Good news in the mission field
An interview with Father Josep Maria Abella, C.M.F.
Over the past half-century the Catholic approach to mission has shifted dramatically. Today’s Catholic missionaries continue to proclaim the Good News, but most do so in a far more open and respectful encounter and dialogue with the cultures and people they engage. Their witness invites people to a more subtle—and at the same time more profound—“conversion.”
Father Josep Maria Abella, the superior general of the Claretians—the missionary congregation that publishes U.S. Catholic—has made the renewal of his order’s missionary charism a cornerstone of his leadership.
“Missionaries today need a passion for Christ and a passion for humanity,” says Abella. “It’s not about promoting our own ideology, it’s about reflecting God’s gifts to others. Through a deeper spirituality we can become transparent to the action of God, so this action of God for us can then also touch other people.”
The Spanish-born Abella still dreams of one day returning to simple parish ministry in the land of his first mission assignment, Japan.
The interview was conducted by Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, executive editor of U.S. Catholic.
Why did you decide to join a missionary order?
In my generation we made those decisions when we were quite young. Most of my peers joined a religious order in the minor seminary. For me it was the experience of discovering the meaning of the gospel in my own life and in my own community. And that involved a desire to share this Good News and this experience with other people.
When you actually became a missionary, what struck you most when you first arrived in Japan?
The first thing was that the church there is a very tiny minority. Coming from Spain, my experience had been of a place in which the Catholic Church was present everywhere. The Spanish culture was really permeated by the Christian tradition. The Japanese culture has been shaped by other religious traditions—Shintoism and Buddhism.
The first parish to which I was sent to work had 40 Catholics in a town of maybe 150,000 people. So the question I asked myself was: What are you going to do here? You say the Mass on Sunday, you see all your parishioners, what else are you going to do? Faced with that situation, the challenge for me was to be creative with my approach to mission.
I began to realize that the real mission needed to happen not principally in the church but in the places where people were living. That meant participating, for example, in neighborhood groups that were interested in human rights, or in the community choir. For me those were places where we could have an opportunity to learn and to share, and this is where real mission could happen.
Over the past century there has not been a big trend in Japan toward Christianity. The Japanese seem content with their own religions and culture. Was that a challenge to you as a missionary?
That’s true. I think it’s safe to say that the church in Japan is not going to grow big in numbers.
The challenge for the Japanese Christian community is how to be relevant within society. It’s a community that really wants to live those Christian values and to have some impact, to further the kingdom of God in this particular, concrete place.
One way for the church to be relevant in Japanese society has been through institutions such as universities and hospitals. But I think what we count on more and more are the Christian groups, particularly the groups that are really present to certain classes of people who are excluded from fully participating in society. Also, mission groups in places like Japan try to take on a prophetic role in their society, to challenge, to question, and to promote an alternative vision.
How would you define that role?
The presence of the church should not leave people indifferent. I often used to challenge the Catholics in my parish: What would happen if our parish were to disappear? Is it just that you’d have to go a little farther—two more train stops—to go to the next parish to participate in Sunday Mass? Or would it make a difference in our community if our parish disappeared?
Even if, because we are a small group, it’s only a small contribution, being prophetic means that we are called to bring change to a society, so the society can move at least a little step closer to what we call the fullness of life.
Give me an example of how that worked within your Japanese parish.
One small example would be the attention to old people who live alone. You have in the church many people who will come to help with liturgy, to help with catechesis, to help with things at church. With all that we have a nice Sunday Mass and a nice community, but is that enough?
Everybody is called to be a leaven in their own family and in their own neighborhood. We discovered that in our neighborhoods a lot of old people were living alone and staying in their homes all day with no one looking after them. So people at our church made it their mission to make sure those people knew that God loves them by caring for them.
What role does dialogue with people of non-Christian religions play in mission work today?
The bishops of Asia point to three dialogues as the main thrust of the church in Asia: the dialogue with cultures, with religions, and with the poor.
In Japan that dialogue starts within the family itself. The father may be Buddhist, while the mother is Christian, and the children experience both religions. So in your family you have the choice either to ignore the values of each other’s religions or to really share them.
It’s not usually a dialogue that is talked about but one that involves many important decisions. It happens in sharing your prayers—for example, your prayers to the ancestors. One day you may pray in the Buddhist tradition, the next day you may pray in the Catholic tradition.
Then there are the special occasions such as Baptisms (or blessings for non-Christians), marriages, funerals. In Japan when you have a funeral in a Catholic church, generally 80 percent of the person’s family and friends will be non-Catholics. You have to take this into account when you share your faith in the resurrection or the value you see in this particular life passage.
Another dialogue happens when people from different religions share the same commitment to action, to work for peace or justice or to bring about some change in the neighborhood. In Japan an association of religious people of many different backgrounds works together for peace and for life.
Finally, there is the dialogue that happens at the level of theologians and church leaders.
How has your understanding of mission changed in your lifetime? Did you have a more romantic vision of missionary life when you were younger?
Of course. In seminary, when we used to watch the films about the missions in Africa, we got excited and wanted to go out and do the same. I had the perhaps naive notion that I was going to bring the Good News to many people who eventually would be converted to Christianity.
But once I got to Japan, I realized that many people base their lives on different religious values. Eventually you discover that the true meaning of mission life is to share your own faith experience, and also to be open to being enriched by the faith experiences of other people and other religions. That changes your perspective.
Mission also still means to put people in contact with the gospel, with Jesus, but always through dialogue. Today in mission, dialogue is the key word, and most missionaries will be very clear on that.
Is the end goal still that people become Christian?
Conversions do happen, of course. They happen when somebody is profoundly touched by the words or the life of Jesus or by the Christian community or the way of life of Christians they come to know. If people then want to join our community, we welcome them. In some places such conversions are very numerous; in other places they’re very few.
When we talk about conversion, we are talking about giving a new orientation to our lives that takes into account the presence of God in them. Conversion is, first of all, conversion to God. As Christians we believe that God has revealed to us the fullness of God’s love through Jesus, his Son. And to believe in Jesus is to open ourselves to the life-giving experience of the love of God. What is important to us is to announce the gospel, not to count how many people we have converted to Christianity.
So the measurement of the effectiveness of mission is not necessarily in how many people become Christian but in the witness of Christians as they are furthering the reign of God?
Yes, it’s in how much the kingdom of God is being made present there.
Again, of course, if some people join our Christian community, I’m happy about that. I’m happy because then there will be more people who will live according to those values. That doesn’t mean that many people who do not share our faith don’t already live according to those values. The idea that outside the church there is no salvation is gone today, at least with most of the people in our order, although maybe some still think like that.
But doesn’t the Vatican, such as in the document Dominus Iesus, still insist on that older principle?
At one of the Asian missionary meetings, one of the representatives from Rome got up to tell the participants that they needed to preach Jesus more explicitly. He said, “You’re always talking about dialogue, but what you have to do is to announce the salvation of Jesus.” Then somebody replied, “What do you think that we are doing? That is precisely what we are doing, and it is what we are dedicating all of our lives to.” But we just do it in a different way.
When I was a missionary in Japan, or now when my brother Claretians are serving in Tanzania or in other parts of the world, it’s because we want to bring the Good News of Jesus to those people. Maybe the difference is that the method we used to employ is not the one that we have discovered is appropriate for today.
What is the main difference between the old and the new method?
The old method was focused on trying to get conversions, but conversions in the sense of making this man or this woman a Catholic. The new method also aims at conversion, but we understand conversion now as the transformation that opens a person up to God and opens him or her up to others. It’s when people discover that Jesus is someone who can bring about and consolidate this transformation in them that they say yes, I want to become part of your congregation.
We are not against conversion. What we are against is the focus on a change of religion without a change in a person’s life. That’s not conversion but just leaving one group and adding your name to the roster of another one.
Can you give us an example from your missionary experience of someone whose life was changed through this kind of transformation, regardless of whether he or she ended up becoming a Christian?
I am thinking of a woman who had terminal cancer and whom I visited as a chaplain. We had many discussions, and she told me that she had not been baptized. But she said to me, “Something has changed. I used to get up in the morning and think, I’ve lost another day. Now when I wake up, I’m able to say, ‘Thank you God for one more day.’?”
In accompanying her, it was obvious that something had changed in her, and this also had an impact on her husband and her children. Sometimes such spiritual growth ends with Baptism and joining the Christian community, and sometimes it does not. In the end, Baptism is a gift of God.
Apart from becoming a missionary in foreign countries, is there also a need for a greater missionary dimension in the lives of ordinary Catholics wherever they are?
I believe that one of the most important things in our pastoral ministry is to encourage people to become more missionary in their hearts.
In the Catholic Church we have been so worried about communicating doctrine and making sure that people get “the truth” and do not deviate from it. And, of course, that is important. But because of that focus we have sometimes failed to accompany people to a real faith experience, a religious experience. This is what really gets into people’s hearts.
Whenever people, thanks to a companion or a Christian community, have come to such a faith experience, they also become missionaries. They will then discern with their own communities what kind of form that “mission” will take.
I think it is vitally important for us to accompany young people to a real faith or religious experience that will in some way touch their hearts.
Does the decreasing number of vocations to the religious life worry you?
If we are focused on running all our current institutions we’ll get very anxious, because we aren’t going to have enough people for that. If we primarily see our mission with those institutions, we’re in trouble. Of course, at least in some countries, religious life is growing: For example, our congregation is growing in India, Indonesia, and Africa, but there is no doubt that in Europe, the United States, and Canada we are diminishing.
But for us in religious life, our current situation is also an opportunity to come back to our own mission within the church. Religious communities have this prophetic role of reminding the church what it means to be the community of Jesus. Perhaps too often this central witness, which should be paramount in a religious community, is overshadowed by all the work that we are doing running our institutions.
For the running of institutions we are collaborating more and more with the laity, and this is the way it should be. Maybe we have only come to this realization because of the shortage in vocations, but we should have come to it even without that. So maybe in that sense, providence is leading us there.
But more and more religious communities are becoming aware of their real role in the church and in the society: to give living witness to the meaning of a Christian community, a community that answers Jesus’ call to become his disciples.
If that becomes our focus, then even if vocations are fewer, we need not worry so much.
You have traveled much and have experienced the church in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America firsthand. Where do you see the places of hope, where do you see the future of the church emerging?
I see lights and shadows everywhere. Some people say the future of the church is Africa, or the future of the church is Asia. Yes, in numbers, there will be more Christians and Catholics in Africa and Asia. But I see the church finding its particular future in each place.