As we go through the “History of the Missions”, it is enriching to stop and reflect on the Patron of our Congregation: Francis Xavier. Born in Spain, he was exposed to internationality and science, in Paris. When he entered the circle of friends, and then as a member of the Society of Jesus, he had a wealth of culture and science. Being a ‘Magister’, he had acquired preparation and skills for the reality of the mission to which he had to bring the Gospel. Not that he knew everything, nor that he had ready-made answers for the people of that era, culture, civilisation, the people to which he would be sent by the the Pope, but he was ‘capable’. His personal charism enriched the charism of the founder. He was sent to the Indies, stayed for a long time and founded Christian communities in Goa, and worked in Malaysia. Then he received the invitation to evangelise in Japan and there he understood the importance of China and decided to go there, but he died before reaching there.
Later on Matteo Ricci went to China with a confrére. Ricci entered China “equipped” with science. Having first studied law at the “Collegio Romano” founded by St Ignatius of Loyola, now the Gregorian University. He studied mathematics, geometry, astronomy, technology, geography and cartography. Once in China he tried to become ‘Chinese with the Chinese’: he became a Confucius scholar, appreciating the local culture. He knew that the Chinese had a millenary culture. He found that Greek and Latin philosophy could act as a bridge between the West and China. After a few years, other 40 Jesuits are with Ricci. So the Jesuits translated the works of Epictetus and Euclid into Chinese, two authors who had considerable influence in the philosophical and scientific world; they explained Western technology, such as the construction and operation of automatic clocks, astronomical instruments and a map of the globe. While other Institutes, with their charisms, had done “mission” by concentrating much on the religious and devotional aspect, for example in Latin America, the Jesuit missionaries opened up to science and prepared themselves for an “encounter with cultures”, in order to make room for a proclamation of Christ at the height of the times and peoples where they were to evangelise.
Even today, in a completely different historical era, the cultural dimension is fundamental to mission. In Evangelii gaudium, the encyclical that presents the new paradigm of mission, inculturation is one of the four criteria of discernment for renewed missionary action. Human promotion goes hand in hand with inculturation of the Gospel, that is, a transforming encounter with the Risen One that brings to fulfilment the seeds of the Word already present in the cultures and history of peoples.
It is this encounter that generates an open world, fostering the interaction of different peoples, cultures and religions; it is based on respect for the dignity and different subjectivities of individuals and peoples, becoming a “Feast of Fraternity” (FT 110), of diversity. The chromatic beauty of humanity is a challenge to our understanding of the Mystery of God and His Kingdom. The noble values, the human, spiritual and ethical resources of all peoples will have to converge, not with “a series of beneficial actions” (FT 94), but with the will to “be one” (FT 93), as Jesus was one with the Father (Jn 10:30), and longed that all his own should become one like “the Father and Him” (Jn 17:22).
We have been living according to Comboni’s dream of seeing the regeneration of Africa with Africa come true – a yearning expressed today by Pope Francis – by going out to meet the poor “promoting them in their own land” (FT 125). Regeneration means a rebirth in the fullness of sons and daughters of God, with the “genes” of the Father and of the Earth – cultures – from which the peoples come. That is why encounter and dialogue with the cultural perspectives of peoples are still a necessity for mission. Social transformation inspired by the Gospel, the generation of an open world, requires skills and abilities that cannot be improvised. It requires preparation, because missionaries are cultural operators and promoters and trainers of social transformers. That is why we have dreamt and realised, in Nairobi, the Institute for Social Transformation, which trains pastoral agents, promotes concrete initiatives of social transformation and is committed to the integration of the knowledge and perspectives of native peoples both at the academic level and in social practice to rebuild a more fraternal and sustainable world.