Christian Theology of Mission at a Pivotal Moment

By Schlumpf, Heidi | National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2011 | Go to article overview

Christian Theology of Mission at a Pivotal Moment


Schlumpf, Heidi, National Catholic Reporter


CHICAGO * If God judges the success of Christian mission work by the numbers, we're in trouble. After a century of intense evangelization by Catholics and Protestants, the number of Christians as a percentage of the world's population moved from 34 percent in 1900 to 33 percent in 2000.

"Christians ran very hard, as it were, to stand in place," said Fr. Robert Schreiter, a Missionary of the Precious Blood priest and professor of theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago who shared the statistics.

To be fair, the number of Christians in Africa exploded from 10 million to 350 million during that century Yet the largest and fastest-growing religion worldwide today is not Christianity, but Islam, with more than 1 billion members, Schreiter said.

What does this mean for a faith that traditionally has believed that Jesus Christ is the definitive savior of all humankind? Is conversion still the measure of successful evangelization? What is an appropriate theology of mission in today's interreligious world?

Such questions are among the most important the church faces today, since they touch upon the very identity of the Christian faith, said Schreiter, who was among dozens of theologians to wrangle with the past, present and future of missiology at the Maryknoll Centennial Symposium Oct. 6-8 at Catholic Theological Union. The event marked the 100th anniversary, of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of the United States, commonly known as Maryknoll.

All agreed that the church is at a pivotal moment, and many argued it was time for a "qualitative leap" forward in the understanding of mission--not ^necessarily abandoning traditional evangelization or "proclamation," but combining it with dialogue with those of other faiths.

This new way of being in mission may not have numbers of converts that can be sent to the local bishop or to Rome, but it does still have the power to transform the world, said Maryknoll Sr. Antoinette Gutzler, associate professor of theology at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan.

"Perhaps, in this new moment of 'faith seeking understanding,' the point is not to covert people to a religion but rather to live and act in such a way that people are moved to be transformed by the Gospel of Jesus," she said.

That transformation can go both directions, according to a priest and theologian with 40 years experience in Asia. "Missionaries offer a gift and hope people will graciously accept it," said Maryknoll Fr. James Kroeger, professor of theology at the Loyola School of Theology in Manila, the Philippines. "But missionaries not only give, they receive."

Perhaps nowhere is Christianity's encounter with other religions more controversial than in Asia, where Christians constitute only 3 percent of the population and where some theologians have been investigated by the Vatican for their writings on religious pluralism.

At the Maryknoll conference, the Vietnamese - born Fr. Peter Phan, professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, compared missionaries to guests in a house. "We depend on the host, which are these [other] religions," said Phan, whose own work has been investigated by the Vatican. "You cannot go to a host's house and say, 'I don't like the way you arrange your furniture ... I don't like the way you cook.'"

Maryknoll Fr. Raymond Finch also stressed the mutuality of mission, wondering if evangelization from a position of power is even possible. "If it's not mutual, it's not mission. If it's not mutual, it's cultural domination," said Finch, who worked with indigenous people in Peru for 23 years before serving as Maryknoll's superior general. "We no longer go into mission connected with an empire. We go for other reasons--for encounter, for dialogue. That is a very important change."

These new models would surely be foreign to missionaries from earlier centuries, including the founders of Maryknoll, who encouraged young men to "toil for the souls of heathen people," according to an excerpt from A Field Afar (later Maryknoll magazine). …

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