Thursday, December 3, 2020

Missionary Saints: Poor Beggars Driven By Love

Today we honor the great pioneering Jesuit missionary Saint Francis de Sales. He is remembered, of course, for his tremendous passion for the gospel, and for the way that the love of Jesus drove him to "the ends of the earth." Francis took the risks of traveling great distances, often under conditions so appalling that we cannot imagine them, to bring Jesus to the peoples of South and East Asia: ancient peoples with long histories and religious traditions of their own.

But Francis didn't pour out his life to be a cultural imperialist. He didn't go to Asia to force "Western Religion" down the throats of "inferior peoples."

There were plenty of cultural (and economic and political) imperialists who would come from the West in the ensuing centuries, to impose their structures and modalities of life in Asia. Their legacy endures today: some positive and constructive elements have been integrated into post-colonial Asian societies, but much remains ambivalent and problematic, and much has caused, or exacerbated, division and violence. 

Generally speaking, the agents of 16th to 20th century global imperialism stand out because they were rich. Or at least, they became rich. They came to Asia to make money off the Asian peoples (even if it meant turning them into drug addicts, as happened in 19th century China).

Francis de Sales went to Asia out of love. He wanted people to know the unfathomable riches of the love of God. Evangelization is not "proselytism" (as we understand the term today) — it has nothing to do with coercing or manipulating people to "join your group" so that you can exercise power over them. It has to do with revealing and embodying God's love for people. This means that genuine evangelization doesn't intentionally go against anything that God has already done in the hearts of people by the mysterious workings of his grace. It doesn't endeavor to belittle or despise any of the immense depths of truth, goodness, and beauty that people in non-Christian cultures have discovered — the diverse facets of the richness of existence they have perceived and developed — in their lives, through their traditions, and as the fruit of their splendid efforts to seek the meaning of life and to respond, mysteriously, in their own hearts to grace of the Holy Spirit. Authentic evangelization opposes only evil and sin. It brings freedom from the destructiveness of sin by the gift of God's love. It promises the fulfillment and transformation of every good thing, and the flourishing of human persons and cultures in their whole truth.

Christian missions didn't always live up to the task of evangelization. Sometimes, they were distorted by elements of false proselytism (especially to the extent that they were "sponsored" by "enthusiastic" people-in-power whose main interest was to establish new ways of enriching themselves). To a significant extent, the history of the first real Globalization Project recounts a series of complex, daring enterprises by Western Europeans who had various motivations for their efforts to "spread the benefits of civilization." Even as Europe's own identity (which was rooted in an imperfect but real inculturation of Christian faith) was breaking down into warring factions, Europeans tried to take up this global project of unifying the whole world. Western powers were fighting with one another for dominance in Europe. Not surprisingly, they also fought over who would get which piece of the global pie.

Christian missionaries, including some saints, accompanied or followed (and occasionally even preceded) the expansive efforts of these temporal forces. Many missionaries endeavored heroically to preach the gospel and bring new peoples to an encounter with Jesus Christ. But Christian missionaries were human; their understanding was limited and their motivations could be ambivalent; even more ambivalence was to be found in the political forces that tried to control missionary activity. 

We must not, however, make the mistake of judging the whole project to be an irredeemably villianous enterprise. The European powers had much to give, to share, and to help build up for the benefit of the whole world. But their motives were inevitably mixed. They wanted to exercise their power for what they thought was "the good" of people, but they also wanted to accumulate power and seek their own glorification. They wanted to open up trade and cultural and economic exchange but they also wanted to be the ones to dominate the process. They even wanted people to come to know Christ, and they told themselves that this more than compensated for the fact that they also wanted to make a ton of money. Too often they deluded themselves into thinking they could "serve two masters" — God and mammon. Thus, genuine achievements were inevitably compromised in some respects, and many evils were perpetrated and condoned under the cover of hypocrisy. This is the inevitable result when Christians think they can do God's will and indulge their own covetousness at the same time.

Francis de Sales had no such ambiguous and divided aspirations. He burned with an unquenchable thirst for God, and to bring others to the joy of knowing the love of God through Jesus Christ. This was his whole focus. He was a lover; all his wealth consisted in belonging to Christ and serving his brothers and sisters. He lived poor. He begged for whatever means he could get to share the love of Christ. And though he evangelized many in India, and began the mission to Japan (that would flourish only for a short time), he was never satisfied. He spent himself entirely in this witness, and he died in 1552 on Sangchaun island, at the threshold of China, trying until the very end to begin an unprecedented evangelization of this immense country and its exceptional people.

Francis died poor and alone. And after nearly five centuries, the great mission to China has barely begun. We know that God works in peoples' hearts, but we also know that God became incarnate so that every person could see his face and know his love in the communion of the Church. Real missionaries know that God wants to reach people and give himself to people through Jesus. They belong to Jesus, and seek to "extend" the presence of Jesus to every place.

Real evangelization is not about power, exploitation, asserting one's own superiority, or amassing wealth. It's about love. It follows the "law of love." It dares things that might seem futile to unloving eyes.

This brings to mind another great missionary, a "pioneering" missionary who is a special witness for our time, for the beginning of the new evangelization: Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), who we celebrated on December 1. Charles, the "little brother of Jesus," devoted the final years of his life to living with and serving the poorest of the poor among the nomadic peoples of the Western Sahara (in what is now Algeria).

He was no agent of 19th century French imperialism. He died poor and alone, in the desert, without great achievements, without success — not even any (apparent) success at "being a missionary." He was Christ's beating heart in one small place in the world, Christ loving those who are forgotten by everyone else.

"Let us concern ourselves with those who lack everything, ...those to whom no one gives a thought. Let us be the friends of those who have no friends, their brother. The love of God, the love of men, that is my whole life, that will be my whole life, I hope. When we can suffer and love, we can do much, the most that one can do in this world" (Blessed Charles de Foucauld).