Mission as regeneration in Africa


by Br. Alberto Parise, mccj

This reflection aims at explaining the political dimension of Comboni’s Plan for the Regeneration of Africa and it will elaborate on the particular interpretation and role that Brothers may contribute towards the actualisation of the ministry of Regeneration.

Rome, 27.05.2009

This does not exclusively mean an involvement in the movements for social justice, for the globalization of solidarity, and the likes. Issues like participation, empowerment, community building, and conscientization have typically a political value. All Comboni Missionaries, because of their charism, have a mandate to contribute towards the regeneration of Africa by Africa, but our assumption here is that the specific contributions of Brothers and Fathers, of Sisters and lay missionaries may well be different and complementary.

The political character of Regeneration
A theme that needs to be further explored and studied is that of the influence that the Italian Risorgimento had on Comboni. Whereas it is well known that the motto Nigrizia o morte is fashioned after Garibaldi’s O Roma o morte (meaning the absolute and resolute dedication and consecration to the mission), there seems to be very little consciousness that also the core concept of Regeneration has some affinities with the spirit of the Italian political struggle for independence.

In fact, that idea used to be a core value of that movement and is basically found in the political philosophy of Giuseppe Mazzini. The word regeneration at the time of Comboni meant a rebirth of a people, of their dignity and freedom, overcoming oppression and alienation. Such an agenda is political in two respects: first of all in its meaning of liberation and independence. It is worth noticing that even the anti-slavery movement in England used to talk of the Regeneration of Africa, to be obtained through the abolition of the slave trade and the promotion of legitimate trade and commerce. Not less importantly, the political feature of Regeneration is found in the growth of a new consciousness within the people (freedom, equality, and fraternity), a strong sense of participation, belonging, and pride in a people’s own identity. This meant — also in the philosophy of Risorgimento — discovering the historical vocation of a nation, its unique position and contribution to humanity.

In a nutshell, the concept of regeneration is political in that from a socio-economic point of view it implies liberation and reconstruction of the society; and from a cultural vantage point it engages with reconnection to the deepest identity and dignity of a people, and the consciousness of its vocation, of having a role to play in history. In Comboni these ideas are certainly revisited in the light of faith, hence full liberation, real reconstruction, and a transformed consciousness require also a transforming encounter with Christ. In a time when mission predominantly meant “saving souls”, it is remarkable to find in Comboni that the rebirth occurring in baptism is paralleled by a similar rebirth of the society, of Africa as socio-cultural reality, as implied in the concept of regeneration. As a matter of fact, Comboni talks of the Regeneration of Africa rather than Africans, and this today suggests the idea of all African resources, be they people, their cultures, their spirituality, their material resources, etc.

Paradigm shift in mission theology and the roles of the Brothers
Over the years there has been a paradigm shift in the understanding of mission. From a vision focusing mainly on the religious mission of the Church — or on the growth of the Church around the world — to a vision inspired by Gaudium et spes (1965), the document of the Synod of the Bishops of 1971, Justitia in mundo (1971), and Evangelii nutiandi (1975), which is oriented towards the growth of the Reign of God in the world — and therefore also retaining the aspect of the growth of the Church.

  • The religious vision of mission: this paradigm does not exclude a social dimension of mission. In fact, traditionally it features three main aspects, namely proclamation (the Word), sacramental ministry (transplanting the Church, teaching the catechism, etc.), and charity, which meant social works as expression of Christian love and testimony of faith. Within this paradigm, there was the tendency to see only one minister (the ordained one), whereas Sisters, Brothers, and lay people were seen as coadjutors of the priest. Bothers, in particular, were entrusted with the support system of the mission (building, farming, maintenance, etc.), the so called “pre-evangelisation” through the arts and crafts, and — in some instances — with teaching the catechism and accompanying the Christian life of their workers.

  • Mission oriented towards God’s work in history: as Ad gentes puts it (2,9) missionary activity “is nothing else, and nothing less, than the manifestation of God’s plan, its epiphany and realization in the world and history”. Bosch (1996, 391) explains that in this paradigm “the primary purpose [of the missionary activities of the church] can therefore not simply be the planting of the churches or the saving of souls; rather, it has to be the service to the missio Dei”. In Gaudium et spes — Bosch added — “the history of the world is not only a history of evil but also of love, a history in which the reign of God is being advanced through the work of the Spirit. Thus, in its missionary activity, the church encounters a humanity and a world in which God’s salvation has already been operative secretly, through the Spirit. This may, by grace of God, issue in a more humane world which, however, may never be seen as a purely human product — the real author of this humanized history is the Holy Spirit”. There is a two-way exchange between the Church and the world because the presence of God’s reign is not confined just in the Church. Through the signs of the times, for example, the Church comes to realize and appreciate the presence and work of God in history.

    On the basis of this vision, we can identify a prophetic element in Comboni’s view of Africa as the “Brown Pearl” of the Church. Far from understanding Africa as a conquest, a trophy (the basic attitude of the European powers at the time of Comboni) we see Africa as bringing something that is still missing in the Church, which has a lot to receive from Africa. Eventually, mission is not just bringing the gift of faith to the “pagans”, but a journey of discovery of the presence of God and of ever-new faces of the risen Christ in the history of peoples, through authentic dialogue, faith sharing, and genuine, sincere search done together with the people.

    Therefore, the social mission of the Church is not simply the expression of Christian charity and a testimony of Christian faith; rather it appears as a journey that the missionary community shares with the people towards a deeper, transforming encounter with the risen Christ in history. Missionaries insert themselves within the historical journey of a people, where the Spirit is already at work, and walk alongside them towards a transforming, transfiguring encounter with the risen Christ. In the missionary vocation there is a call to encounter God through the genius, this history, the struggles of peoples, and to point God to the world, witnessing “to the fullness of the promise of God’s reign” (Bosch 1996, 391).

    All this requires an appropriate methodology in mission, which would keep together the political and spiritual dimensions of mission, as in the symbolic image of regeneration. The methodology of the pastoral cycle actually operates such integration. Through insertion — the first step — a missionary enters into the social and cultural context of a community and shares its historical journey (making common cause); the second step is about facilitating social and cultural analysis within that community, which means to reflect on, research and understand that reality, its complexity and contradictory aspects in a scientific way. The ensuing theological and ministerial reflection leads the community to discern the presence of God and evil in history, and in discerning with faith and wisdom about the fuzzy and contradictory aspects of the reality, and about the role and call of the community within that situation. The action process (planning, implementation, evaluation, celebration) — the forth step, after which the cycle starts again —is where the community takes concrete initiatives to influence the process of social transformation according to the values and presence of God’s reign.

    This methodology presupposes the understanding of a plurality of complementary ministries, to be carried out by different pastoral agents. But this is not as simple as saying that certain ministries belong to ordained ministers, others to consecrated ones, and again others to lay ministers. Though it is true that in different ministries specific agents play a special role this is not to be understood as excluding or denying a specific role to others. For example, when it comes to the ministry of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation we cannot say that such a ministry pertains to lay people, or the religious, or ordained ministers. Actually, such a constitutive part of the evangelising mission of the Church (Justice in the World, 6) pertains to all. But the specific vocation and role of different ministers may well be different, characteristic, and complementary.

    The Brothers and the ministry of Regeneration
    To a certain extent the Comboni Missionary Brothers have always played a role in the process of the regeneration of Africa. What has been their role in the political dimension of the regeneration of Africa? Their most characteristic feature seems to have always been their sense of fraternity, which is also the modality in which they give their contribution to both a people’s conscientization and social transformation.

    For example, especially in the time when the focus was mainly on the religious mission of the Church, Brothers have played a remarkable role in the affirmation of the local people, in facilitating the growth of their self-esteem, their self-confidence, and in being a source of inspiration, through their attention to and dialogue with the people, their witness of life, their work, and training of youngsters. Also, since the very beginning, Brothers have influenced the process of social transformation through their contribution in schools, socio-economic projects, and vocational training among other initiatives. All this, in a sense, is much more “political” than it may seem, because it implies the affirmation of a certain idea or model of society.

    With today’s sensitivity, we may reconsider — without anachronistically passing historical judgement — the appropriateness of that model in some places. In fact, Comboni himself felt questioned when his experience on the Nuba Mountains (1876-77) challenged his own assumptions about “civilization”. Only that he did not live long enough to digest some of his deepest insights and to reflect on what implications these entailed. This notwithstanding, he was able to acknowledge that his view of the social organisation, of the poverty and misery of Africans was not applicable to that human group and that a different attitude was needed (cf. Scritti 4057-4059; S. 4131-4139; S. 4574-4575; S. 5693-5699) for the regeneration of the people on the Nuba Mountains. At last, Comboni seemed to start reconsidering the social impact of his vision of Christian communities on the local people.

    Today, in view of the paradigm of missio Dei, the ministry of regeneration requires also the reconnection with the presence of the Spirit in the situations and history of the peoples, in their cultural heritage, and in their spirituality. And yet, in various parts of Africa a process of socio-cultural disintegration is on the increase. In this context, Brothers are called to partake in the challenge of building up fraternal communities, in continuity with the people’s life-giving traditions. Moreover, reconciliation with oneself, with one’s own history, with Creation and cultural legacy, with traumatizing events and limitations is a necessary step towards reconnection with the authentic personal and social identity. Through their ministry, therefore, Brothers will need to be among those who can facilitate:
  • An atmosphere where people feel safe, trust and can open their hearts to others, even showing their own brokenness and vulnerability.
  • Honest communication, in authenticity and reverence for the others.
  • The development of meaningful relationships.
  • Commitment to empathy, especially across differences of all sorts.

    Yet this is clearly not sufficient. Also the dimension of collective identity, of the cultural heritage, or in simple terms of the people’s roots is essential. And, within this dimension, the reconnection with the personal and collective memory of the presence of God in history, with the spiritual heritage of the people is particularly important. This is to be facilitated not in abstract, theoretical form, but in connection with the people’s life experience and situations of alienation. Such an event of being reconnected with the truth of oneself and the deeper meaning of life, is not something that a minister can make happen in others; but a welcoming, fraternal and empathetic presence and certain group dynamics may facilitate favourable conditions for this process to take place.

    The Brother’s presence in the process of social transformation need to be dialogical, facilitating participation (rather than being the driving force of change); catalysing people’s initiative and imagination (moving from where people are, rather than pushing important but alien agendas); building on local knowledge, resources and wisdom. Brothers are called to accompany local communities as they take action on their own reality, as they transform relationships (within the community, in the society, with the environment, with the spiritual world, with the structures of the society, etc.). Through concrete actions and initiatives that tackle strongly felt issues, communities end up contributing towards the transformation of power relations, the development of life-giving relationships and structures in the society. Once again, the political dimension of regeneration comes to the fore. The Brothers’ role in all this is in the aspect of facilitation, open to and respectful of the journey of the community, rather than designing that same journey for them. Very often, their profession can be very helpful as an entry point into the community, and also as a concrete service where it is needed, but it does not need to determine or condition the journey of the community. Though, it is quite clear that having a solid profession remains necessary for them, because it gives them self-confidence, the basis on which to learn new skills, a stronger sense of social identity and recognition.

    Involvement in social movements addressing very pressing global issues, attention to participatory approaches and methodologies for social transformation, and focus on specific initiatives advancement, and a deeply fraternal lifestyle are part and parcel of the process of requalification of the missionary presence and work of the Comboni Missionaries. As far as the ministry of the Brothers is concerned, we need to keep into consideration features such as accompaniment accompaniment of peoples and communities, and facilitating conscientization and reconciliation, which means a preference for starting from where people actually are, from the issues for which they have the strongest feelings. Collaboration and integration with different ministers is necessary: at times there is need also to campaign and raise awareness on issues that would not — for various reasons — emerge as priorities from the local communities. It is precisely the awareness and acceptance of such limitations that constitute a fundamental strength in ministry.

    Br. Alberto Parise, mccj
  • The political dimension of Mission