Every October, the Catholic Church worldwide celebrates Mission Sunday. And yet most Catholics are seemingly unaware that 'mission' itself has undergone several changes in the last decades.
In the 1950s, and much before that, Mission Sunday meant raising money through parishes for the missions -- for poor Christians living in rural areas, and for the priests and sisters who worked with them.
Taking this a step further, richer urban parishes were urged to "twin" with poorer rural communities. Like this, each group could get to know the other – exchanging knowledge, customs, and sometimes personnel.
This was very helpful up to a point, but the outreach usually ended there.
A more detailed analysis of religious conversion was not encouraged, nor was an understanding of caste oppression in India; nor tribal dispossession; nor the tensions of how to practice the faith in a hostile society.
I'm reminded of what the Brazilian bishop Helder Camara used to say: "Whenever I open soup kitchens for the poor, everyone praises me for being such a good Christian. But when I ask why my people are still poor, everyone criticizes me for being a Communist."
Mission in Earlier Times
Indeed, in earlier times, Mission Sunday was geared to assist religious conversion. But conversion is not just a spiritual change (dharmantar) and social change (parivartan).
Many upper-caste Hindus, for instance, violently oppose conversion is because it undermines the very inegalitarian foundations of Hindu society. They would rather let things stay as they are.
Yet Jesus himself had no misgivings about his message: "I've come to bring not peace, but a sword" ( Matt 10.34). The Gospel challenges, confronts, and disturbs.
Since Francis Xavier four centuries ago, Christian mission has meant proclamation of the Gospel, mass conversions, and the unquestioned acceptance of a westernized style of life. All three are being questioned today, for the "age of St Francis Xavier" has drawn to a close.
As long we understood the Church primarily as an institution, church mission had to do with buildings, projects, budgets, and fund-raising, with hierarchies, conferences and concordats, and most of all, the push for a constant increase in numbers.
Alas, as time has shown, conversion did little to change the ground reality of the Christian community. The oppressed Dalits or tribal people, who became Christians, were still shunned and ostracized by upper-caste Christians, precluded from education, and discriminated against in various ways.
Religious conversion may have added numbers; it did not transform lives.
Vatican II redefines mission.
Vatican II (1962-65) redefined and re-valued mission. It gave us another definition of the Church – a pilgrim people, a people "walking together" (synod comes from the same linguistic root) towards a distant goal; a diverse people, speaking in different tongues as at the first Pentecost.
The new sense of mission does not stress uniformity and regimentation, whether of doctrine or liturgy. Rather, it combines unity and flexibility.
Pope Paul VI put it in another way, "Dialogue is the new way of being church."
The dialogue goes out to others not aiming to bring them into the Church, but to learn from their own experience of life, prayer, working together, and intellectual quest.
Dialogue respects differences and so enriches both parties. Basically, dialogue validates the religious experiences of others. It does not demean or dismiss them.
This is a radical break with the past, and many in the Church found this new sense of mission unacceptable.
After Vatican II, Catholics were encouraged to talk to other Christians – ecumenism; and listen to those of other religions – inter-faith dialogue.
These new ideas were, however, resisted within the Church and suspected outside it. Many Christians felt they had nothing to learn from those pagans. And for many Hindus and Muslims, the dialogue was seen as just another strategy for conversions. Old suspicions die hard.
Mission as proclaiming God's reign
The understanding of mission today has gone one step further. The contemporary theological reflection looks at Jesus' mission as proclaiming the "reign of God."
More simply put, the reign of God is not a political reality – like Christendom or a Hindu Rashtra (nation) – but primarily a spiritual reality. It means acceptance of Gospel values in one's life and living accordingly.
Chief among such values are justice and peace, mercy and forgiveness, and inclusivity in society. Jesus lived and practiced such values and invites those who are his disciples to do the same.
How dismaying is then, to find that many in the Church are far from upholding such values -- as the recent revelations of pedophilia, sexual abuse, and financial scandals have revealed. It is even more saddening to see how casteist, racist and sexist values dominate church relationships.
Therefore, the Christian mission can no longer be seen only as an invitation to join the Church, as one joins a sect. But basing itself on the Gospel, it now reaches out to transform the whole society, emphasizing especially justice and peace. All human communities today are afflicted with unjust oppression and violent conflict.
In this, Christians not only can but should join hands with all other men and women of goodwill, be they believers or not. As the parable in Matthew 26 says clearly, right, compassionate action (orthopraxis) is more important than the right belief (orthodoxy).
Looking at the world today, we see that the oppression of minorities and the denial of their human rights is far more widespread than religious persecution.
This has become the new platform on which all men and women in dialogue can proclaim a new social order, a new "reign of God."
What Christian mission did in another age, the struggle for human rights must achieve on our own. Yes, the Christian mission has redefined itself once again.