Once upon a time, missioners were great storytellers.
That’s how I remember it, anyway. Sitting in the pew in my salad days, I was in rapt attention as a missionary priest told about faraway places where he had brought the Gospel. The stories let me imagine him in conditions that were dramatically different from what I knew: Different foods and customs, the hardships of his mission and the far greater hardships of those he served struck me as heroic and exciting.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard sermons like that.
I’m not sure what’s changed. Perhaps there is a general embarrassment about missionary work as a kind of cultural imperialism rather than heroism. Perhaps it is a casualty of a general relativism that suggests any other religion is pretty much just as good as ours, so why bother unless you are building a well. Perhaps the heroic acts of an individual giving her life for others in a forgotten part of the globe have been replaced by government contracts and large NGOs (non-governmental organizations) operating on a much grander scale.
Yet a recent mission appeal reminded me of what we are missing when we don’t hear these stories. In recent years, such talks usually involve some general testimony and seem rarely to involve stories of any kind. There is some general description of the importance of doing such work, and a quick appeal for prayers and money, followed by a collection.
I’m sure that Americans, being a generous people, respond appropriately, so mission accomplished.
But I think there is a greater need for a compelling missionary talk than simply the dollar total. We need to feel an intimate bond with those far away from us. One of the greatest temptations in our parishes today is congregationalism. This is the tendency to see the Church as comprising primarily of what happens in our own parish boundaries. Like the humorous cover on The New Yorker magazine showing a New Yorker’s view of the United States (a highly detailed map of the five boroughs with everything else in the remaining 49 states compressed into a little strip), Catholics can fall into the temptation to see the Church as a highly detailed map of our own parochial experience, with a slightly larger band for our diocese, and everything else compressed into a thin strip stretching from our diocesan boundaries to Rome.
This congregationalism manifests itself in different ways, but what it suggests is a narrowing and a provincialism that identifies less and less with the greater Church, the People of God that stretches from the rising of the sun to its setting.
I’d love to hear more sermons that remind us that Capital-C Catholics are small-c catholic: universal and bound by our faith in profound fellowship with all sorts of people very different from us.
What we need to understand is that the road to the missions is now a two-way street.
Many dioceses and parishes benefit from Third World priests who come to meet our sacramental needs. We benefit from stories of religious witness and persecution, and hearing in tangible and vivid ways about the sacrifices fellow Catholics make in other parts of the world. We even benefit from the opportunity to share our material wealth.
Yes, there is still a missionary mandate to bring the Good News to the entire world, but I think we are more aware these days how much we have to learn about our own faith from those in other regions.
The Church was into “globalization” centuries before the rest of the world discovered it. For us Catholics today, it is about solidarity and interdependence. That’s why we need the stories.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.