An article in the most recent Australian E-Journal of Theology, written by the Divine Word Missionaries Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder of the Catholic Theological Union, is a reflection on mission as dialogue. What could this possibly mean? Is it merely rhetorical sleight-of-hand?Frs Bevans and Schroeder begin by recalling that missionary activity was once often conceived in military terms. As high school students, they even remember being told that Divine Word Missionaries were actually the “marines of the Catholic Church.” There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, assuming that our view of “war” is shaped by real experience and history, not celluloid fantasy and insecurity. Many hymns that use military images manage to set forth the Christian message with stunning clarity. Think of the fourth line of Daniel Lord’s (once) popular hymn, “For Christ (Our) King” (in italics below):
An army of youth flying the standards of Truth,
We’re fighting for Christ, the Lord.
Heads lifted high, Catholic Action our cry.
And the Cross our only sword.
But would-be missionaries using military language can too easily envision those who are to be evangelized as merely “targets” or “objects,” rather than genuine “others,” whose own cultures and religions – far from being obstacles – might already be enlightened by what Nostra Aetate memorably called the “rays of the Truth which enlightens all human beings.” Recent missiology has been inspired by the recognition of missionaries that, in the oft-cited words of Max Warren, then general secretary of the Church Missionary Society, “God was here before our arrival.”This recognition must not be misinterpreted. St Paul’s claim that an “obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16) is still our obligation, as we will see. But the recognition that “God was here before our arrival” must influence how we preach the gospel. Frs Bevan and Schroeder suggest the model of prophetic dialogue. But what is dialogue? And how can it be prophetic?In 1991, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (there was once such a thing) released a document entitled
Dialogue and Proclamation that helpfully defined dialogue for us. Dialogue does depend on context, and the particular definition that is most helpful for us is “an attitude of respect and friendship, which permeates or should permeate all those activities constituting the evangelizing mission of the church.” We might still find ourselves suspicious, thinking of various interpretations of dialogue that seem to insist on never-ending conversations directed towards mutual affirmation in place of truth.When we reflect on this “attitude of respect and friendship,” then, we should take care to first imagine God’s relationship to us, not contemporary misappropriations. Pope Paul VI, in Ecclesiam Suam, wrote that “the whole history of humanity’s salvation is one long, varied dialogue, which marvelously begins with God and which God prolongs with women and men in so many different ways.” God’s relationship to us is a dialogue, rather than a history of coercion, because God calls us to communion with him. We can go even further with Bevans and Schroeder and say that God’s very nature is to be in communion – to be in dialogue, so to speak – because God is himself the communion – “eternal stance of openness and receiving, a giving and accepting” – of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which then spills over into creation. The Anglican theologian AM Allchin neatly expresses this communion to which we are called which is God himself: “We are united with the Father in the Son who at once is both man and God through the power of the Spirit who is also truly God, and who makes us participant in God.”Dialogue is not accommodation; it is holy. Furthermore, it is not a strategy or a matter of clever rhetoric. We can speak of a spirituality of dialogue. It is contemplative, because the attentiveness to other people is hardly unrelated to our attentiveness in prayer to God’s stirring within our hearts. It further requires discernment of what is not clearly said, but is in the hearts of other people. Our authors go on to say that it requires patience, courage, and genuine vulnerability. In certain contexts where earlier missionary efforts have left behind the scar tissue of anger and resentment, one will need to be able to repent. Since the very first steps in dialogue are often simple acts of kindness, mission as prophetic dialogue must also be capable of the “mission of touch, of love, and of service” of Mother Teresa in (majority) Hindu India. Mission as dialogue requires the ability to trust, and, finally meekness. Meekness? Paul VI said about dialogue, “It is peaceful, has no use for extreme methods, is patient under contradiction and inclines toward generosity.”
What would mission as prophetic dialogue actually look like? Frs Bevans and Schroeder allude to St Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul wrote “we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us” (1 Thess 2:7-8), describing something very much like, we might imagine, what Dialogue and Proclamation would call an “attitude of respect and friendship.” They also speak of St Francis of Assisi, who attempted to convert a Muslim sultan through words instead of weapons, and was able to come away impressed by the Muslim call to prayer to the point that he even suggested the practice for Christian communities. Subsequently, Francis would suggest that one possible route for “those who are going among the Saracens and other nonbelievers” would not begin with “arguments or disputes,” but with being “subject to every human creature for God’s sake” through the sermon of one’s own life.Perhaps, though, the most moving example is that of the recently beatified Charles de Foucauld. Cathy Wright, a Little Sister of Jesus herself, writes that Charles de Foucauld, in his North African context, had a mission of presence. People were attracted by his “unspoken imitation of Christ, in which they recognized the Qur’anic portrayal of Isa (Jesus).” Foucauld – who baptized only two people during his decade in Algeria – himself wrote that he was “not here to convert the Tuareg people at once, but to try to understand them.” He continued, “We must go very slowly and gently, get to know them and make friends with them.” Foucauld said that his apostolate
must be one of goodness. In seeing me one must say, ‘If this man is good, his religion must be good.’ If they ask me why I am good I must answer, ‘Because I am the servant of one who is much better than I. If only you knew how good my Master, Jesus is.
We must always take care to remember, though, that mission must be prophetic dialogue. St Paul, our authors remind us, becomes “all things to all people,” a “slave to all,” but, still “woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” He gave the Thessalonians his “very self,” but also “the Gospel of God.” Dialogue is not an end in itself – it is a how, whether the how of God’s revelation to us, or, consequently, the how of our own humble missionary efforts to spread the Gospel. The spirituality of dialogue must lead towards and nourish the speaking forth of the Gospel (which always includes the denunciation of injustice and oppression), however meekly and patiently, gently and slowly. Fr Bevans and Schroeder should have the last words:
Again, while both the annunciation of the gospel and the denunciation of injustice must be done in the spirit of deep respect and dialogue with the parties concerned, God’s story needs to be told. Christians must say it in the context of dialogue, but they must say it, for they indeed have something to say: they are not ashamed of the Gospel, because ‘it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith …’ (Rom 1:16)