Today I finished reading The Church, Change and Development, a 1970 collection of essays by Father Ivan Illich, who wrote many books criticizing the “modern” world from his perspective in Latin America as a person of faith committed to the poor.
I believe that central to his understanding is his conviction that “the mission of the church is the social continuation of the Incarnation…” (p. 85)
But he opens up a deep understanding of Incarnation, which is rooted in Philippians 2, though he doesn’t cite the passage.
Jesus is God, yet he exiles himself, he becomes human, fully human. A missioner can’t do this, since I can never become a Honduran, but part of the challenge is to empty myself of the security of being from the United States, immersing myself in the reality here. But I have Jesus as a model.
As Illich puts it:
The neo-missioner must learn to accept the feelings of insecurity and lostness consequent on his recurrent disorientation for what they are: his vocation….He will learn to realize not only that he does not understand as others do; he is not even understood as they are. He will accept/ that he will never preach the Gospel in the language of the people as it should be preached, that at best is pupils will be able to do that. That, in a way, he who came to announce the Gospel is condemned to silence or at best to stuttering. His growth in this realization, that his audience is in a way “beyond him,” will lead him to growing respect for the uniqueness of each people, the mysterious complexity and otherness of each community, and the transcendence of the Gospel which, according to his faith, can be understood everywhere fully, even though not equally. (pp.106-7)
This demands an emptying, an openness, a throwing myself on the mercy of God (and the willingness of people to suffer my inadequacies). It demands conversion, which, as Illich suggests,
… implies the discovery that revelation of the living God can be relevant to our universe and of concepts, if we are willing to blast this universe open in a new dimension. (p. 86)
This book is rich – though not easy. But I believe that it will provide me with much to reflect on as I continue my mission here in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.
In this I need to cultivate the missionary poverty and missionary silence that Illich proposes:
Many dangers threaten to hinder the missionary from seeking poverty at this intimate level and most often stem from the insecurity which breeds fear. If material things and friends and health are crutches against he threat of the unknown, how much more does the set of values and customs with which each one was brought up serve this protective purpose, and how much more, therefore, is each one anxious to defend his culture as inalienable, absolute, and worthy of being imposed on others. If we don’t want to let go of a thing we think we need we always find a reason for defending our right to keep it, and the more intimate the thing is to us, the more unknowingly we protect ourselves from the suspicion that we might have to give it up. (p. 118)
Ultimately, missionary silence is a gift, a gift of prayer, learned in prayer faced by the infinitely distant, infinitely foreign God and applied in love to men, much more distant and foreign than ever men at home. The missioner can come to forget that his silence is a gift, a gift in its deepest sense gratuitously given by God; a gift generously transmitted to us by those who are willing to teach us their language. (p. 123)