Letter of the Superior General father Benoit GRIERE n° 7
The "missionary disciple"
For a renewal of missionary activity to take place, here and elsewhere, ad intra and ad extra, there are certain conditions to be satisfied. The Exhortation Evangelii gaudium renews our reflection principally due to Pope Francis’ insistence on speaking of the ‘missionary-disciple.’ ». As for me, I would like to think that it is around this reflection on witness, which is dear to him, that we can deepen our own reflection.
- The change in a paradigm.
We are seeing a change in the concept of mission. The Church that emerged from the Second Vatican Council no longer poses as an absolute the old adage: « outside of the Church, no salvation ». Baptism still maintains its decisive role in filial adoption, but the conciliar texts suggest the possibilty of salvation without it. The change in paradigm is also a new world-wide sociological reality. We are immersed in a secularized world or one on the way to becoming such. It is a post-religious world that is on the horizon. How is one to have a missionary spirit in this context?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spent a lot of time reflecting on the possibility of faith in Jesus in a world that is no longer religious. Marked by the atrocities committed by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer remained faithful to the point of giving up his life. He was put death by hanging. The question that stayed with him was How can Christ be the Lord of the non-religious? It is a question of asking how the universal salvation given in Christ might reach those who are not religious. But as Joseph Moingt writes, « This question is in turn put to the reader; it is addressed to all Christians, an invitation to move from reflection to action, from thinking that is bold to action that is equally bold. How are we to proclaim the God of Jesus Christ in a world freed from religion?
I believe that the Assumption, by virtue of its solidarity with the common human condition, has something to contribute to the proclamation of the Good News to this world. Religious fraternity, the sense of forgiveness and reconciliation, internationality and interculturality, all of this bears witness to our faith in a reality 15 that goes beyond what can merely be seen by the eye. Nevertheless, the new paradigm leads us also to throw off the vestiges of an enslaving and uncritical religion. This means that we must develop an adult faith, a faith that accepts to question things, but remains fundamentally attached to the presence of Christ in time and history. To be sure, this is demanding, but how are we to be worthy of faith if we maintain the old reflexes of an infantile religion? God is greater than our questions; we must surrender ourselves to him.
The Assumption is also experiencing a new paradigm with internationality and interculturality. Not long ago all missionaries came from countries where Christianity had been established for centuries. Missionaries lived out their mission as an epic of civilization—highly questioned today—that nurtured the conviction that what Christianity brought was not simply the message of salvation, but also human progress. Al of this is the subject of much debate. Today the Assumption no longer has many vocations in the Western world; they are quite sparse. The troops that are available for the mission are African and Asian, but they are no longer animated by the same triumphant mindset. Here as well, adaptation to reality is necessary. Does this mean that it is not possible to be missionaries when one is the offspring of former countries of mission? Of course not, but it is necessary to undergo an ideological conversion in order to understand that announcing Christ in the modern secularized world is not a question of taking revenge on history. The Assumption must live the values of universal brotherhood by already starting at home. So there is an urgent mission to be undertaken in nurturing not only internationality— this is taking place quite well— but in promoting interculturality. This is a decisive challenge, but solutions are not easily implemented.
Christoph Theobald, a Jesuit theologian, has recently written that « our current situation (…) cannot be described by the purely negative concept of dechristianization nor be addressed adequately in the framework of a strategy of re-Christianization. To the contrary, it is qualitatively unprecedented and it can only be compared in this sense, on a biblical plan, with the foundation of Christian communities emerging from paganism. »
The change in the missionary model can be found, therefore, in the observation that there is no longer a Christian territory over against some kind of mission territory. The whole world is the object of the new evangelization, of the original proclamation of the Good News. « If the whole world is ‘mission territory,’ then the distinction between the life of the Church ad intra and its mission ad extra must be eliminated, in favour of a unique perspective of decentering that would define the life of the Church itself. Thus it was that the communities of the New Testament were founded and it is thus that there can be (re)born ecclesial communities oriented toward ‘the other’ and rooted in the work of the Holy Spirit already at work in the world’. » He further explains his thinking in adding, « How does Christ bring about his Kingdom with regard to those who do not acknowledge him?; and yet he does not say: How is it, but: How can it become? — something that implies our role, our future action in extending this Kingdom of Christ ». This poses a ton of questions regarding the place of the Church, its mission if it can no longer function as a religion, etc. Pope Francis insists a lot on the rejection of proselytism. In his most recent message (Pentecost 2019) for World Mission Sunday, for example, he said, « This divine life is not a product for sale – we do not practise proselytism – but a treasure to be given, communicated and proclaimed: that is the meaning of mission. » We are called to give, communicate, and proclaim. We are disciple-missionaries.
- Witness to the Risen Christ: the proclamation of the Kingdom of God
The Christian believes in the Resurrection of Jesus. This faith is founded on the witness of those who has gone before us and we have the duty of transmitting this faith. We, too, are witnesses. It is the Holy Spirit who makes witnesses and gives them the strength to carry out their witness to the end. He alone gives us ‘confidence’ (fiducia) to carry out this witness. If Peter wasn’t able to give an answer to the woman in the High Priest’s courtyard who asked if he knew the Nazorean, then the result was that he denied him three times. But once he was filled with the Holy Spirit, this same Spirit « enkindled his once frozen heart that he might bear witness to Christ and opened his once trembling mouth that had stifled the truth ».
As it is written in Evangelii Gaudium, we are « Spirit-filled evangelizers »: « At Pentecost, the Spirit made the apostles go forth from themselves and turned them into heralds of God’s wondrous deeds, capable of speaking to each person in his or her own language. The Holy Spirit also grants the courage to proclaim the newness of the Gospel with boldness (parrhesía) in every time and place, even when it meets with opposition. » (n°259)
It is good to reflect on the notion of « witness ». To do so, I will rely on the work of Jean-Claude Chrétien, a contemporary French philosopher, among others. He recalls that « even if the New Testament did not invent the word ‘witness’ (martus), nor its reality, it gave it meanings both new and decisive, that have left their profound and lasting imprint on how we understand this word and this act. » The author identifies the frequency and importance of the Greek terms signifying a witness, the act of witnessing or bearing witness in the New Testament. « Proportionately and often absolutely, these words occur more frequently in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, to use the terminology of Christians. And their meaning grows and is enriched without any perceptible rupture. But the times these terms occur are repeated very unequally in the various books. If one takes the word martus (a witness), marturéô (to bear witness) and marturia like marturion (the act of witnessing), (…) there are a little less than 170 occurrences. The share in the Synoptic gospels is quite modest in number, the share in the Johannine writings (Gospel, Letters, Book of Revelation) is considerable (77 occurences), and what remains is distributed among the non-Johannine letters and the Acts of the Apostles. But this Johannine preponderance is somewhat surprising: the word ‘witness’ itself never appears in the Gospel of John (even if at times, translators do introduce it) whereas the verb ‘to witness’ and one of the words for ‘the act of bearing witness’ (marturia) abound. This accent on the act itself is worth pondering: John goes from the witnessing to the witness and not the other way around. » Fr. Ceslas Spicq makes an important observation, « the Biblical martys is not purely an eye-witness, simply present at something that happens; he is active, called to recount what he has seen and heard, to announce what he knows. The mission of the Twelve was to affirm Christ’s resurrection. » The apostle Paul is the shining example of the witness; that is what Ananias tells him after the incident on the road from Damascus: « For you will be his witness before all to what you have seen and heard. » (Acts 22:15). The Apostle bears witness to Jesus and that is why St. John writes his Gospel and his Revelation. All missionary preaching is a marturion revealing the event of salvation.
« These missionary preachers were not satisfied with recounting the facts and gestures or the words of Jesus; they express their personal conviction and identified with the the cause they were defending. In announcing the Lordship of Jesus, they were making public profession of their faith. Therefore there is an enormous distance between the witness and his witnessing. All one has to do is to reread the accounts of the calling of the prophets to realize this. But it is the witnessing that makes the witness and not the witness that makes the witnessing. (…) The center of gravity of the witness does not lie in himself, but outside of himself, in the object of his witnessing, and that is why there is in him, as witness, an essential imbalance and an essential fragility. (…) The witnessing is stronger than the witness. » There is always a certian indignity of the witness (cf. John the Baptist who says that he is not worthy to untie the sandal strap as well as Peter who lies, etc.). The witness does not understand everything that he himself is announcing; to do so, he needs to have the help of the Holy Spirit. St. Augustine wrote a beautiful commentary on this theme of the apostles bearing witness. Here is what he says, « The Holy Spirit will bear witness and you also will bear witness. In fact, since you have been with me from the beginning, you will be able to preach what you know and, if you don’t do it now, it is because the fullness of the Spirit is not yet in you. (…..) Surely it is because he will bear witness that you yourselves will bear witness…him in your hearts, you in your words, him in his inspiration, you in the sound of your voice...»
To be a witness is to be a disciple-missionary, as Pope Francis asks of us. Can we see ourselves as such? Disciple, that is to say, « a companion of Jesus » who travels along the paths of humanity that he takes; and a missionary, that is to say, a witness of his Word especially for the lowly and the poor. The message can be summed up in love and mercy. This is possible if we rely on the « the noble witness of Jesus » as it is said in the First Letter of Timothy 6:13.