Following his election as superior general of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (Paris Foreign Mission Society or MEP), Georges Colomb talks to AsiaNews about his personal commitment and that of the organisation, calling on the entire Church to engage in the missio ad gentes, a task that cannot be reduced to a generic mission of all Christians, but one that needs people completely dedicated to announcing Jesus, explicitly, among the peoples of Asia.
For Father Colomb, the declining passion to bear witness beyond one’s geographic borders but also close border controls in the countries of mission are interfering with its urgent need. “Many Asian nations are closed off to missionaries because of politics, fanaticism or religious intolerance. We cannot wait to have permission to come in, for the mission is urgent!
We might expect that charity will be imaginative enough to find new ways for mission to be present in hard-to-go places. Indeed, Fr Colomb himself can bear witness to new approaches. For several years, as a “foreign expert” he taught French language and culture at Chinese universities, recognised for his expertise as a teacher.
Born on 15 June 1953 in Saint-Anthème (Diocese of Clermont), Fr George Colomb graduated in law and for five years worked for the French Post Office. At the age of 29, he entered the Carmelite Seminary, earning a B.A. in theology at the Institut catholique of Paris. However, he was ordained on joining the missionaries of MEP in 1987. In the text presented below, he stresses that a “missionary is a contemplative in action”.
After his experiences in Taiwan and China, he was recalled to Paris in 1998 to become an aide to the superior general. In 2004, he was confirmed vicar general and last Friday he was elected MEP superior general.
In an interview with Églises d’Afrique, right after his election, he stressed the importance for young people to spend time in Asia as volunteers. Such an experience can provide opportunities to discover other worlds and come face to face with the missionary vocation. “In addition to discovering Asia,” he said, the volunteer undergoes a deep spiritual experience, in contact with very different human and ecclesial realities. . . . Young people who leave for Asia or the Indian Ocean with the MEP discover the challenges of today’s mission, which include a dialogue or lack thereof with other religious traditions, announcing the Gospel in some countries ruled by totalitarian or authoritarian political regimes, dealing with poverty, which is not specific to Asia but the result of the world’s economic disorder.”
In the last few years, 28 young volunteers have joined the MEP seminary; 35 more have entered French diocesan seminaries. Many young women have also entered institutions of active life and contemplative monasteries.
Here is what Fr Colomb told AsiaNews about the challenges missions have to face:
The mission means announcing Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Church was created for the mission. Missionaries are contemplatives in action (see John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, ch 8, n.49). This premise shows us the way, the family and the means of mission. The mission is announcing Jesus Christ, strongly asserting, proclaiming and calling him. We cannot just make the best by being present in the great market of religions (only) offering values, culture, and knowledge like others. We believe in and want to share our faith. “Jesus Christ is the saviour of men, the only way to salvation”. We know that believers of other faiths do not share our faith and we respect them, but we cannot hide what we assert as the truth. For us, Christ is the truth!
This said we believe in dialogue with the representatives of the other great religious and spiritual traditions, at an academic level, in daily life, in charitable work and social cooperation.
In his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI writes that volunteer work represents a school of life. The Holy Father speaks about those who dedicate themselves with generosity to humanitarian missions within and without our Church. He is happy about it and congratulates them. Their work builds a culture of life, which the Pope opposes to a culture of death (i.e. drugs, etc.).
Numerous exchanges and meetings occur in academe. Such conferences are very important and useful.
Religions have an important place in the social life of our contemporaries. They are a factor of peace and social harmony if they are not led away from their purpose, which is to connect man and God. Man does not live of bread alone. We know very well that all civilisations are mortal. Man’s quest for meaning and his spiritual thirst have always existed, at all times and in all places. Christianity has shaped Europe the way Buddhism has shaped the Asian continent. To deny such self-evident truths would be nonsense and an anachronism, something that a sound notion of secularism would not justify.
If the mission means announcing Jesus Christ, then we are all missionaries, an assertion that we have often heard. Likewise, we are all contemplatives just because we pray!
There are missionary institutes that specialise in training missionaries and sending them to the mission because, like the monastic vocation, the missionary vocation has its own traits. What are they? Typically, the missionary vocation is based on three pillars:
- ad vitam
- ad gentes
- ad extra
Ad vitam: Missionaries leave on mission for life. They give their life to the Lord and accept, in following Him, a life on the move like that of Jesus, who did not have a stone on which to rest his head. Such a life and such a spirit of missionary adventure are not unique to the founders of the Missions Étrangères in the 17th century like Mgrs François Pallu, Pierre Lambert de la Motte, and Ignace Cotolendi, who died in India on his way to his mission.
In the 21st century, we are called to experience this life and uncertainty. Many Asian nations are closed off to missionaries because of politics, fanaticism or religious intolerance. We cannot wait to have permission to come in, for the mission is urgent!
Ad Gentes: The vast Asian continent is home to 4 billion people, and our Church can claim only 2 or 3 per cent of Asia’s large masses. Except for the Philippines and East Timor, which are Catholic countries, the Church is in the minority everywhere else. It is more so because it is not present in Asia’s media and culture. Unlike in Europe, in Asia, architecture, music, literature, traditions and customs are foreign to Christianity. However, Asia is strongly bound to influence the world of tomorrow. In the concert of nations, it is clear that big nations like China and India will play a major role in creating a new world order. How can our Church overlook this challenge?
Ad extra: The missionary that leaves his country must not export France, Portugal or any other European country. He must make an effort to learn the language and traditions of the countries of Asia (see the Instructions of Pope Alexander VII to the founders of the Missions Étrangères de Paris). The missionary shall wed the country whose language he must learn. In this life, he shall be associated with the joys and sorrows of that country and its inhabitants in order to announce Christ, lay the foundations of a new Church or put himself in the service of an already existing Church. He must make an effort, with humility and joy, to become close to the people to whom he is sent. The missionary does not sign a contract for a fixed time; he is neither an expatriate nor a tourist. He belongs to a body, that of the Church, which has no boundary but the one set by the boldness of its apostles, put under the breath of the Holy Spirit, the lead character in the mission.
In the Year for Priests that just ended, how can we not rejoice of the fact that young people in our country and in our European continent are discovering a vocation to serve the Church; how can we not rejoice for the men who live their vocation as priests and missionaries, far from known shores, who accept the vulnerability that foreign missionaries experience throughout their life; how can we not rejoice when young Catholics leave for Asia as volunteers for our Church and a number of them, serving their fellow men whilst serving the Church, find the meaning that can nourish their life and discover that the secret of happiness lies in giving oneself! You made us for Yourself, Lord, and our hearts shall not rest until they dwell in You.
* Superior General, Missions Etrangères de Paris