Women who go beyond. This is how missionaries can be defined, here paraphrasing Madeleine Delbrêl’s definition.
Those women who set out towards distant horizons and remote places where they live in the sense of being witnesses and, often, die as martyrs. In addition, those are the women who «without a boat» cross cultural, social and spiritual frontiers to reach the other. As Pope Francis reminds us in his message for the most recent World Missionary Day, «The Church of Christ was, is and always will be “going out” to new geographic, social and existential horizons, to “borderline” places and human situations, to bear witness to Christ and his love to all men and women of every people, culture and social status. In this sense, the mission will always also be a missio ad gentes, as the Second Vatican Council taught. The Church must constantly keep pressing forward, beyond her own confines, in order to testify to all the love of Christ».
It is not possible to draw up a rigid identikit of missionaries since the word “mission” encompasses a plural, multidimensional and polychromatic content. Until the second half of the twentieth century, the term was used based on the meaning given to it by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century to refer to special activities of the Church. In the missionary boom of the nineteenth century, it referred to the somewhat romantic figure of the priest officially sent by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to a non-Christian country with a mandate to convert the population and build a church community.
A formula that, paradoxically, excludes women. Yet this very period saw the blossoming of extraordinary figures – the great missionary sisters, from Francesca Xavier Cabrini, apostle of migrants, to Laura Montoya, pioneer defender of Amazonian indigenous people. Women who went beyond in many senses, including prejudices against their very own selves.
On January 1, 1872, three girls, Maria Caspio, Luigia Zago and Isabella Zadrich, founded the original nucleus of what would later become the first exclusively women’s missionary institute in Italy, the Pious Mothers of Nigrizia, now Combonians. The founder, Daniele Comboni, was aware of the boldness of the choice and the perplexities it could arouse. What made him persevere was a deep conviction of the need for women as witnesses of God’s compassion for the poor. For this, he compares “his” nuns with «a priest and more than a priest». They are – he wrote – «a true image of the ancient women of the Gospel who, with the same ease with which they teach the abc’s to orphans in Europe, undertake months of long journeys in 60 degree heat, crossing deserts on camels, riding horses, sleeping in the open air, under a tree or in a corner of an Arab boat. They help the sick and demand justice from the Pashas for the unhappy and the oppressed. They do not fear the lion’s roar and they face up to all labor, disastrous journeys and death to win souls for the Church».
Other institutes were established in the years immediately following such as the Xaverian Sisters, the Consolata Sisters, and the Missionaries of the Immaculate.
Undermining the “classical” concept of mission and the missionary, either male or female, was its association with western colonial expansion. One certain account seeks to combine the transmission of the faith with the “civilizing work of the white man” of “primitive or savage” peoples. The Second Vatican Council dispelled any ambiguity and gave unprecedented depth to the missionary impetus. Mission was not one of many ecclesial offices but a constituent dimension of the Church participating in the missio Dei. In this perspective, it is seen as a dynamism intended to reach out to the whole world in order to transform it into the People of God. It is missionary because God is missionary. In modern ecclesiology, the Church is seen as essentially missionary: it exists while it is sent and while it is constituted in view of its mission. Historian Raffaella Perin inspired by the Aparecida document and encouraged by the Synod on the New Evangelization which strongly reinforces this perspective described this shift well in her article [on p. 12]. Evangelii gaudium. In the “outgoing Church” of which Pope Francis speaks, style, activities, hours, language and structure are transformed by the missionary choice, which constitutes its pivot. The reform of the Roman Curia, contained in the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate evangelium, is the concrete embodiment of this, as illustrated by canonist Donata Horak [on p. 18].
Being a missionary is, therefore, a way of being a member of a church community. It is not sociology. Mission is not an NGO, as the Pontiff has repeatedly stated. That is, it is not an institutionalized activity, a function to be performed, a commitment to be carried out, albeit for charitable and beneficent purposes. It is the nature of the Church – the engine of its action. It concerns the heart of the Gospel and its concern for those who are excluded and passion for the Kingdom. As Agostino Rigon, director general of the Mission Festival, states, «If God is concerned with the inner world, the field of missio Dei is also the whole world – all human beings and all aspects of their existence».
It is fraternity that impels men or women to become neighbors to the fallen on street corners, wherever they may be – whether they be indigenous peoples expelled from their lands, trafficking victims, child slaves, Roma trapped on the outskirts of cities or migrants condemned to an invisible pilgrimage. To help them get back up and accept being lifted up by them. Because the rejected are teachers of life and faith, as highlighted by an unprecedented project of the dicastery for promoting integral human development, which has established a sort of “chair of the poor in theology”. A panel of experts addressed the big questions of theology to a group of marginalized people from among the marginalized. The answers – a distillation of the gospel.
From this, however, a crucial question arises. If all those baptized women and men are necessarily missionaries, does the choice of those – lay and religious – to leave their countries and travel to distant places to proclaim the Gospel through their lives and works still make sense? «Of course I am convinced it does», says Marta Pettenazzo, a religious of the Missionaries of Our Lady of the Apostles and the first woman to lead the Conference of Italian Missionary Institutes (CIMI) between 2014 and 2019. «Missionary commitment concerns each and every one. Some, however, have received the call to dedicate their entire existence and talents to witnessing the Gospel inside and outside their own country». A mission, then, is understood to be an all-inclusive mission addressing human frailty wherever it is found. Although the geographical horizon is no longer dominant, it has not, however, disappeared.
«The so-called missio ad extra, that is, experienced in nations other than one’s own, is one of the dimensions of mission and continues to be the priority for some institutes or congregations. At the heart of this choice is not so much the physical displacement as the existential mindset that implies readiness to leave. It means leaving the familiar to go towards something else. When we do that, we must necessarily adopt a mindset open to learning. The mission has taught me that we only give in the way we learn», Sister Marta emphasizes.
Again, the dimension of “going beyond” emerges where the contribution of women becomes crucial. It always has been so: the first missionary in the history of Christianity is Magdalene, as biblical scholar Marinella Perroni, points out [on p. 16]. Contemporary mission, however, at the heart of which is caring for and accompanying of, has a very feminine face, as the kaleidoscope of stories collected in this issue shows. From that of Lisa Clark, a missionary for non-violence in civil society and within institutions, to the story of Sister Zvonka Mikec, of the Daughters of Mary Help Institute, a lifelong missionary in Africa, who met writer Tea Ranno, an alumna of the Salesian Sisters in Rome. Reclaiming the feminine, long associated with irrationality and inability to manage, as Protestant theologian David Bosch argues, is crucial to freeing the concept of mission from any claim to domination, any performative anxiety, and any efficientism paradigm. Only the missionary who combines vigor with tenderness knows how to create spaces of authentic gratuitousness
Certainly, such a mental and spiritual attitude requires a path of integral formation, which remains one of the open challenges. Institutes and congregations, for the nuns and/or laywomen who belong to them, increasingly combine basic theology with advanced studies in missionology, as well as a specific curriculum for the tasks they will carry out in the different works, from health care to education. «Of course, the part on interculturality needs to be strengthened», says Sister Marta. For those, on the other hand, who choose to leave with associations or through the diocese, there are specific courses, in addition to internal training, including one from the Unitary Center for Missionary Formation (CUM) in Verona.
The sore point, especially in times of global recession, remains sustenance. Solidarity and works are the primary sources even if they are perennially insufficient. Often benefactors’ contributions cover the implementation of specific projects. More difficult, however, is finding funds for maintenance, which is indispensable so that missionaries to devote themselves full-time to the lowliest. Religious and laywomen often opt for placement in the dioceses of the host countries. There remains, however, the question of how to ensure that their contribution in their commitment to pastoral care is fully adequate in proportion to the work they do and sufficient to sustain themselves. One modality, still in the pioneer stage, and gaining ground, is that of inter-congregational and sometimes mixed missionary communities, which allow for the full experience of reciprocal relations between genders.
In short, the 21st century mission cannot do without women. «Their creativity is indispensable for dealing with the extreme situations in which we are immersed in mission. For me, a missionary is someone who helps to give birth to the faith both in those who do not know it and in those who have lost its meaning». A “midwife of the Gospel” who is not eager to baptize or, worse, to win proselytes, but rather seeks to open windows to let the breath of the Spirit enter into the women and men of these times.
Thanks to Donne, Chiesa, Mondo