The Catholic Church and frontier mission today

I guess you could count this as part II of a continuing conversation, after my rather short post a few days ago on Raymund Lully, and the loss of missionary zeal in the Catholic Church today. I specifically was quite careful in choosing my words, and here is what I said:

There were great examples here and there to the contrary, but placing frontier mission and world mission at the center of the Church's life never took root in Catholicism. (Yes, I'm gonna say that, and it makes me sad.)

But Rob answered my post thusly:

I don't buy this "RC's don't mission", Abu Daoud. We were almost everywhere long before anyone else. We got kicked out of Japan before most people knew where it was. If our growth has slowed, forgive us as we organize a billion people.

Of course this is not what I said, that RC's don't do mission. I said that today they don't do frontier mission, and that frontier mission, when it was successful was never really owned by the people historically, but by this or that religious order. Orders are very important to the life of the Catholic Church and I know this well, having studied for years theology with one of them. But if they are the center of the Church's mission to the frontier (definition forthcoming), then it is a losing strategy, as most religious orders cannot even supply enough priests to keep their institutions in the West functioning within a recognizably Catholic framework.

Rob mentions that his neighbors are not Christians, does he live on the frontier of missions? The simple answer is no. Mongolia, which he mentions may indeed be frontier mission though. Much of sub-Saharan Africa is no longer the mission frontier. Almost all of N. Africa is. How many new churches and converts have been baptized into the Catholic Church in North Africa? None that I know of. How many have become part of evangelically oriented home churches? Probably several thousand, maybe more than 10k.

But here is the definition for frontier missions:

Frontier Missions is a Christian missiological term referring to the pioneering of the gospel among ethno-cultural and ethno-linguistic population segments where there is no indigenous church. The phrase was originally used with reference to Catholic, and later Protestant, mission stations in the Western United States. In the 1960s missiologists began to re-employ the term to distinguish between two kinds of missionary work: that which was being done among peoples where the indigenous church was already established, and new efforts among peoples where the Christian Church was very weak or non-existent. The contemporary usage of the term is part of a general trend to look at the missionary task more in terms of social, cultural and linguistic isolation from the gospel, rather than strictly geographic isolation.

My original point still stands. This sort of mission was never and is not owned by the core of the Catholic Church, notwithstanding notable exceptions here and there and the zealous former work of certain religious orders. It was the idea of Blessed Raymund Lully that it should be the heart beat of the Catholic Church and he lived out this vision powerfully.


Sherry W said…
Hi AD:

Missed your previous conversation due to being on the road. This week: Chicago and Bavaria!

Your question is a good one and one with a complicated answer: yes and no.

As I told a group of Catholic lay missionaries last week, we are living in anomalous times.

All missions - and there was a lot of it - was Catholic or some kind of Orthodox or Nestorian (to a lesser degree) before 1800. As you noted, Protestant missions as we understand them today, began in a small way about 1800 and really took off in the late 19th c and then the 20th c.

Before all frontier missions was overwhelmingly Catholic - such as Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, eastern Europe, (the great missionary monks mostly) and central Asia and the Muslim world (the medieval friars);

India, China, Japan, Vietnam, Asia, Ethiopia, and the "New World" were all part of the explosive Catholic Reformation missionary movement. Catholic missions to Africa and the south Pacific were mostly 19th century.

And some of those missions were undertaken by lay Catholics (for instance the founding of the city of Montreal was by lay Catholics who were trying to create the community of the Book of Acts and seeking to evangelize the native Americans. They were part of the great Catholic revival in France in the 17th century about which I have just finished doing some more research.)

However, I think we need to grasp that frontier missions at the center of the Church's life and at the center of lay life is a wholly new phenomena in Christian history and this is true of *all* Christian groups - not just Catholics. They weren't at the center of historic Lutheranism or Calvinism or Anglicanism either.

Apart from the 18th century Moravians, no Christian group fits this description until the 20th century. Frontier missions has always been the endeavor of a specialized minority until very recently. We must remember that little developments like universal literacy and the whole travel and communication revolution are 20th century and have shrunken the globe in a way and facilitated frontier missions by ordinary Christians - indeed, made it possible for ordinary Christians to even know that frontier missions are needed - in a way would stagger our ancestors.

When St. Vincent de Paul sent his men to Madagascar and North Africa in the 17th century, he didn't hear from them for years at a time. All too often, he was writing letters to them long after they were dead. And they died with dreadful regularity. It startled me to discover recently that de Paul sent out missionaries because he foresaw (350 years ago) that Christianity would experience a terrible "die-off" in Europe and he wanted to make sure that Christianity survived.

The friars who built flourishing churches in Asia Minor (wiped out by the Mongol hords) or Francis Xavier dying off the shore of China were part of the mission agencies of their day (You could think of them as Catholic equivalents of the Sudan Interior Mission or YWAM with life-long vows)

As one of you readers pointed out. it is true that in Catholic understanding, lay people can't "plant churches" as evangelicals understand the term - because the whole Church is not present until the ordained office - and therefore the Eucharist, and the Mass is present as well.

But there is no reason that we couldn't do as the lay men who brought to Christianity to Korea did - share the faith, create small Christian communities, baptize, and the ask for a priest.

Today, the various lay movements (charismatic renewal, Neocatechumenate, many others) are very involved in missions of various kinds - some of it frontier. But frontier missions are almost always the work of individuals or small groups and are conducted very quietly, not the highly publicized and organized forms found among evangelicals today.

There is no reason theologically that this should be so but Catholic do have such a sense that the vast majority of their 1.2 billion member body needs initial evangelization and that so few are focusing on that, that it is easy to forget about the others.

As St. Dominic would say "what about the others?"

Hope that is useful.
Abu Daoud said…
Dear Sherry,

You are a font of knowledge, thank you so much! Very helpful indeed. I am particularly interested in Montreal.

BTW, do you have any contacts with the Congregation for propaganda fide at the Vatican? I would enjoy very much being in touch with them for my research.
Umm Daoud said…
I would like to mention (to Rob specifically) that it doesn't make witnessing to your neighbors any less valuable! We need evangelists in the community to tell others about Christ as much as we need workers out in the far-flung fields!

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