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Intercultural mission is the only kind of mission there is, and intercultural living the only kind of real life there is.

Introduction: The Context of These Reflections

On August 18, 2017, I delivered the Keynote Address at the 2017 PanAm General Assembly at Techny, Illinois, USA. The talk was at the invitation of Zonal Coordinator Marcelo Cattaneo, who had asked me if I could reflect on three themes: the theme of the upcoming 2018 General Chapter, the theme of Interculturality (the theme of the 2012 General Chapter), and, from these perspectives the theme of Leadership in the SVD and the church today.

As I told the group at the outset of my talk, this was a “tall order”—to connect these themes together in a meaningful way in the three hours that had been allotted to me. As I prepared my reflections, however, it struck me that the focus of the talk should be the theme of Leadership, in the light of the other two.  This short summary, therefore, will have three parts: first, on the upcoming General Chapter theme; second, on Interculturality; and third, finally, on a leadership that is inspired and inspires Intercultural Living and Mission.

“The Love of Christ Impels Us”

The theme of the upcoming General Chapter, as we know, is “’The Love of Christ Impels Us’ (2Cor 5:14): Rooted in the Word, Committed to His Mission.” The first thing to recognize in reflecting on this theme is that the phrase “the love of Christ” is ambiguous. It refers first and foremost to the love that is Christ’s love for us, a love that, when we recognize it, becomes our love for him and so impels us to mission. As we read and contemplate the gospels, we recognize how Jesus was anointed by the Spirit at his baptism and so committed himself to bring a word of hope and joy to the poorest of the poor, liberation to those oppressed by powers beyond their control, and healing to those who suffer (see Lk 4). We recognize how Jesus paid attention to unimportant blind beggars, embraced repulsive lepers, and had compassion on widows and hungry crowds.

We read about Jesus’ parables of mercy, patience, generosity, and inclusion, and his openness to anyone and everyone. We read finally, because Jesus’ lifestyle scandalized the pious of his day, how Jesus was condemned to death and died for us “while we were yet sinners” (Rom 5:8), and yet, in his resurrection, was vindicated in his lifestyle of compassion, encounter, and tenderness. As we read and contemplate, we recognize that Jesus is indeed “God’s body language,” as British theologian Mark Oakley puts it, or, as Pope Francis has written, the “face of mercy.”

We recognize, in the words of Juan Luis Segundo, that “God is like Jesus”—that Jesus shows us concretely and powerfully who God is, and the depths and heights of God’s love. And so we fall in love with him, thus revealing the second meaning of “the love of Christ.” Realizing, then, both Christ’s great love for us and being swept up with love for him, we are “impelled” to do what he did, to share his mission.

That word “impel,” however needs to be explained. It does not mean to do something against our will—in fact, just the opposite. It means that we are inspired, bowled over, taken up, animated in that love, and so work among the poor as Jesus did, have the same sense of presence to people, the same sense of inclusion, patience, and mercy.

But as we are swept up in Christ’s mission, we realize that we need more and more to be rooted in the Word—the Word that is Incarnate in Jesus, and the Word that is in the scriptures, and so we root ourselves in that word, only to recognize that love more fully, and commit ourselves more completely to this person and his mission. I imagine this like a circle or a spiral into which we can enter at any point and go in any direction.

We can begin by contemplating the Word, as I suggested above, and then recognize Christ’s love, fall in love, and commit ourselves to mission. Or we could begin with the activity of mission, recognize that we need more depth in our rootedness in the Word, and so come to a deeper understanding of the love of Christ.

Or we could have an encounter with the Lord, imitate him in mission, and come to the Word for nourishment and strength. The circle becomes a spiral, and it goes from right to left, left to right—a rhythm in which we engage every day of our lives. I’ve even detected a connection with our SVD spirituality of prophetic dialogue and Pope Francis’ (and Aparecida’s) idea of “missionary discipleship.”

As we live a life of dialogue with those we serve (our dialogue partners), we are driven to a deeper personal relationship with the Incarnate Word and the Word of scripture, which leads us to live out Christ’s prophetic mission of preaching clearly and relevantly, offering a word of hope, becoming a community of justice, and fearlessly confronting any kind of injustice. This is “missionary discipleship,” or transforming missionary discipleship as we read in the second Guide to Communal Reflection from the Generalate. Such discipleship, rooted in the Word, is committed to intercultural mission.

Interculturality

Our Society has always been multi-cultural in fact—right from the moment of its foundation in Holland by a German with an Austrian/Italian/Ladino among the first members. Constitution 303.1 recognizes our internationality and our 1988 Chapter called us to “pass over” into other cultures and peoples.

Our 2012 Chapter, however, called us to go even further to live and do mission interculturally, becoming fully conscious now of what the word means and commits us to. Roger Schroeder, Tim Norton, and Adriana Milnanda, SSpS have done wonderful work in helping our congregations deepen our understanding of interculturality. They help us to see interculturality as a constant practice of being mutually enriched by each other and challenged by each other, and working for such enrichment and challenge in the communities in which we do mission. Interculturality is not only about culture, it is about race, about gender, and even generations. It is, as SVD anthropologist Jon Kirby points out, the constant cultivation of learning to deal honestly and creatively with difference.

Such a commitment to intercultural living and mission, however, is not just a result of being members of the Arnoldus Family. It is something deeply rooted in the dynamic of difference, communication, and communion of the Trinity as such. We are called to live the same rich life with others that the Trinity lives in the center of God’s Mystery, and which God promotes in the history of salvation.  Intercultural mission is the only kind of mission there is, and intercultural living the only kind of real life there is. This is a mission and life that calls for wise and skillful leadership—to inspire us to live interculturally and to inspire others to intercultural
living as well.

Intercultural Leadership for Intercultural Mission

Such leadership is, first of all, not mere management. As leadership studies are emphasizing today, leadership is really more than a skill or technique; its models are, according to leadership guru Peter Koestenbaum, “religion, art, politics, and love.” The task of leadership is to give a vision. Leaders’ concerns are with Mission; managers’ concerns are with Maintenance.

Other serious thinkers about leadership contrast “reactive leadership” with “creative leadership,” or “transactional leadership” with “transformative leadership.” Rooting such a theology of leadership in three major paradigm shifts in the last one hundred years—the shifts to the centrality of Trinitarian theology, to an ecclesiology of communion and mission rather than institution and structure, and to a cosmology of emergence in which God is understood not as “outside” the process manipulating it but “inside” persuading and urging it—we can see God as the leader of the universe, offering it a vision in the Reign of God proclaimed by Jesus, who founded a community whose lifestyle is so radical that, as Canadian Rudy Wiebe writes, “it is either the most stupid, foolish thing on earth, or it is so beyond [our] usual thinking that it could only come as a revelation right from God.”

It is the preaching, serving, and embodying this kind of community that is the missionary task of the church, and that task is essentially intercultural. It is to this mission and this constant deepening to which the love of Christ impels us. Leadership’s task in the SVD and SSpS is to inspire, envision, persuade our communities to take this intercultural vision seriously, and to help SVDs and Holy Spirit Sisters to be intercultural missionaries themselves. Such leaders, as Tim Norton writes, need to be “good listeners both to the people they are leading and to the Spirit that guides.” Our leaders, especially, need to be impelled by Christ’s love, calling their sisters and brothers to be rooted in the Word, and committed to his mission.

--- Fr. Stephen Bevans, SVD


Published in the newsletter “Arnoldus Nota”- October 2017