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Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S.

Communicating the Gospel in a New Context

Throughout history, Christian missionaries have configured their work according to different understandings of how best to communicate the Gospel If reconciliation and peacemaking constitute a significant paradigm for mission today, how must missionaries be prepared in order to carry out their responsibilities?

To answer that question, it might be best to begin with a brief reflection on how missionary preparation changed over the past century. This might have the added advantage of raising questions which at first may not be obvious but may nonetheless be significant in the new paradigm we are exploring here.

If one goes back to the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, preparation of missionaries typically encompassed two areas: language and auxiliary professions. Formal language training was something that evolved from being apprenticed to a native to speaker to the setting up of special language schools to equip the missionary in local languages. Roman Catholic missionaries sometimes lagged behind in formal language preparation because the administration of the sacraments was in Latin throughout the Church, and in that area no new preparation was needed. But missionaries across the denominational spectrum provided special service in the area of language by sometimes compiling the first grammars and dictionaries in local languages, thereby saving some of these from extinction.

Likewise, auxiliary professions took on importance. To the extent that Christian mission at the time of colonial expansion was often seen as a “civilizing” mission as well, education and Western medicine were prime and prized auxiliary professions. This was especially the case for women in many instances. Missionaries not only saw such things as education and healthcare as additional benefits for their charges, but could point back to the Apostle Paul and his tent-making as a way of supporting himself.

The emergence of dialogue and inculturation as modes of mission in the second half of the twentieth century brought new perspectives on preparation of missionaries. Knowledge of other religious traditions became increasingly important, especially in Asia and Muslim areas of Africa. Any knowledge acquired earlier (with some exceptions) was used to combat or refute the great traditions. As dialogue became more important, the desired knowledge enabled the missionary to be able to collaborate more with other religionists. Around the same time, the importance of culture as a concept began to take hold across the denominational spectrum. Rather than presuming the superiority of Western culture, attention now focused upon the integrity of the cultures that the missionary encountered, as well as their preservation as a vehicle for expressing Christian faith. The heightening of importance of local culture in the immediate period following political independence made this commitment to culture even stronger. On the Roman Catholic side, the Second Vatican Council endorsed the concept of culture officially in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes. Manuals and guides to understanding culture began to be published in the 1960s.

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