In 1975 Pope Paul VI made the powerful comment, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
They are sobering words especially for missionaries. They always remind me of a poster which featured a huge hippopotamus with a massive yawn. The caption read, “When all is said and done, more is said than done.”
I am also reminded of a parable I heard once about a young African called Kahua. Kahua lived in the hills above a vast savannah in East Africa. One day he came down to the savannah and turned up at the Catholic compound where he met the priest. Kahua asked for a job for six months and, as the priest urgently needed someone, he was given a job working closely with the priest. It turned out that Kahua was honest and industrious, imaginative and reliable and above all he got along with everyone. The priest came to rely on him and was shocked when just short of the six months Kahua came to tell him that the time was almost up and he would be leaving in a week. “No Kahua, you can’t go. I need you. I know I have been cranky and difficult at times, and I probably haven’t paid you enough but I promise to be better and make it up to you.”
Kahua explained that it really wasn’t about money. He reminded the priest that he lived in the hills and that one day when he was thinking about his life he had looked out on the savannah below where he saw the Christian compound and the Muslim mosque. He knew they were among the great world religions and thought they might have the answers he was searching for. So he told the priest, “I thought I would go and work for you and the Imam for six months each, and then I would know which religion was best for me. Now it is time to go to work for the Imam.” “My God, Kahua, why didn’t you tell me?” muttered the priest. But the fact is most people don’t tell us. They watch us. It is our witness not our homilies that is important.
People want to see that in everyday life we are compassionate, patient, kind, and rarely jealous, angry or petty. I don’t think people expect us to be perfect, but they want to see that our faith makes a difference. They want to see that we still have hope in our hearts and faith in the future and room for others in good times and in more difficult situations.
Kahua was smart in wanting to learn about religion not from the priest’s or imam’s homilies but from working with them. The quality of our works and lives speaks more powerfully than anything we can say. Witness and teaching necessarily belong together. The problem with some of our missionary endeavors is that our witness doesn’t measure up to our teaching. We can be a little like the hippopotamus when we say much more than we do.
Fr. Noel Connelly is the regional director in Australia.