January 1st, 2018
“Throughout the world, let us be permanently in a state of mission”(The Joy of the Gospel, 2013, n. 25). These programmatic words epitomize the missionary vision that Pope Francis has been expounding and implementing since becoming Pope in 2013. Without a doubt, mission is central to his thought and action and is a defining mark of his pontificate. Having said that, it is not always clear what he means when he talks about “mission”. Indeed, in today’s religious language “mission” is one of those words which can have multiple “shades of gray”, and discovering its meaning can become a conundrum. Pope Francis adds his own complexities and nuances to the already variegated semantic range of the word “mission”.
The recent papal journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh (28-30 November) provides an entry point into the applied missiology of the Pope. Here Francis was visiting two countries where Christians are minorities and where mission, however definable, is the top priority of the Church. What a great opportunity for him to embody and exemplify the vigorous call to his Church to be permanently “in a state of mission”!
Omitting to speak of Christ?
What took place there – or, should we say, what did not take place? – sheds light on the whole issue. The Pope’s public speeches were about peace and harmony, solidarity and dialogue, and were centered on a generic faith in “God” which could have been understood in all kinds of ways. Any references to Jesus Christ were omitted. As Italian journalist Sandro Magister put it: “There was only one moment in which Jesus was named and his Gospel proclaimed, in the speeches on the first day of Pope Francis’s visit to Myanmar. Only that the one who spoke these words was not the pope, but the Burmese state counsellor and foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi, who is of the Buddhist faith”.
This is a strange way of doing mission, one might think. The gospel was vaguely proclaimed by a Buddhist politician rather than by the Pope. As far as Francis is concerned, important omissions of this kind are not new. For example, acute observers like Chris Castaldo have already pointed out the lack of Christ-related language in other public speeches. In 2015, visiting the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, the Pope delivered Christ-less speeches, however inter-faith and ecumenically friendly they were. As Castaldo soberly commented: “Sadly, he failed to do so much as mention the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ.’”
This omission looks like a pattern in Francis’ mission. It is true that even the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus speech at Athens did not explicitly mention the name of Jesus Christ, though he referred to the “man” (Acts 17:31), which is a clear reference to the Lord Jesus, the risen One and the coming Judge. Paul’s speech, nonetheless, challenged the belief system of his hearers and presented the reality of God’s righteous judgment over all, calling people to repent. All these elements also seem to be missing in the Pope’s missiology. When he is in inter-faith and political contexts, he seems reluctant to boldly and clearly proclaim the name of Jesus as the only Savior and Lord. Unlike Paul the missionary, who faced pushback and criticism because of his presentation of the gospel, Francis is normally liked by his hearers, who feel affirmed in what they already believe rather than challenged by the message of Jesus Christ. What kind of mission are we talking about then?
Mission without Apologetics?
Is this critical assessment based on reading too much into the Pope’s gospel omissions? One way of answering this question is to allow the Pope to speak for himself in explaining his missionary vision. Luckily, in flying back from Myanmar and Bangladesh, Francis gave a telling comment on what had just happened. Here is the script of the in-flight press conference, during which Francis replied to a question posed by a French journalist. The Q&A is worth quoting at length:
“Etienne Loraillere (KTO): Holiness, there is a question from the group of journalists from France. Some are opposed to inter-religious dialogue and evangelization. During this trip you have spoken of dialogue for building peace. But, what is the priority? Evangelizing or dialoguing for peace? Because to evangelize means bringing about conversions that provoke tension and sometimes provoke conflicts between believers. So, what is the priority, evangelizing or dialoguing? Thanks.
Pope Francis: First distinction: evangelizing is not making proselytism. The Church grows not for proselytism but for attraction, that is for testimony, this was said by Pope Benedict XVI. What is evangelization like? Living the Gospel and bearing witness to how one lives the Gospel, witnessing to the Beatitudes, giving testimony to Matthew 25, the Good Samaritan, forgiving 70 times 7 and in this witness the Holy Spirit works and there are conversions, but we are not very enthusiastic to make conversions immediately. If they come, they wait, you speak, your tradition … seeking that a conversion be the answer to something that the Holy Spirit has moved in my heart before the witness of the Christians.
During the lunch I had with the young people at World Youth Day in Krakow, 15 or so young people from the entire world, one of them asked me this question: what do I have to say to a classmate at the university, a friend, good, but he is atheist … what do I have to say to change him, to convert him? The answer was this: the last thing you have to do is say something. You live your Gospel and if he asks you why you do this, you can explain why you do it. And let the Holy Spirit activate him. This is the strength and the meekness of the Holy Spirit in the conversion. It is not a mental convincing, with apologetics, with reasons, it is the Spirit that makes the vocation. We are witnesses, witnesses of the Gospel. “Testimony” is a Greek word that means martyr. Every day martyrdom, martyrdom also of blood, when it arrives. And your question: What is the priority, peace or conversion? But when you live with testimony and respect, you make peace. Peace starts to break down in this field when proselytism begins and there are so many ways of proselytism and this is not the Gospel. I don’t know if I answered”.
With this answer one is projected into the missiological vision of the Pope. Let’s briefly mention its main points. First, there is a negative reference to proselytism without defining it. As it stands, his words discourage the expectation for conversions and put a stigma on the missionary activity that looks forward to seeing people embracing Christ out of their religious or secular background (see instead Mark 1:15; Acts 2:37-38). Second, there is an unnecessary polarization between good deeds/attitudes and the verbal proclamation of the gospel. Nowhere in the Bible is such a polarization between the content of the message and the behavior of the messenger maintained. We are instead called to always join what we say, what we do, and how we do it (e.g. 1 Peter 3:15-17). Third, there is a distrust of apologetics in dealing with unbelief. The missionary is not expected to give reasons for what she believes and to challenge the belief system of her friend. In this way, the Pope seems to discourage engaging in meaningful apologetics (evidently against 1 Peter 3:15).
According to Pope Francis then, mission does not look forward to making disciples, refrains from verbally proclaiming the Good News, and is skeptical about apologetics. How different this is to the standard evangelical understanding of evangelization given by the 1974 Lausanne Covenant:
“To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand. But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Savior and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God. In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his Church and responsible service in the world” (par. 4).
In this evangelical definition, almost everything the Pope warns against is instead strongly affirmed: the verbal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the necessity of Christian persuasion in the context of lives marked by integrity. This is not what Pope Francis has in mind when he refers to mission.