Mission/Evangelization and Colonialism/Imperialism

I was recently interviewed for GIA Publications’ “Encore” podcast, and was asked to name some of the highlights of my thirty-year tenure in the field of liturgy/music publishing.

One of the highlights I mentioned was getting to work with Lucien Deiss, CSSp, for a number of years. He was, of course, selected by Pope Paul VI to coordinate the work on the Lectionary psalter after Vatican II. In the U.S. he was most widely known as the composer of a number of Biblical Hymns and Psalms (in two volumes). Some knew him as a Patristics scholar, particularly as that field pertained to the liturgical movement of the 20th century. I also knew he was a motorcycle-riding former member of the French Resistance in World War II, who’d taught himself English on top of the six other languages he knew, and who frequently fell asleep in my car after dinner, when I’d return him to his hotel.

In my interview, I remarked how Fr. Deiss was also, perhaps, the holiest person I’d ever met, and how—despite his work and achievments in other areas—he was most fervently dedicated to his religious order’s missionary work, especially among the poorest of the poor. It was the multiple times he’d contracted malaria in South America and Africa that led to the weakening of his heart, which ultimately caused his death.

Nearly twenty years later, as I was talking about him in the interview and the word “missionary” came out of my mouth, it felt and sounded quite different, a bit unfamiliar. It later occurred to me that even with all the discussion of evangelization going on around me, the words “mission” or “missionary” aren’t a regular part of my vocabulary.

I am old enough to have helped purchase “pagan babies” in grade school, and in my education/formation had Vatican II’s openness to the culture and traditions of “mission” lands (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 37–41) for the work of liturgical/musical inculturation held up as exemplary. As I studied, and matured—and came to know how little I knew—the Constitution’s Eurocentric/imperialistic basis slowly made the Council’s work and views on inculturation (groundbreaking as they were), slowly lose their sheen.

Some aspects of this resonated even more strongly as I read recently about the Southern Baptist Convention adoption of their “Great Commission” rebranding, even as they struggled with racism, racial reconciliation and acception/rejection of Critical Race Theory, sexual abuse, misogyny, and abusive autocracy within their denomination.

In one of the “Great Commission” articles I read, the phrase “to seek the lost” recurred, as both central to the SBC’s history and their current work in evangelization. Again, similarities with Roman Catholicism were striking, and in both cases no doubt have been prompted by what is happening in the surrounding culture as much as within the denomination itself.

As with so many other matters, who we define as “the lost” can have numerous threads of racial supremacy, cultural colonialism, sacral imperialism, and other biases woven into its warp and woof. Are “the lost” those who do not know/accept/believe in Christ? Are my Jewish or Muslim next-door neighbors “lost” though they attend their houses of worship regularly? Perhaps the “lost” are those who once participated in Christianity but no longer do (in at least some cases due to the behavior of Christianity itself). What about my many professional music acquaintances who exist somewhere on the agnostic-atheist spectrum? To be honest, most of them don’t seem any more “lost” than I am, at least in terms of how they live and treat others day-by-day.

Even within the Body of Christ, delving into topics like appreciation of the gifts of cultures other than my own can get tricky. Though I may reach across cultural boundaries in order to avoid remaining isolated in a cultural silo, how do I enrich the life of faith without unhealthy cultural appropriation? Most of church history is, after all, the story of cultural sharing and appropriation, though often through harmful or outright violent subjugation. In these latter instances, the sin must be forthrightly acknowledged, confessed, atoned for, and tangibly opposed into the future.

In the U.S. we also need to examine the tendency to pair our nationalism with our faith, which has sometimes led to an assimilation of Christ into Empire, as has happened frequently in Christianity’s history. Along with moving past (or at least finding complements for) an image of God as a white guy on a cloud-borne throne, it may be time to move on from the belief that God blesses one nation more than another, and thereby condones our wars, our economic violence, eventually our genocide. As deep links between white supremacy and some Christians in the U.S. are uncovered, we simultaneously learn for how much of our history we’ve actually been a tacit theocracy.

Moving through the twenty-first century, one of the most substantive challenges will be to live peacefully and fruitfully in a truly pluralistic society, while keeping a central role and integrity for the Christian faith in our lives. To evangelize in this context will simultaneously take fervor and finesse, and to me it seems like prayers to the Holy Spirit for these two additional gifts might be called for. Likewise, understanding “mission” in the context of a truly interdependent global community (vs. a European-based dispensary of all that is good, true, and beautiful) will take those same character traits.

I still count my years working with Fr. Deiss as a personal and professional highlight—more importantly, a spiritual one as well. As with all the pioneers of the liturgical renewal, we honor their work by studying it, accepting its gifts, not dismissing but learning from its shortomings, finding our own humanity and limitations therein, singing (as Augustine put it) “as pilgrims on a journey” all the while.


  1. I think you have a straw man here. The field of missiology has grappled with many of these questions over the past century. I don’t know of anybody who would argue any longer that domination is in any way the goal or the means of evangelization.

    Yes, there have been dark chapters in history and we don’t want to repeat them. But we should not judge by the worst of our past but rather look to the best. Think, for example, of Charles de Foucault. Outstanding humility. Arising from the heart of Christian faith.

    The breakthroughs of Vatican II would never have happened if it were not for missionaries. The bishops from mission lands were the ones who genuinely moved the ball forward in discussion after discussion. Today Pope Francis draws from “the peripheries” and appeals very often to the witness of missionaries who have sought out the neglected and reviled innocents whom the powers of the world have dismissed. This is Christian mission, a precious heritage. Plenty of people remain “lost” in prosperous lands too; morally lost, personally desperate, living lives of despair. The opening of Gaudium et spes remains a vital call to compassionate engagement that brings the good news to life.

  2. Are we not missionaries where we are? Why are we not living as Lumen Gentium’s priests, prophets, king, as perfectly imperfectly as we can, at any moment? Collars and veils are not the sole components of Church.

    In interfaith dialog and community my Islamic siblings know precisely that i stand with them in every pain, sorrow, joy and celebration; they feed me and bring me water, men even braking Ramadan fast to do so, when i stand at the mosque gate in silent support and witness. They know when Covid possible i will pray again with them in the women’s prayer loft. My neighbor’s mother invited me to come to Saudi Arabia to speak to the women’s group in her mosque. None of them have ever met a catholic Catholic, nor had a Protestant colleague who is now a Racine Dominican associate.

    I held tenderly the pain of Anishinaabe siblings’ intergenerational PTSD at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto, 3 years before 125 bodies of missionary boarding school children were recovered, while acknowleging that the papal bull the Doctrine of Discovery firmly laid Catholic princely colonialism at the feet of the institutional Church.

    Our pastoral theology going forward (which is, IMHO, the only footwashing servant leadership that offers life to the dying RCC organism) is Peter Phan’s how to live together separately, or inculturation. Everything else is commentary.

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