushel basket, but must raise it up on the lamp stand, so that it may give light to all in the house."
But let's return to the missionary epic of the nineteenth century. The outline of this that is drawn by Romanato can also be a lesson for Catholics of today. From an event – the secularist offensive – that the Church of that time judged as catastrophic there emerged an extraordinary expansion of the Christian faith in the world.
Romanato teaches contemporary history at the University of Padua, and calls himself "a secular scholar who is accustomed to reasoning in secular terms."
He delivered this talk at a conference in Subiaco, on October 6, 2011. And "L'Osservatore Romano" published it that same day.
by Gianpaolo Romanato
The missions were the great discovery and the great hope of the Church of the nineteenth century.
Discovery, because the missions in the post-revolutionary age, directed to the new peoples of Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the two Americas, not guaranteed by the structures of state patronage in place in the ancien régime, was substantially different from those of the pre-revolutionary period.
Hope, because in the face of the new enemy represented by modernity and by the organization of the liberal state, the conquest of unknown populations never touched by Christianity appeared as a new frontier, an unexpected possibility to re-found the Christian message, a comeback after the repeated defeats suffered in Europe.
This missionary projection took place under the aegis of the most rigid counter-revolutionary culture, beginning with the pope who was the first to be its representative and promoter, Gregory XVI, born Bartolomeo Cappellari, a Camaldolese monk originally from Belluno, who before his election had been the prefect of Propaganda Fide for five years.
While he was using the encyclicals "Mirari Vos" (1832) and "Singulari Nos" (1834) to set the parameters of what would be the anti-modern Catholic intransigency for fifty years, he also launched the rebirth of the missions with a series of initiatives that stretch from the foundation of forty-four apostolic vicariates in the new lands to the promulgation of the encyclical "Probe Nostis" (1840), the manifesto of the new missionary approach.
The nineteenth-century "missionary spring" was thus born from cultural roots opposed to those of modernity.
The fact that the Church's outreach to the new peoples stemmed from a desire for retribution in regard to the wave of liberal secularization overwhelming Europe emerges from the very words of Pope Gregory XVI. The encyclical began, in fact, by recalling the "misfortunes" that were oppressing the Church "from every side," the "errors" that were threatening its survival. But, "while on the one hand we should weep," the pope wrote, "on the other hand we should rejoice in the frequent triumphs of the apostolic missions," triumphs that should prompt "greater shame" in "those who persecute it." This contraposition would become one of the common threads of missionary history, spun from the beginning into the most typical intransigent, counter-revolutionary strand.
Not only the missionary culture, but also the personnel that implemented it came from a fundamentally intransigent culture, confrontational, foreign to the nineteenth-century myth of the nation that was, however, one of the great terrains in which the revolution of modernity developed, of which nineteenth-century colonialism was an expression.
It is important to keep this intellectual and theological background in mind, which confirms, if need be, the complexity and unpredictability of history. In that case we are considering now, the novelty is not the offspring of the revolution, but of the reaction, of a culture that normally does not open up to the future, but encourages taking refuge in the past. The winning element of missionary culture was, in fact, precisely its estrangement from the myth of the nation.
The missionaries who flooded the world possessed the sense of the Church much more than the sense of homeland. They felt that they were sons and defenders of a Church that was persecuted and kept on the defensive by liberalism, by national revolutions. This accentuated their estrangement from the political ideas of the nineteenth century, and reinforced their identification with Christian universalism. The missions were not born Italian, French, or German, they were born Catholic, the offspring of a Church regrouped around Rome and detached from the old pre-revolutionary national Churches, on a collision course with the ideas of greatness and power that moved the European powers to conquer and annex the new continents.
These considerations apply in particular to the Italian missionaries, the ones closest, even geographically, to Rome and to the new spirit of Catholicism.
The Italian missionary felt predominantly like a churchman, the bearer of a plan of evangelization that we would call potentially universal, not influenced by political or national interests. In the Italian institutes that arose in the nineteenth century and were exclusively dedicated to missionary activity – from the African missions of Verona founded by Daniele Comboni to the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME); from the Xaverians to the missionaries of the Consolata – the national, or nationalistic, ideology was almost nonexistent. What predominated instead was apostolic fervor, which became all the stronger and more urgent as Italian political affairs seemed to hold an uncertain and difficult future for the Church in Italy.
These are precisely the difficulties that reinforced their sense of belonging to the Church, beyond patriotic sentiment, the desire to open new roads for it among faraway peoples not yet touched by Christianity, the preoccupation with finding a "virgin mission" where the Gospel had not yet arrived, and where it would be possible to preach it without contaminating it with political and ideological interests.
The "Rules" of the PIME say that "from the beginning, the institute aimed at having missions precisely among the most derelict and barbarous populations." The hope and the ideal of these institutes was that of re-founding Christianity as far as possible from old Europe, from its divisions and its interests.
A similar intention was held by Comboni, who thought of Africa as "the most unhappy and certainly the most abandoned part of the world." He always understood absolutely clearly that missionary work would be all the more effective to the extent to which it was free from political factors. Mission "must be Catholic, not Spanish, or French, or German, or Italian," he never tired of repeating. He was perfectly familiar with the European missionary associations and institutes, having visited and frequented them, and lamented that in France the "spirit of God" was still too influenced by the "spirit of nation."
But not even in France did the influence of nationality prevent the clear realization that the missions had to be kept far from the politics of the state to which the missionaries belonged, as written with great lucidity by the French superior of the mission in Eritrea: "For us there exists only one word: the Catholic mission, whether the members that comprise it be French, Italian, German, or English."
BETWEEN MISSION AND COLONIZATION
The interweaving of mission and colonialism is complex. The two phenomena are parallel, contemporary, and interdependent, in the modern era just as in the contemporary era.
In the modern era, the missionaries arrived in the Americas and Asia on the ships of the colonizers, protected by the same laws, tangled in the web of state patronage. And the situation was no different in the other areas of the globe, in particular the part of North America that is now Canada, at the time under the control of the French. But neither the Holy See nor the religious orders involved in the missions hesitated to enter into conflict with the political power and seek spaces of autonomy.
Rome would found the powerful congregation of Propaganda Fide in 1622 precisely for the purpose of bringing the missions, wherever possible, back under ecclesiastical control, including through the use of handy canonical expedients like the institute of apostolic vicars, bishops directly dependent on Rome, bishops who answered for their actions to the apostolic see and not to the political authority.
The apostolic vicars were used in particular in an attempt to bypass Portuguese patronage. In the case of Spanish patronage, the means for escaping state ties consisted in the undertaking of experiments of evangelization detached from the jurisdiction of the crown of Madrid, in territories outside or at the margins of its jurisdiction.
In this second case the experiment must be remembered of the Reductions among the Guaraní in Paraguay (but in reality, extended to other areas and populations of South America). The Reductions were missions totally under the control of the Society of Jesus, over which the crown of Spain had almost no power. We know, however, that these collapsed when Spain and Portugal reorganized their borders and deprived the missions of the spaces of autonomy that they had enjoyed for a century and a half. Propaganda Fide was not always able to attain the goals for which it had been established, not even with the expedient of the apostolic vicars.
For the whole modern era, in short, mission and colonization lived out a difficult coexistence, often conflictual.
In the contemporary era, we note similar characteristics. Missions and colonies go together, albeit with disjunctions that are not without importance. In general, mission precedes colony and is often aimed at territories outside or at the margins of colonization: Oceania, where the PIME operated; Patagonia, where the Salesians established themselves.
But the similarities, in spite of these disjunctions, must not prevent us from noting the differences.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the missionaries learned the local languages, they worked not by overlapping the autochthonous cultures but by penetrating them from within, they fostered the emergence of local clergy and hierarchies, following the Roman directives issued beginning with the famous Instruction to the apostolic vicars of Tonkin in long-ago 1659 – a prescient pontifical document, better cited than known – reiterated in all the following pontifical directives and incorporated in the 1919 encyclical "Maximum Illud" of Benedict XV. While the colony is a conquest of territories, spaces, and resources, an operation of power, the mission is an attempt to graft Christianity without altering the local cultures.
The operation was not always conducted with the necessary clarity, but this was the intention. Comboni would say that the missionary presence in "Nigrizia" – as Africa was called at the time – would have to continue until a local Catholicism was born, and then would have to cease. And this is exactly what happened in Sudan, the territory of his mission, where today there exists a Sudanese hierarchy, to which the Comboni missionaries report. "Save Africa with Africa" was his motto, which expresses precisely this intention. Come, christianize, create a local Church, and then leave.
If we observe the history of European colonialism a posteriori, we note more clearly the difference between colonialism and mission. Colonialism exploded, leaving debris that devastated, and continues to devastate, the continents outside of Europe. The missions did not explode, survived the colonial era, transformed themselves, and gave life to the "young Churches," with indigenous clergy and hierarchy.
Today in the sacred college there are dozens of cardinals from African or Asian countries that were colonies until after the second world war. The missions have served to expand Catholicism on a planetary scale, and inculturate it among new peoples.
The program of the upcoming African voyage of Benedict XVI:
> Apostolic Journey to Benin, November 18-20, 2011
A major survey by the Pew Forum:
> Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa
Last year, www.chiesa published a fascinating portrait by Professor Gianpaolo Romanato of Pius X's secretary of state, Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val. A portrait – as the subtitle said – that "leads to a comparison with the Vatican curia of today":
> Here's a Perfect Secretary of State. But from a Century Ago
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.