Lessons from John Allen Chau (and Francis Xavier) for Catholic missions today

(AP Photo/Sarah Prince, WikiCommons)

The recent death of John Allen Chau, an American missionary who was killed while trying to contact an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, has revived a debate within many Christian denominations over the nature and purpose of evangelization. More specifically, Mr. Chau’s death (he was visiting the island illegally, and scientists have suggested he could have placed the indigenous population at risk from diseases for which they might have no natural antibodies) has raised questions about the specific form Christian missionary activity should take in a contemporary context.

America asked Father Anthony Lusvardi, S.J., a U.S. Jesuit priest and former missionary who is studying sacramental theology at the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome, for his thoughts on this issue. America spoke with him over email for this edited interview.

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What is your own background in evangelization work, either in ministry or academia? How did you become interested in it, and what specifically interests you about it?

I witnessed the generous work of missionaries before joining the Jesuits when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan. My own most important experience with evangelization work was as a scholastic on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, a place I still go back to every summer. The Jesuit missions in Lakota territory go back to the 1800s, and it’s a complicated history. The experience left me more convinced than ever of the need for evangelization that is both respectful and bold. Respectful, because the Lakota have something unique to offer the church; bold, because people need Jesus Christ. In a situation like the reservation you see that the false gods, like alcohol and meth [crystal methamphetamine] are not afraid to proselytize.

My parish work on Rosebud led me to see evangelization through the lens of the sacraments. For a long time, academic theology—both scholasticism and contemporary theology—has tended to undervalue the transformative power of the sacraments. The reintroduction of R.C.I.A. [The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] after Vatican II gives us a kind of sacramental guide to evangelization, and I’d like to see that unpacked much more in theology and the life of the church. My own current research project on baptism of desire is tied into the question of whether and why the sacraments are necessary for salvation. And that in turn gets into the question of what is our reason for evangelization. We are at a moment in church history where those answers are not always clear.

John Allen Chau hired local fishermen to give him passage illegally to North Sentinel Island, and then presumably was killed by members of the indigenous community there. Many news outlets and commentators in the United States condemned Mr. Chau’s actions—as physically dangerous for the indigenous population of the Andaman Islands, as a neo-colonial aggression against their culture, as an outdated approach to evangelization. Do you think this is a fair view?

I would be inclined to be a bit more generous, even if on the surface Chau seems to have had more of a “lone wolf” approach to evangelization than Catholic theology would suggest. The interpretation coming from the Indian government, which has a history of harassing religious minorities, should be read with some caution. Neo-colonialism? There’s no suggestion Chau used coercive force to impose his religious or cultural views. The tribe, on the other hand, clearly used force against him. The language of “outdated” also strikes me as unhelpful; Catholics, evangelicals and mainline Protestants have differences regarding what we believe about salvation and those differences have implications for our approach to missionary work.

We can still learn from St. Francis Xavier, even if I wouldn’t endorse every aspect of his approach. He was creative, self-sacrificing, flexible, loving toward those he encountered.

We just celebrated the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, who famously went to the ends of the earth to spread the Gospel. In some ways his actions, and those of many other men and women the Catholic Church and other Christians hold up as saints, track closely with Mr. Chau’s. Is that kind of missionary witness still called for by the church?

I think we can still learn from Xavier, even if I wouldn’t endorse every aspect of his approach. He was creative, self-sacrificing, flexible, loving toward those he encountered. He could imagine nothing better than knowing Christ and wanted to share that with everyone because he believed Christ loves everyone. I hope we never lose that. He baptized thousands, but baptism needs to be accompanied by an attention to genuine Christian formation to avoid merely superficial conversions.

Perhaps troublingly, he was once asked by Japanese catechumens if their deceased ancestors were in hell and if there was not anything to be done to help them. He felt badly but said, “Yes, they are, and it’s too late to do anything about it.” Most theologians today would hold out more hope for those pre-Christian ancestors. The tricky question is whether that hope diminishes our motivation for announcing the Good News where it hasn’t yet been heard. The urgency Xavier felt, after all, does seem consistent with the call of the New Testament.

Can we give a better answer today?

Xavier’s answer was simplistic. The Council of Trent, in session at the same time Xavier was in Japan, actually did leave a bit more room for discussion. It said that baptism is indeed necessary for salvation. But it qualified that in two important ways. It said: Baptism or the desire for it is necessary after the promulgation of the new law. In reality, today this is still a very debated question, though I think those two considerations are a place to start. Did the ancestors of the Japanese catechumens desire the Gospel in some implicit way, analogous to the way the prophets of the Old Testament desired the coming of the Messiah? Might something of that desire have inclined their descendants to embrace the Gospel when Xavier arrived to proclaim it? Some theologians take a different tack, though this strikes me as the most promising line of response.

Would you say Catholic doctrine on evangelization has changed?

On the most fundamental level, no. Evangelization is the mission of the church. Breathing new life into the church’s missionary efforts was the central goal of Vatican II. That’s why the pope elected during the council took the name “Paul.” On the other hand, the magisterium today emphasizes the importance of conducting evangelization in a way that respects the freedom of individuals to accept or reject the Gospel more than at some periods in history. We’re also much more sensitive to issues of inculturation than in the recent past. It would also be fair to say that the magisterium today tolerates a much broader debate about issues surrounding evangelization than it did in, say, the early 1800s.

If evangelization does not respect human freedom, then it’s not really the Gospel that’s being proclaimed. Still, Western Christians are sometimes paralyzed with anxiety.

Are contemporary efforts in interfaith dialogue, the stress on religious freedom and a fear of being accused of proselytism reducing the sense of urgency that seems to have motivated some of the history’s great evangelizers?

Perhaps they are, though I think there is a way to understand and practice, say, interfaith dialogue, that doesn’t diminish the primary mission of evangelization. As I see it, if evangelization does not respect human freedom, then it’s not really the Gospel that’s being proclaimed. Still, Western Christians are sometimes paralyzed with anxiety. Some of that’s because of historical mistakes looming in the popular imagination.

On a more profound level, if we see and recognize something good in another religion or non-Christian culture, we may worry that what is good will be lost. And Christianity does mean conversion, change. But change happens whether we like it or not. Treating other religions like museum pieces is itself problematic. For me it’s a question of hope. If we proclaim Christ in word and sacrament, can we hope that he is capable of guiding the change that will happen?

In what sense were the actions of John Allen Chau defensible or not from a missionary perspective? An ethical one?

Any intercultural encounter—missionary, economic, political, educational, touristic, even dialogue—can have both positive and negative consequences. You mention concerns about exposure to disease, for example. Did Chau give sufficient forethought to what those negative consequences might be and how to minimize them? I don’t know. These are questions that missionaries working in different cultural contexts should ask themselves, as should aid workers, businesspeople, educators. The good of knowing Jesus Christ is infinite, so such concerns shouldn’t stop missionary efforts. In the long term, responsibility and forethought should make missionary work more effective.

The history of Christian evangelization is so often tied up with the history of Western colonization. Do you think it is possible to disentangle missionary work from colonialism, and if so, how might modern missionaries try to do that?

Christian evangelization began with the apostles, not colonialism. Now more than ever, the New Testament is the guide we need. This isn’t just a pious platitude. As far as Christianity’s place in society is concerned, our situation is moving closer to that of Christianity’s first centuries than the sociopolitical structures of Christendom. The entwining of evangelization and colonialism was, at least to a large degree, dependent on those structures. Today, I suspect, truly colonizing forces tend to be more secular in their values.

You mentioned earlier the “baptism of desire.” Can you explain more what is meant by that theological notion?

Baptism is necessary for salvation. But what about someone who desires baptism—say, a catechumen—but dies unexpectedly before receiving the sacrament? Baptism of desire is the doctrine, first articulated by St. Ambrose of Milan in just such a situation, that in those circumstances such a person can still be saved. By the late Middle Ages, theologians were speaking of baptism in water, baptism of blood (when martyrs die before baptism) and baptism of desire. But the doctrine raises all sorts of difficult questions. How firm does the desire for baptism have to be? How explicit? Could someone who has never heard of the Gospel possess an implicit desire for baptism? That last question, as I alluded to before, shows the relevance of the concept to evangelization.

We’re not revising a corporate mission statement here. Jesus wants to enter into a relationship of communion with everyone, and if we’re his disciples we have the duty to make him known to everyone.

Do you think the Vatican II notion of missionaries going ad gentes (“out to the nations”) is still a viable one? Or should we accept the suggestions of some contemporary missiologists and see evangelization as more inter gentes, (“among nations and within nations”)?

We’re not revising a corporate mission statement here. Jesus wants to enter into a relationship of communion with everyone, and if we’re his disciples we have the duty to make him known to everyone. Theologians can’t change that. That said, the role of geography and nationality in evangelization today has diminished.

One aspect of the conciliar decree on missionary activity, which was named “Ad Gentes,” that strikes me as dated is the assumption that missionaries will usually be coming from more economically developed parts of the world and going to poorer parts of the world. That certainly reflected the world of 1965, but our world has changed.

How do we think of evangelization when economically poorer parts of the world are more Christian than North America or Europe? Perhaps in some way this will purify our sense of mission. Maybe reality—in this case a painful reality like the secularization of the West—will send us back to the New Testament because we really have no other choice.

How can missionaries of today attract the attention of people who might have once been attracted to the idea of religion or faith, but for various reasons have “opted out” of accepting faith altogether?

There is no substitute for the personal invitation. In the end, Christianity is person-to-person contact. Inviting people to church events—even bingo, a big deal on Rosebud—is part of it. I consider it evangelization when you offer to give an elderly neighbor who can’t drive a ride to Mass—even if that person is more devout than you! It’s still strengthening the church.

The concept of testimony is also key, something Catholics need to relearn. Testimony means bearing witness; it means being able to articulate “what Jesus has done in my life.” This is important because it’s not in any way coercive; it’s different than saying, “This is what I think you should do.” It also doesn’t require any particular expertise.

Apologetics and teaching are important, but not everyone has the gift for those ministries. All Christians, though, are called to bear witness, even if it’s as simple as saying, “I don’t know why, but I always feel better after going to confession.” Saying even that among people who have “opted out” may push us out of our comfort zone, but that is the courage evangelization requires today.

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