Missionary work is cultural as well

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  • May 25, 2011

The first Jesuits in North America arrived 400 years ago. In 1611, two Jesuit priests arrived in what is now Nova Scotia, a few months after the local Mi’kmaq chief decided to be baptized along with his family, becoming the first aboriginal Christians in Canada. With the conversion of the chief, the first Jesuits found a secure welcome and lived with the Mi’kmaq for several years. Consequently the quatercentenary emphasized the initial encounter between the Jesuits and the Mi’kmaq. But as reported in The Catholic Register (Jesuits mark 400 years of ministry in Canada), the Mi’kmaq were not only looking to the past. They want the Jesuits to help with the future.

“Maybe it’s time for the Mi’kmaq to ask for your help in preserving our language,” said Grand Keptin Antle Denny. Young people do not learn their mother tongue; indeed the new mother tongue is English for about 70 per cent of Mi’kmaq. Their historic tongue will be extinct within 20 years.

What the Jesuits can do about that is not clear. Yet the Mi’kmaq were on to something — there is a longstanding connection between Christian missionaries and the preservation and enrichment of indigenous languages.

More than 10 years ago I was visiting Catholic orphanages, hospitals, clinics and schools in Zimbabwe and meeting with local Catholic leaders. Some of the European missionary priests were working on translating English liturgical books into the local language. I was puzzled why the native speakers of these indigenous dialects did not take on this task themselves — after all they spoke the local dialect and English too. Why then would the foreign missionaries do this difficult work, which first involved learning the local tongues with sufficient mastery, to say nothing of the complicated task of translation?

The answer was that these tribal languages were not written languages, but purely oral. There was no tradition of writing them and the local speakers thought it something of a foreign preoccupation to want to do so. Yet without a written form, the language remained limited to a certain locality and it was difficult to exchange concepts and ideas with other cultures and languages, as the language remained inaccessible to others. So the missionaries first learned the language orally, then had to devise its written alphabet and grammar, and finally express the Gospel in it. It was literary work, a cultural work and an evangelical work. That threefold work has been done by missionaries all the world over throughout history. Thus the preaching of the Gospel not only transforms a culture, but protects its own linguistic expression. Hence the Mi’kmaq intuition that the heirs to the Jesuit missionaries could help them is a historically grounded one.

The great highpoint of such cultural work in the Catholic tradition was the evangelization of the Slavic people by Sts. Cyril and Methodius, brother missionaries who also were pioneers of the Slavonic language.

“The work of evangelization which they carried out as pioneers in territory inhabited by Slav peoples contains both a model of what today is called inculturation — the incarnation of the Gospel in native cultures — and also the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church,” wrote Blessed John Paul in his encyclical on the great missionary brothers. “By incarnating the Gospel in the native culture of the peoples which they were evangelizing, Sts. Cyril and Methodius were especially meritorious for the formation and development of that same culture, or rather of many cultures. Indeed all the cultures of the Slav nations owe their ‘beginning’ or development to the work of the Brothers from Salonika. For by their original and ingenious creation of an alphabet for the Slavonic language the brothers made a fundamental contribution to the culture and literature of all the Slav nations. Furthermore, the translation of the sacred books, carried out by Cyril and Methodius together with their pupils, conferred a capacity and cultural dignity upon the Old Slavonic liturgical language, which became for many hundreds of years not only the ecclesiastical but also the official and literary language, and even the common language of the more educated classes of the greater part of the Slav nations.”

Whether in eastern Europe in the ninth century, North America in the 17th century or Africa in the 20th century, the missionary activity of the Church remains always cultural activity as well. The incarnate Word breathes new life into all words, opening languages to new concepts, broadening horizons and creating new possibilities.

The Mi’kmaq project may not be a feasible one, for the Jesuits or anyone else. But the Mi’kmaq were wise to ask.

(Fr. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island and chaplain at Newman House at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)

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