Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Mission as Telling the Story of Jesus The blog looks a little strange today. Someone seems to have absconded with our left-hand column. (I can't do anything about it, but I trust that Todd soon will.) As many of you might have noticed, the 2006 Asian Mission Congress, meeting in Thailand from October 19-22, has just concluded. The theme of the congress was "Telling The Story Of Jesus In Asia: A Celebration of Life and Faith." I would like to provide an excerpt from the opening night's keynote address, delivered by the Most Rev. Luis Antonio G. Tagle, Bishop of Imus in the Philippines, which is located at Manila Bay. The address directly concerns the theme of the Congress. Bishop Tagle notes that, in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, Pope John Paul II wrote that, when presenting Jesus Christ in Asia, "narrative methods akin to Asian cultural forms are to be preferred. In general, the proclamation of Jesus Christ can most effectively be made by narrating his story, as the Gospels do." In telling Jesus' story, the Pope continued, the Church must also remain "open to the new and surprising ways in which the face of Jesus might be presented in Asia." Bishop Tagle briefly summarizes the theology of a "turn to narrative" in the Church's missionary efforts: The origin of the Church's mission is the Great Storyteller, the Holy Spirit, to whom it must listen so it can share what it has heard. The Church is God's Storyteller of Jesus Christ as it listens to the Holy Spirit. Bishop Tagle then goes on to share eight reflections on "mission as telling the story of Jesus under the guidance of the Holy Spirit." Here are a few of them (FABC, by the way, is an acronym for the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences): 1. The Church tells the story of Jesus from its experience of Jesus. Telling the story of Jesus in Asia is more effective if it springs from the experience of the storyteller. Pope Paul IV's observation in Evangelii Nuntiandi that people today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers is universally true but more so in Asia where cultures put particular emphasis on the experientially verified truthfulness of the witness. The earlier apostles, who were Asians, spoke of their experience - what they have heard, they have seen with their eyes, they have looked upon and touched with their hands concerning the Word of Life (1 Jn 1:1-4). There cannot be any other way for the contemporary Church in Asia. Without a deep experience of Jesus as Savior, how can I tell his story convincingly as part of my personal story? The experience of St Paul is truly the root of mission when he says, "it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20). Telling the story of Jesus in Asia requires the Church's living encounter with Jesus in prayer, worship, interaction with people, especially the poor, and events that constitute the "signs of the times." 2. The story of Jesus manifests the identity of the Church among the poor, cultures and religions of Asia. Just as a story reveals personal identity, a story of faith in Jesus reveals also the identity of the narrator as a believer. A witness who tells his/her story of encountering Jesus cannot and should not hide his/her identity as a disciple of the Savior. But just as a web of relationships with people, culture and societal currents form a personal story or identity, so is Christian storytelling in Asia to be done in relationship with others. The Christian identity and story in Asia is always with and not apart from those of other cultures and religions. The story of Jesus is to be told by Asian Christians who are with and among the poor, the diverse cultures and the various religions of Asia that partly determine their identities and stories as Asians. This reality of Asia has prompted Jonathan Yun-Ka Tan to propose that missio ad (towards) gentes should be understood now according to the new paradigm of missio inter (among or with) gentes. But I hold that missio ad gentes should not be eliminated but rather be done inter gentes. There can never be a genuine mission towards people without it being at the same time mission with people. And genuine mission with people encourages mission towards people. With and among the poor, cultures and religions, Asian Christians are Asian. To and for the poor, cultures and religions, Asian Christians are Christian. The blending of these stories, I believer, can enrich the numerous reflections of the FABC on mission as dialogue with the poor, cultures and religions of Asia. 3. The Church keeps the memory of Jesus dynamically alive. Among and for other Asians, the Church tells the story of Jesus in the mode of keeping the memory of Jesus alive. Keeping the memory of Jesus does not mean locking it up in some untouchable realm of existence. It is kept when re-appropriated and shared. Trusting in the Holy Spirit and faithful to the memory guaranteed in the Tradition of the Universal Church, the Church in Asia should have the courage to rediscover new ways of telling the story of Jesus, retrieving its vitality and freeing its potentials for the renewal of the Asian realities. The story of Jesus, when guarded as a museum piece, fails to be life giving. In Ecclesia in Asia, Pope John Paul II poses the challenge of finding the pedagogy that would make the story of Jesus closer to Asian sensibilities, especially to theologians. He is confident that the same story could be told in new perspectives and in the light of new circumstances. 4. The Story of Jesus provides meaning to the Church's symbols of faith. We said that stories contain the meaning of the spirituality, ethics, and convictions embraced by a person. It can happen that the Church can be so identified with some "standardized" or stereotyped symbols of doctrine, ethic and worship that the story that gives impetus to them is forgotten. Then the symbols themselves lose their power to touch people. The symbols of faith must be rooted back to the foundational story of Jesus. For example the breaking of bread at the Eucharist should be seen in many stories of sharing, caring and communion, without which the ritual is deprived of significance. A bishop's ring should spring from a living story of service to the community, without which the ring is reduced to a piece of jewelry. A priest's symbolism as Jesus' presence should spring from a living story of availability to people, without which the priesthood becomes a status rather than a vocation. The symbols of faith must be traceable to the foundational story of Jesus. A return to the story of Jesus would also enable the Church in Asia to correct the impressions of foreign-ness attached to its doctrine, rituals and symbols (Ecclesia in Asia 20). Detached from the originating story of Jesus, the symbols of the Church might tell of a story foreign to Jesus Himself. 6. A listening Church tells the story of Jesus. Stories find their completion in the listener. But stories that are imposed are not listened to. The Church in Asia must trust in the vitality of the story it offers, without any thought of forcing it on others. It is already a beautiful story that will surely touch those who have even a bit of openness. Pope John Paul II tells us in Ecclesia in Asia that we share the gift of Jesus not to proselytize but out of obedience to the Lord and as an act of service to the peoples of Asia. Let the story speak and touch. Let the Holy Spirit open the hearts and memories of the listeners and invite them to transformation. The multitudes of poor peoples of Asia can find compassion and hope in Jesus' story. The cultures of Asia will resonate with the disturbing challenge to true freedom in Jesus' story. The various religions of Asia will marvel at the respect and appreciation towards those seeking God and genuine holiness in Jesus' story. The Church in Asia is called to humbly allow the Spirit to touch its listeners. As a storyteller of the Holy Spirit, the Church in Asia is to enter the worlds and languages of its listeners and from within them to tell Jesus' story just like at Pentecost. But that means the Church in Asia must be a good listener to the Spirit and to the poor, cultures and religions if it is to speak meaningfully at all. A storytelling Church must be a listening Church.