10/12/2012, 00.00
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Mission after the Council: Contention and Third-worldism

by Piero Gheddo
The Second Vatican Council ended with many promises and hopes. But within a few years everything was turned upside down: criticism of “colonialism” of foreign missionaries; the exaltation of salvation in other religious traditions; the reduction of Christianity to a religion of "values". The hopes of the poor placed in Marxism. A Council witness speaks (Part IV).

Rome (AsiaNews) - The Second Vatican Council ended with great hope and enthusiasm for the universal mission ad gentes. Still today, the conciliar texts are an excellent means to promote the missionary spirit, but they have failed to give that impulse to the first proclamation of Christ to three-quarters of mankind, which John XXIII had foreseen ("The Council will be the Pentecost of the Church") and many dreamed of. Probably, who knows (no one knows the plans of God!), even this period of stagnation in mission to the nations may have a positive significance, perhaps we will only come to understand this 50 years from now.

A lot of pessimism surrounds the effectiveness of mission among non-Christians. However, the reality is different. In the long history of the Church, no continent has been converted to Christ as quickly as Africa: in 1960 there were about 35 million African Catholics with 25 local bishops, today there are 172 million with about 400 African bishops. According to the Washington based "Pew Research Center" in 2010, Christianity and Islam each counted about 500 million believers throughout Africa, but in black Africa and sub-Saharan Africa alone, there are 470 million Christians and 234 million Muslims.

In 1960 there were 68 Asian bishops in Asia and no visibly sustained growth of the baptized in any one nation. In India there were about ten million with a healthy level of conversions and today the number that is always given is 15 million, simply because one can not claim there are 30; but visiting the country one feels that almost everywhere there are still conversions of non-Christians. The same is true for Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam (where Catholics are about 10% of the 85 million Vietnamese, with many conversions and vocations). In 1949 (when Mao Zedong came to power), China had 3.7 million Catholics today, despite the persecution, that number is estimated at 12-15, with 45 to 50 million Christians. In South Korea, where there is religious freedom and genuine statistics, Catholics number more than 5 million, 10.3% of South Koreans (Christians, all together, count for 30%).

The positive effect of the Council and of the Popes is evident in the promotion of the young Churches, which today, thanks to the specific thrust of Redemptoris Missio, are missionary churches beyond the borders of their own countries and even in the West. The stereotypical belief that mission to the nations is over and is no longer effective must be quashed because it does not correspond to reality . "The mission ad gentes is just beginning" (Redemptoris Missio, n. 30).

Waves of contention

But shortly after the Council, in Europe and North America more than a few authoritative voices began to take a very different direction, riding waves of contention: as Pope Paul VI said, dissent was already very strong in the Church in 1968 (how many violent demonstrations against "Humanae Vitae" that year!). Thus began the crisis of faith and Christian life of which we are still grieving witnesses. It was no longer clear what mission to the nations was, the confusion of voices and a certain theology disembodied from reality undermined the foundations of the missionary ideal, as intended by Vatican II. For example, entirely false claims, which have by now become part and parcel of common misconceptions, were proclaimed as truth:

  • The Church is founded all the world over, the young Churches must proclaim Christ to all peoples and cultures of their own territories.
  • There are now millions of non-Christians in Italy, the mission to the nations is here, not elsewhere.
  • We are dramatically lacking in priests in Italy, so why are you missionaries leaving to bring Christ to other continents, when we Italians are losing Christ?
  • It is not that important that people be converted to Christ, if they accept the Gospel message of love and peace.

This was the general atmosphere confirmed by many concrete facts, but which I still have difficulty understanding, at such a short distance from the period of exaltation of the Council.

Two examples. In the summer of 1968, as on several previous occasions, I participated in the Missionary study week in Leuven ("Liberté des Jeunes Eglises"), organized by my unforgettable friend, Father Joseph Masson, S.J. There were many voices which wounded me: they expressed clear doubts about sending European missionaries to other continents. It would be much better, they said, to let the young churches reach their maturity and organize themselves according to their own ideas. I thought, how can they say this? When only three years ago all the bishops of the missions said the exact opposite, appealing for new missionaries? This is just one example of the mentality that had infiltrated the Church in the period immediately after the Council.

The crisis of the "missio ad gentes" and then the missionary animation of the Christian people blatantly revealed itself  in the supression of the  "Missionary studies week" that had been held in Milan (closed in 1969), Burgos (1970) and Leuven (1975), and which had come from a long tradition (in Leuven since the twenties). The last editions of these religious-cultural meetings were of a very high level but also exposed a malaise and deep contrasts in the field of mission, so much so it was considered opportune to discontinue them, perhaps to avoid further divisions.

I came from a theological and missionary formation that gave certainties (the PIME seminary in Milan and the Urbanianum University in Rome, 1949-1958). I was the editor of "World and Mission" and I would often come across missionary books and magazines that sowed doubts about the mission to the nations. I have published two books on this subject: " Processo alle missioni " [Missions on Trial] (EMI 1971) and " Quale animazione missionaria" [What missionary animation] (EMI 1989).


The other aspect of the crisis is of a political-ideological nature, which has divided the missionary world since the Council: an infatuation with the false revolution of 1968, which has led to the adoption of questionable content and methods: a "scientific" analysis of Marxism, "Third-worldism" ("We are rich because they are poor," and vice versa); protest as a primary form of human development, various forms of psychological if not physical violence;  the "one mind" syndrome,  almost impossible to escape and the demonization, intimidation, humiliation, and immediate marginalization of those who go against it.

I could cite many cases. For example, attacks that I received when, returning from the war in Vietnam, where I had been invited by the bishops, and I denounced and documented the that the "liberators" of the Vietnamese people (ie the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese) were actually new and worse oppressors than the pro-American dictatorship of South Vietnam. It was the truth, but was taboo in the West. Even among missionary media these truths were taboo. In November 1973, returning from a trip to Vietnam, I was invited to the national congress of the "Catholic solidarity with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia." At the inauguration, in a Turin theater Cardinal. Michael Pellegrino was also present, who told me: "I invited you myself. I said I'd come to open the conference, if they invited you as the inaugural speaker." So I spoke, of what I had seen with my own eyes and of what the bishops had told me, but was greeted by heckling and whistles, as was usual at that time.

When I finished, Fr. David Turoldo took me aside to a dressing room back-stage. First he asked me if I had really seen firsthand what I had spoken of, or if it was what the Vatican had told me to say. Then he attacked me with his loud voice: "Gheddo, I love you, but you are completely out of it. Even if what all you said is true, don't you realize the damage you have done to the socialist cause. But socialism will triumph, because it is the only hope for the poor". Dear and poor David, a great priest and poet, we truly loved each other! But you were caught in the vortex of an ideology that exalted regimes of socialism, without taking any of the facts into account. We all know how that turned out. After the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 1989), the editorial of a major Italian missionary magazine read: "The Berlin Wall has fallen and everyone is celebrating.  But now that socialism has collapsed who will defend the poor people?" .

I apologize for telling you of these things which today seem crazy (and they really were!). I tell them to you in an attempt to explain just how the mission to the nations and missonary animation in Italy (and not only!) went slightly off the rails as it lived through the consequences of 1968. With John Paul II and Benedict XVI the helm of the Church has once again been directed towards the application of the Second Vatican Council, even in the mission field (End Part IV)



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