EUROPE/FRANCE - A “small theology of mission” by Cardinal Aveline

Saturday, 4 May 2024 missionaries   mission   theology   dialogue   islam   ii vatican council  

By Marie-Lucile Kubacki*

We publish the contribution of the journalist Marie-Lucile Kubacki on the occasion of the presentation of the book "Il dialogo della salvezza. Piccola teologia della missione" (Dialogue of Salvation. Small Theology of Mission) by Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, Archbishop of Marseille. The volume, now published by the "Libreria Editrice Vaticana", is the Italian version of the French original "Dieu a tant aimé le monde - Petite théologie de la mission" (Editions du Cerf) and was presented in Rome on Thursday, 2 May in the conference room of the Community of Sant'Egidio in Rome.

Rome (Agenzia Fides) - When I began my journalistic career in France about fifteen years ago, the word "mission" was still somewhat taboo and difficult to use because it was suspected of being linked to a kind of justification for proselytism, sometimes with shadows linked to colonization, with the suspicion of a more or less hidden cultural imperialism and even with a kind of tacit criticism of the Second Vatican Council and its positions on dialogue with other religions. In fact, I have often been asked by readers about the purpose and meaning of mission. Why go to other countries, to other peoples, to other cultures? As I gradually met missionaries, I noticed that there was not one who did not ask the question "why", especially in the most distant countries. And this "why" was inseparable from a "how". Now this "why" is being asked more and more frequently in Europe too, and I was particularly interested in Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline's book, because it takes up this question.

I would like to start with the epilogue, the key that sheds light on the whole subject. To shed light on the dynamic that drives the missionary away from home, the Cardinal quotes the song by Belgian singer Jacques Brel "Quand on a que l'amour" - If one only has love - and interweaves it with the story of his sister Marie Jeanne, who, on her hospital bed, left these few words that summed up her whole life: "One only has to love". The reason for the mission is therefore, for the Christian and for the Church, the response to the call to imitate Christ, in the sense of imitating his love for the world, embodied in his plan of salvation for humanity, as Saint John, from whom the book takes its title in the French original, writes: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (John 3:16-17).

But once this is recognized, the question of "how" immediately arises. Cardinal Aveline proposes three horizons for reflecting on the modalities of mission: "as a dialogue of salvation," "in the horizon of promise," and "in the dynamics of catholicity."

Before going into detail, I was struck by how much his theology of mission is rooted in experience, in the experience of his entire life. First of all, the fundamental experience, the wound of exile, of the uprooting of the "Pieds-noirs" from the land of Algeria. "They know from their own experience the suffering of every migration and feel first hand that love for their homeland can never be torn from a person's heart. They experienced the pain of not being accepted, the contempt for their origins, the incomprehension resulting from prejudice, the exclusion due to too many misunderstandings. But I can also show that fraternity between Jews, Christians and Muslims is possible, as when we lived together under the sun in Constantine, Oran or Algiers and little by little the threads of this cultural mix that shaped us were woven together by sharing kémias and mounas, before a perverse wind from elsewhere invaded the streets of our cities, instilling distrust, breaking friendships and distilling hatred. A poisonous wind that today unfortunately blows again on many shores of the Mediterranean."

This uprooting is followed by the hard experience of migration, made possible by the warmth of family and friends and the love of a new land. Pastoral and intellectual experiences also followed, which soon led him to focus on interreligious dialogue, through the creation and ten-year management of the “Institut de Science et de Théologie des Religions” in Marseille, a real crossroads of the theological and cultural ferment of the Mediterranean. Three fundamental crucibles that remind us that the missionary, even if called to move geographically, culturally and spiritually, must always be in touch with his history and that this history, when reread as in this case, is a source of living water from which one can draw a dynamic vision of missionary commitment.

The book begins with a reflection on mission as a dialogue of salvation. Comparing this definition with my own experience as a journalist, I have often encountered a certain tension in writing articles on this subject, between those who were afraid of the word dialogue because they saw in it a relativistic conception, and those who instead saw dialogue as a seductive method whose aim was to "convince" or mobilize people about values.

The Second Vatican Council's Declaration "Nostra Aetate" states: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She considers with sincere seriousness those ways of acting and living, those precepts and teachings which, although in some cases deviate from what she herself holds and teaches to be true, not infrequently reveal a ray of that truth which enlightens all men." But how should this text be understood? The cardinal starts from the testimony of the survivors of Tibhérine, Amédée and Jean-Pierre, a testimony of solidarity and friendship with their Muslim neighbours. Commitment: the word is important, because revelation in Hebrew means "word that is action". God wants to commit himself to man by making a covenant through dialogue, which is not only a means but a modality of this covenant. The missionary is in fact a man in constant dialogue; dialogue as a form of love for men, an experience of loving curiosity towards others and also of gratuitousness.

Some young Christian converts, catechumens or seekers of meaning, these so-called spiritual non-religious, in Europe or elsewhere, have sometimes confided to me that one of the obstacles to their journey to the Church was the fear of being rebuked. In some countries where Christianity is still little known, this fear is reinforced by a double ideological and political agenda of the Church, which is doubly called to this commandment of gratuitousness because it is part of her witness and she cannot give a counter-witness. The author warns: "The fact that freedom is both at the beginning and at the end of the human adventure saves us from succumbing to the temptation to reduce missionary action to a mechanical process, which would be equivalent to instrumentalizing the encounter: dialogue is much more than a condition of possibility for the proclamation that would be its goal. In fact, the offer of dialogue is already an implicit proclamation of the Good News of a Triune God, a God who is in himself a relationship, a relationship of love, and who reveals himself by offering each person a respectful closeness that opens the dialogue of salvation."

But however gratuitous this dialogue may be, it is not just any conversation. It is a question of entrusting the Gospel, which is the living Word. One can therefore ask what it means to entrust the Gospel. Here the cardinal quotes the Franciscan Eloi Leclerc: "To proclaim the Gospel to a person means to say to him: 'You too are loved by God in Christ'. It is not enough to say to him: you must be convinced. Nor is it enough to be convinced: we must behave towards this person in such a way that he feels and discovers something within himself that is saved." This sentence reminded me of a conversation about the mission with Sister Lucia Bortolomasi, the Superior General of the Consolata Missionary Sisters, who had quoted words that had inspired her: "If you make God vibrate in the heart of even one person, you will not have lived in vain."

The Church does not just offer or suggest, but is itself challenged by the encounter. Challenged not in a relativistic sense, but on the contrary, from the friction with the other arises the spark that calls for one's own conversion. Every missionary who comes into contact with non-Christians experiences being thrown back on his own questions and being driven to search more deeply for knowledge and faith. The Jesuit Michel de Certeau, whom the Cardinal quoted, expressed it well: "We discover God in the encounter that he brings about". By "we" he means the various partners in dialogue, because the conversion of the other goes hand in hand with that of the missionary himself. The encounter that the missionary brings about, that is, the encounter between people and God himself, is a mysterious equation with several unknowns.

Cardinal Aveline quotes at length the reflections of Joseph Ratzinger from 1971, set out in the book "The New People of God". The future Pope wrote at the time: "The way of God towards the peoples, which is fulfilled in mission, does not eliminate the promise of the way of the peoples to the salvation of God, who is the great light that shines before our eyes from the Old Testament; it only confirms it. For the salvation of the world is in the hand of God; it comes from the promise, not from the law. But it remains our duty to place ourselves humbly at the service of the promise, without wanting to be more than useless servants who do nothing more than what they must do."

These "useless servants" who are missionaries - and by this I mean Christians in general, not just religious - ask themselves, like Paul at the beginning of the Church, the question summed up by Cardinal Aveline: "Why proclaim the Gospel in a foreign land, to proclaim a message that even those close to us do not want to accept?" Paul, tormented by this question after the martyrdom of Stephen and the persecutions that followed, reports that he was praying in Jerusalem and received the words of the Spirit: "Go, for I am sending you far away to the Gentiles!". Likewise, today's missionaries, who ask themselves the question of why, can find the answer in Sacred Scripture, in following Christ and in the love of others that, as Dante wrote, moves the sun and the other stars. And in this motto there is a truly divine mystery, that of the action of the Spirit and of God's plan for every person.

And here we touch on a very interesting point for our Churches, which are concerned about the current de-Christianization of societies, about the fact that in some European countries the Church seems to be becoming a dying relic in the face of increasingly secularized politics and in the midst of other religions: the understanding of Catholicity in a minority situation. I like the definition of the "eucharistic leaven of unity" proposed by the Cardinal, which obviously recalls the imagery of leaven in dough. Catholicity not as a kind of tentacle with expansive aims, but as the promise of a God "who wants to reunite his scattered children and even the cosmos in a great mass over the world, as Teilhard de Chardin sings". Catholic means 'according to the whole'. (...) Even if the disciples are only two or three gathered in his name, the whole of God is in their midst, not so that they are satisfied, but so that they do not shy away from revealing to people of all cultures, languages and religions that their deepest longing comes from the love of God for them, even before they know him. This is what the Church calls "catholicity".

A stimulating definition in the sense that it is a powerful antidote to the two dangers that threaten the Church in general and every Christian in particular: the pursuit of efficiency and what Bernanos meant when he wrote: "The demon of my heart is called 'à quoi bon'", which means 'what is the point' .

(Agenzia Fides, 4/5/2024)

*Journalist, Rome correspondent for the weekly magazine "La Vie"