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Michael Sievernich {*}

"God's Pilot Project"

A Discussion about Mission with Pastoral Theologian Michael Sievernich


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 7/2009, P. 340-344
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Since a few years in the German Church the sense for mission as the essential task of the church seems to grow. We talked with the Mainz pastoral theologian and missiologist Michael Sievernich about the reasons for this renaissance resp. long abstinence and about the question of what we can learn for today from the mission history. The interview was conducted by Alexander Foitzik.


HK: Father Sievernich, at the latest with the declaration of the German Bishops' Conference "Zeit zur Aussaat" [Time for Sowing] of 2000 the topic of mission has gained new attention in the German Church. And so the Catholics in this country are regularly reminded of greater missionary zeal. Has this intense promoting and appealing already lead to a significant missionary awakening?

Sievernich: After the Bishops' Conference had for a long time abstained from the mission issue, it was time - especially in view of the new century - to place the subject back on the agenda. This unintentionally happened ecumenically, because the Protestant Church in Germany published its document "Das Evangelium unter die Leute bringen" [Spread the Gospel among People] simultaneously with the initiative of the Catholic bishops and their document "Time for Sowing".



In the mid-nineties the Catholic Bishops of France published the paper "Proposer la foi" (to bring faith up for discussion). There are several initiatives to bring up again this topic. Furthermore, the document of the Bishops' Conference "To All Peoples His Salvation" of the year 2004 has to be mentioned. Its theme is the mission of the Universal Church and therefore directs the attention "ad extra". In any case, it was time to take up the topic again and so doctrinally to support the renaissance of the idea of mission.

HK: Can you give some concrete signs of such a renaissance?

Sievernich: Already for a fairly long period a number of practical developments can be noticed which indicate the relevance of the mission topic. In Germany e.g. in the parishes thousands of committees are engaged in the area of "mission, development and peace". In addition, many young motivated people are amenable to international voluntary services, especially programs such as "Missionar oder Missionarin auf Zeit" (MaZ) [Fixed-term Missionary], which are carried out for many years with increasing success. Or take the world-wide church partnerships of German dioceses like Aachen, Freiburg, Hildesheim or Trier as well as of numerous parishes. Here a lot of new things emerged, quite apart from the classic missionary initiatives of the religious Orders. All these things point to a new sense of mission that is taken up and reinforced by the bishops' appeals.

HK: At present these appeals seem to be rather directed towards the mission "ad intra". In a letter of the Erfurt Bishop Joachim Wanke, which the bishops attached to their statement "Time for Sowing" it says alarmingly, the Church in Germany was mainly lacking the conviction "to be able to win new Christians." Do you see here too indications of a missionary awakening?

Sievernich: First I see a problematic "schism" between the missionary efforts in Germany and the worldwide mission. One is often not aware of the mutual relationship of those two dimensions. The problem lies precisely here! Of the missionary task in your own country you can only be aware with the necessary sharpness if you get involved in what differs from yourself, if you therefore give much more attention to the missionary universal church - not in an escapist way but, please note, in your personal interest. Above all, you have to realize - the keyword of the mission on all continents means just this - that mission does not only happen in faraway countries of Asia or Africa but on all continents, also on the so-called Catholic continent Latin America and also in the old European countries.

HK: What does connect the mission beyond all the boundaries?

Sievernich: Each generation must anew acquire the faith. The fact that our ancestors passed on the faith is a good pre-condition, but no guarantee that also the current generations come to faith. The inculturation of the faith is therefore necessary everywhere in the world. In Europe we need an inculturation of the faith in our culture of the late modern age; Africans need an inculturation in their cultures and so on. As different as these tasks are, so they all are working on the same question, namely how the belief can be translated in the various cultures and passed on to future generations, and how it at the same time remains the identical Christian faith.

HK: What can be learnt for this task of inculturation from the mission history?

Sievernich: Today the history of mission is rather regarded with scepticism or harshly criticized, because it is associated with coercion and violence. These dark sides unfortunately exist but do not make up the whole thing. If you look at 2000 years of Christianity and its mission history, you discover an enormous variability of inter-cultural and inter-religious encounter, depending on the era and culture. From this history you can learn something for the missionary activity in the present, whether from the mission among pagans in the late antiquity or among German peoples, whether from Francis of Assisi's mission among Muslims, the mission among Indians by Bartolomé de las Casas or Matteo Ricci's mission by science in China.

HK: What do we learn about certain mission methods?

Sievernich: The simple testimony of someone's life can already be missionary, even without words. Take only Charles de Foucauld's silent testimony among Muslims in North Africa. Mission can also happen in the family environment, if a Christian acquaints her husband and her family with the faith. Today we relatively often find examples of children and young people coming to faith and interesting their "distant" parents again for it.



An aesthetically attractive way of celebrating the liturgy was also and is of great importance in the mission, just as much as the attractiveness of the Christian parishes and communities. Add to it the professional practices of the missionaries who come mostly from religious orders. There are therefore many different missionary methods, which all have one thing in common: compulsion and coercion are generally excluded, because mission is based on freedom. Mission means to address so convincingly the other person in his/her freedom that s/he is free to decide in favour of faith.

HK: But what is against this background to think of the often heard complaint that in this country the average believer has no missionary awareness and zeal?

Sievernich: It is difficult to judge whether there is a lack of missionary enthusiasm. First, devout people are to take care of the fire in their souls - pastoral care as taking care of oneself. And then the word applies, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." (Lk 6, 45). Moreover, we must relearn - and this is a long learning process - that mission is not only a matter of trained specialists but a task of the entire people of God. The whole Church is missionary, the Council says in "Ad gentes". Each member of the church should therefore care about his/her contribution, knowing that everyone is able to contribute something to the mission of the Church.


"We Must Not Bemoan the Passing of the People's Church of the Fifties"

HK: It says often that we are here too much occupied with ourselves, too much focussing on our own problems to be able to give testimony in this sense...

Sievernich: This aspect is certainly important. We have - best from one's own experience - to sharpen our awareness of the universal church, then our local parish-pump problems are relativized and we get greater staying power and greater motivation.

HK: There is a specific diagnosis behind many a call to greater missionary commitment - the key word "Germany - Mission Country". There is, on the one hand, a deep-reaching crisis of passing on the Christian faith and on the other hand an alleged new religious open-mindedness, many and diverse social trends to "produce religion". And then it says that you had simply to take up the latter. Is Germany as a mission country already described correctly?

Sievernich: "Mission Country Germany" is at first just a quote. It was first introduced by Alfred Delp in the forties, and then taken up again by Ivo Zeiger after the war at the first Catholic Congress in Mainz in 1948. On that occasion it was about the signs of disintegration of the People's Church in Germany, or the denominational mixing by the internal migration after the war. In France too there was already in the forties some talk about France as mission country, as a result of laicity and secularism. In this respect you can take up the keyword, but not in the meaning of that time. Today we have very different problems. We live in a secular country, in the situation of the late modern age. Christianity has anew to be inculturated in it and, to be precise, it has to do it without tearful sentimentality and without any lament or even accusation.

HK: Is the diagnosis of the religious state of our country at present painted altogether in too gloomy colours?

Sievernich: We must not bemoan the passing of the People's Church of the fifties, because it cannot be the ideal for today's church. We have rather to see the chances of the current situation. But it is often only described as a crisis, by the way, a permanent crisis; and it is described as a shortage situation: from the priest shortage up to the lack of believers. This perspective measures with parameters of past times and leads to self-pity and paralysis. Instead, let us understand the current situation as given to us and as a task, as a transformation process that we are not to complain about but trustingly to form.

HK: How can this process of change be described positively, without the usual patterns of loss?

Sievernich: The religious landscape is without doubt changed by many factors. Often it says that religion returned, but it does not return because it has never disappeared. Since one liberally classifies religion as belonging to privacy, one is surprised that it occurs in public, and that papal action and death become media events. The Catholicism in Germany also undergoes processes of change. You can see them e.g. from the different environments that in the so-called "Sinusstudie" become visible through the crossing of social situations and basic orientations. In the discussion of this Sinusstudie one has primarily lamented that the Catholic Church was only represented in a few milieus, above all in the middle-class and conservative one. This complaint overlooks that missionary starting-points exist in all milieus, whether it is about the mystique of the "Modern Performers" or the belief in angels of the "hedonists". The old pastoral wisdom applies: Take people first as they are; do not reproach them if they are not so as you would like that they were. Anything else would be a wrong missionary-pastoral approach.

HK: How are you to imagine a missionary or mission-sensitive pastoral care? The Bishops' Conference has just established even an "Office for Missionary Pastoral Care" in Erfurt.



Sievernich: The first principle of a missionary pastoral care would exactly be to accept for the time being people of different backgrounds as they are and to start from it. Paul has already done this at the Areopag in Athens. A missionary pastoral care is further distinguished by the fact that it not only practises the traditional forms of the usual parish pastoral care, but in addition develops in the urban context an urban pastoral care which sees the city as a whole, and does not fragment it into individual parishes with a comparable program. Moreover, to overcome the aforementioned "schism" it would be good, if that Erfurt Office for Missionary Pastoral Care co-operated with the new Frankfurt Institute for the Universal Church and Mission which the Bishops' Conference has far-sightedly got under way.


"It does not matter that the whole world becomes Catholic"

HK: What is the particularly missionary feature in this missionary pastoral care?

Sievernich: A missionary pastoral care leaves the defensive and goes ahead offensively. This means that the Church and Christians do no longer apologize for existing at all. It is a pastoral care stemming from the deep conviction that the Church has a message and a mission that has to be shown offensively, i.e. openly and publicly. This can of course happen in very different ways: in the way of the word, the testimony of life, an inspiring liturgy, a sermon rich in substance, a good social work, a charitable gesture, a well-run Catholic kindergarten or a convincing religious education - there are thousands of ways to give witness and to spread the Christian faith.

HK: But we, the non-professionals nevertheless have obviously trouble with being missionary offensively. Where do these difficulties come from?

Sievernich: In the document "Ad Gentes" the Second Vatican Council has made a new approach in understanding mission. Simultaneously with the Council the painful process of decolonization took place, the decolonization of the European colonies. This de-colonization was often connected with the demand for ending the missionary work [De-Missionierung]. The 19th century and the first half of the 20 century were totally moulded by the unhappy connection between colonization and Christianization, especially in Africa and Asia. It is therefore understandable that already at the beginning of the 20 century the Protestant missionary Albert Schweitzer called the atonement for the sins of colonialism the motive of his medical work in Africa. During the decolonization many people called for a moratorium on the theology of mission. This position has moulded the last half century and is firmly rooted in the general awareness, and so Christian "mission" is still to a large extent negatively connoted. Only at the turn of the century we were again in the position to see history with its light and dark sides and to rethink the mission of the church, which is indispensable. Without missionary verve the church would not only lose its vitality but also its identity.

HK: How does the Church here in Germany look like, if it becomes even more aware of its missionary task?

Sievernich: The Council and Paul VI in his apostolic letter "Evangelii nuntiandi" of 1975 have taken up the beautiful, biblical keyword of evangelization, which seemed long forgotten. Evangelization is today the crucial keyword, since it describes various processes. Every evangelization that wants to acquaint others with the gospel requires a self-evangelization. That is the basic requirement of any credible missionary activity. Again, evangelization does not only affect other distant continents, but also happens in our neighbourhood. Those who e.g. in the mass media public stand by their being Catholics give already testimony.

HK: When is this self-evangelizing evangelization successful?

Sievernich: Evangelization is successful, if testimony and message fall on good ground and grow in individuals or groups. This cannot be forced, because evangelizing can only prepare the way but not replace the work of the Spirit who is blowing where It likes it, sometimes even contrary to expectation. In his mission encyclical "Redemptoris Missio" of 1990 also John Paul II has emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in mission affairs. Here it is not about taking the missionary task off oneself by referring it to the Holy Spirit but about preparing with others the openness to Christ and his Gospel, in the hope that they become "enthusiastic".

HK: Can the number of joinings, baptisms and church membership also be a measure of success and failure of missionary or evangelizing activity? What is the purpose of mission?

Sievernich: What matters are primarily neither numbers nor that the whole world becomes Catholic. What matters, however, is that in all cultures a Christian presence exists in the form of witnesses and parishes, of praying and charitably active Christians, of Christian places and missionary men and women. In all cultures of the world everyone should have the opportunity to become acquainted authentically with the Christian faith and with devout Christians. You can confidently leave it to the Holy Spirit whether and how the enthusiasm is communicated to the individual and whether s/he joins the church.



The goal is the Christian presence in many places and in all cultures, so that all seekers are able to encounter Christ in their lives.

HK: But sometimes it seems that in this country the renewed focus on mission is connected with the crisis of the church, which has been experienced in many ways. Is not the hope of recruiting new members behind many a mission appeal?

Sievernich: To win new church members is a legitimate goal of Christian mission. But it is valid on principle, in good and less good times. We have a diminishing Christianity in Europe, not least because of demographic reasons. Going to Africa or Asia, one finds a completely different situation. In Africa, Christianity is growing significantly faster than the population increases. The same is true for some parts of Asia, and in Latin America there are very dynamic processes. The one who today is talking about mission has to see the Universal Church and must not only stare at our Europe. And if Europe does no longer stare at itself and thus gets paralysed but allows its gaze to wander over the colourful abundance of the Universal Church, it will find resp. find again the religious core of its identity and its missionary task in the global context.

HK: How is the German Catholics' openness to the Universal Church? The credentials given to the faithful, e.g. by the pros of the institutions and religious orders, is normally not that bad.

Sievernich: The German Church's openness to the Universal Church makes up its strength. However, the institutional strength causes the risk to delegate Universal Church and mission to the great relief organizations. But missionary awareness is the responsibility of each Christian, of all Catholics and parishes.

HK: In "Time for Sowing" imperturbability is mentioned as one aspect of a missionary spirituality. Do we gain this composure from looking at the history and mission resp. from the perspective of the Universal Church?

Sievernich: I think so. Take e.g. the early history of Christianity up to the Emperor Constantine. That is the time in which Christianity came into being in a small corner of the Roman Empire. Within three centuries, in spite of public non-recognition resp. in spite of persecution, the new strong-willed, bright and attractive religion of the late antique developed from a tiny minority group. The intensive process of spreading has its origin only partly in professional missionaries, but to a good part also in a "capillary" mission method, i.e. through contacts within the family or the circle of friends, within the professional sphere of mobile merchants and relocated military as well as elegant ladies or sold slaves. These processes went off without any coercion, through the attractiveness of the messianic Saviour. Or you can look - this too gives composure - at Europe's process of Christianization, which began with Paul of Tarsus and Lydia of Philippi and then took about 1500 years. Everything takes time. Mission as a religious process of communication also served and serves, whether in Europe, America, Asia or Africa, the global exchange of cultures, languages and religions, the linkage of places, the transfer of knowledge, and orientation. The Christian missionary activity is an essential positive element, perhaps God's pilot project in the one world and humanity getting together.

    {*} The Jesuit Michael Sievernich (born in 1945) teaches as Professor of Pastoral Theology at the University of Mainz and as an honorary professor at St Georgen, Graduate School of Philosophy and Theological in Frankfurt. He is adviser of the Commission X (Universal Church) of the German Bishops' Conference. Numerous publications on questions of theology, pastoral care and universal church; at the beginning of July the book "Die Christliche Mission. Geschichte und Gegenwart" will be published by the Wissenschaftlichen Buchgesellschaft (Darmstadt).


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