Going forth from our comfort zone to reach out to the peripheries’ in need of the Gospel
During my eight years of formation with the Missionaries of Africa, the two years of the stage were the ones that marked me the most. First, the stage followed the Spiritual Year which I did in Fribourg in Switzerland. During this time, I had no other choice but to restrict my social activities in order to embrace the silence, to look again at my past life and to give myself body and soul to the spiritual exercises proposed to us. At the end of the year, I discovered that monastic life was probably not for me and that the attraction of going to Africa to share my faith had become more pressing.
So, I was very happy to take the plane for Zambia in July 1989. A few days after my arrival, I travelled to Ilondola Mission in the north of the country, to get acquainted with the Bemba language in company with another candidate, missionary priests, volunteers and four Baptist missionaries. There was such a lot to learn and to discover. This demanded patience, a lot of listening and a desire to communicate and launch oneself into the unknown.
After my language course, I found myself in Serenje, a parish about 200kms in diameter with 10 sub parishes, about 70 outstations and a dynamic team of confreres, catechists, lay leaders who led Sunday services and a lot of parish groups for men, women and young people. There was no shortage of pastoral opportunities and the confreres did not hesitate to send me here and there in the parish with one of the catechists. Following this rhythm of life, I had no choice but to master the Bemba language, as best I could, especially to get a greater appreciation of what people were saying and living on a daily basis. In fact, my apprenticeship was more than just learning a language.
In this way, I perceived a new way at looking at things; events which punctuate the daily life of each human being and those associated with the major stages of life such as the choice of a spouse, the birth of a child, the departure of a loved one. For these particular moments, it seems that there is always a Chibemba proverb offering wisdom and experience to guide the people to make the right choice or to encourage them to persevere. However, nothing equalled the moments when I was witness to the ways with which the people faced existential challenges such as dealing with a family member who had gone off the rails and who was continually creating all sorts of problems. In brief, my stage was the ideal moment for opening my eyes and to take into account the diversity of situations and the scheming of people. I can therefore say that the stage introduced me to the idea of going out to the peripheries following the example of my formators; the confreres of my community of Serenje.
To go to the peripheries is intrinsic to our missionary vocation. As Pope Francis said so very well, “The Gospel joy which enlivens the community of disciples is a missionary joy.” (Evangelii Gaudium n°21), and he adds, “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel” (EG n°20). Certainly, we must go out and meet others but never losing sight of the ultimate goal, to be Christ’s witness. Therefore, in our exchanges, communication is essential, as is our linguistic knowledge, our experience of the life of the people and the challenges they face. All this offers us the ideal soil to better exemplify the Word of God and to let this Word take root and bear fruit.
Pope Francis also emphasises that this movement towards the peripheries signifies one’s readiness to allow oneself to be pushed in every direction, to be hurt, not to be in a position to have all the answers to the challenges facing us and to admit and recognise that very often others have found other promising ways that carry hope. Of course, it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel when someone else has already found a solution, from whence comes the importance to unite with others who, like us, are anxious to respond to the cries of pain calling out all around us.
To this movement of going out there is also that of being welcomed. Sometimes, outstretched arms await us. On the other hand, we should not always expect a good reception. Many episodes in the Acts of the Apostles remind us how Paul was very often rejected (Acts: 13, 50), imprisoned (Acts: 16, 23), and sometimes even stoned (Acts: 14, 19). To go to the peripheries demands a lot of courage, knowing that one should look for solid support through the prayer by which God offers us his grace, which allows us to continue our vocation of being a witness of Christ.
Certainly, to be welcomed is sometimes a challenge. However, we must add the need to know the one who welcomes. As Pope Francis says:
“A church which ‘goes forth’ is a Church whose doors are open. Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way. At times, we have to be the father of the prodigal son, who always keeps his doors open so that when the son returns he can readily pass through” (EG 46).
In this issue of the Petit Echo, some of our confreres share their experiences regarding this aspect of our missionary vocation. Let this sharing stimulate us as “we commit ourselves to those living on the peripheries in search of a more just world” (Capitular Acts 3. Mission: Dream p.26).
Martin Grenier, M.Afr.