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William Grimm, a native of New York City, is a missioner and presbyter who since 1973 has served in Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
The Failure Of Success
Published: July 08, 2007 08:43 AM
The Failure Of Success

Tabira Catholic Church, Hirado, Nagasaki, Japan. (Photo: wikipedia)

When missionary work resumed in Japan in the 19th century, after being illegal for more than two centuries, the task taken up by foreign missioners and the Japanese who joined them as clergy, catechists and religious was that of setting up a local Church.

To that end, they built churches and institutions and set up parishes, vicariates and dioceses around the country.

That style of mission in Japan lasted until the decade following World War II, by which time the normal structures of a national Church were in place, including a native clergy and hierarchy. The work of missioners in Japan had reached a successful conclusion. The goals that motivated their work for nearly a century had been achieved.

However, success brought on a crisis, even though that crisis might not have been widely recognized.

Pioneering became maintenance as more and more domestic and foreign missioners (especially priests) became pastoral workers, supplementing (and largely duplicating) the efforts of diocesan clergy. The work of missionary priests became increasingly defined in terms of pastoral work with -- it was hoped and expected -- a mission thrust, rather than missionary work per se. For men whose basic vocation was evangelization, mission ad gentes became ancillary to their work within and for already existing Catholic communities. It was as if what had formerly been a tool of evangelization -- parish and institutional activity -- had become the object of their vocation.

Even though there have been repeated calls over the past several years for a renewed commitment throughout the Church to evangelization as proclamation, the embarrassing fact is that few, if any, seem sure of what doing evangelization today entails.

We are, as it were, so out of practice that we keep repeating what has been done, hoping that if we do it often enough and long enough it will once again bear the kind of fruit it has not borne in years. In fact, the number of baptisms continues to decline. As the large number of Japanese Catholics baptized in the 1950s and 1960s die without replacements, the Church here will soon enter a steep decline.

Even those who are "professionals" in evangelization, the foreign missioners, are at a loss. Our successes in the past have led us into a sort of dead end. The work being done is valuable, but the suspicion grows that something more is needed, something that missioners should be doing.

Although the Church in Japan is established, the need for pioneering has not ended. The ripe field remains, but it is outside the parishes and other structures of the Church. Our challenge is to find ways in which missioners (both foreign and domestic) can once again involve themselves with the larger Japanese society in ways that introduce people to Christ and his Church. Models are few, so what is needed more than anything else is a spirit of adventuresome experimentation.

That experimentation must be based upon the fact that the Japanese Catholic Church already exists and has primary responsibility for the evangelization of Japan. Therefore, any attempts to develop new modes of missionary presence must be formulated and actualized in conjunction with the Church here, involving not only "professional" missioners but also the laity, clergy, hierarchy and Religious engaged in other tasks. The missioners must see their vocation as animating and facilitating the entire local Church in fulfilling the mission mandate of the Lord.

But the problem remains: what practical steps can be taken?

A problem that has lasted the better part of a century and has become entrenched in the practices and attitudes of the Church in Japan will not easily be dealt with, let alone solved. However, unless the bishops, clergy, Religious and laity make a priority of the search for new ways to fulfill the Church´s ancient vocation to proclaim Christ, the future of the Church in Japan is bleak.

Might not the same be said of the Church in other nations of Asia?

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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