In ordinary conversation we talk about a woman or man “with a mission” indicating someone who has a strong single-minded commitment to some worthwhile project. In modern organizations like banks we may see their “mission statement” posted on a wall, advertising their commitment to quality of service.
The term mission has a long history with a variety of meanings. The origin of all these uses is religious, stemming from an individual Christian’s desire to share his or her faith with others. This desire, usually stemming from a deep sense of gratitude at having been given so much in life, is interpreted as a call from God, a vocation. Some of these individuals may proceed, on their own, to change their lifestyle and raise money in order to follow their dream of sharing their Christian faith in a practical way. Much more common, however, is for that person to join a missionary organization which already has structures in place with suitable opportunities for sharing one’s faith with others.
In a sense, every committed Christian has that sense of mission. However, for many people a missionary is someone who is religiously inspired to leave his or her country to work for an extended period (maybe a lifetime) in another culture.
In the popular imagination missionary work consisted either of trying to convert as many people as possible to Christianity or of helping the abject poor. Neither of these captures exactly what modern missionaries do. Ideally, a missionary is someone whose personality, lifestyle and work embody God’s love for humanity and the world. The form which this embodiment takes naturally depends on the particular context which can be as different from one another as Japan is from Afghanistan.
Modern training methods for missionaries make them aware of how culture-bound is their own view of Christianity. Along with that discovery (sometimes painful) comes the awareness of the need to translate the Christian message sensitively into the categories of the host culture.
Missionaries who work in cross-cultural situations are now more acutely aware than ever that the poverty which they encounter in one part of the world is structurally related to decisions and behavior in another part of the world, perhaps in the missionary’s home country. Therefore questions of justice loom larger for the modern missionary than it did in the past when simple gestures of charity might have been sufficient.
Another point which distinguishes the modern missionary from his or her colleagues in the past is a more positive attitude towards the other religions. No longer is it the case that the members of these religions must be converted at all costs. Many missionaries find that through genuine dialogue with other religions, their own religious experience is deepened even to the extent of being able to pray together. And they may find common ground for cooperation in dealing with justice issues.
A missionary’s life, however, should not always be one of frenetic activity. Part of her task is to manifest the importance of contemplation in a post-modern world. This is necessary for the missionary’s own spiritual survival. Because of the magnitude of the global issues which the missionary confronts there is every danger that smoldering anger will lead to burn-out, the very opposite of the joyful sense of God’s presence which was the starting point of the desire to be a cross-cultural missionary.
Columban Fr. Sean Dwan is currently living and working in the United States.