Diego Irarrazaval
Re-Foundation of mission - A Latin America Study


A reconstruction of missiology, in the Latin American context, is due to inter-religious dialogue; new paradigms; and theologies of Mestizo, Indigenes, and Black peoples. The Spirit is renewing and transforming each community, culture, and religion for the sake of a joyful humanity in the Earth, where the Spirit creates life. In this sense, missiology goes beyond colonial and neo-colonial structures so that once more we may accept the good news of liberation. Diego Irarrazaval, a theologian and pastor, has been working in Peru since 1975. He is director of the Institute of Aymaran Studies and author of Cultura y fe Latinoamericana and other books and articles.


May I share some feelings and insights so that we may all continue re­rooting mission? My words are not impartial nor impassionate. One of my steadfast convictions is that people who are looked upon as insignificant (and are considered "targets" of evangelisation) are in fact fabulous sources and communicators of the faith. Many ordinary persons are passionately involved in small and wonderful missionary tasks that contribute to the formation of a new humanity. My particular vision is due to a local church, and to socio­cultural and spiritual conditions in the Andes, and also due to collaboration in theological networks within and outside Latin America.

In our South American continent and elsewhere, we are entering a historical period that demands new actions and meanings of liberation (Gutiérrez, Gustavo, "La teologia: Una funcion eclesial", Paginas 1994, 130:15). The voices of the poor, of Indigenes, of Blacks, of Mestizos, and of women are beginning to transform our churches and mission. I believe that these plural­cultural­political religious voices do enrich the Christian tradition.

In this article I will discuss the contributions of other religions to Christian praxis, a particular and universal understanding of Christian faith, new paths and insights in emerging Latin American theologies, and conclude with discussing the claims on missiology.

I will underline a re­foundation, a re­rooting of mission. This happens if missionary endeavours develop a dialogue with the "little ones of the earth"; in this case mission builds on its roots and discovers a new horizon. It may even be said that ordinary people offer a reverse mission toward church workers and theologians.

Other Religions Revitalise Christianity

Most people who define themselves as Christians (and in a special way as Catholics) are simultaneously bearers of aspects of other religions. This is true among Mestizos, Indigenes, and Afro­American peoples, Amazonic groups, and urban majorities (with their syncretic and new religious phenomena). (cf. Moreira, A., and R. Zicman, Misticismo e novas religioes, Petropolis, Brazil: Vozes., 1994; essays by Hoornaert, E., P. Sanchis, and R Siepierski, Historia da Igreja na America Latina e no Caribe, Petropolis, Brazil: CEHILA/VOZES, 1995; and Parker, C. Otra logica en America Latina: Religion popular y modernizacion capitalista, Mexico City: Fonde de Culture Economica, 1993). A careful appraisal of our Christian situations shows that each person and group has some type of affiliation with another symbolic­religious system. The degree of participation in another religion depends on a variety of human and spiritual factors. On the other hand, these phenomena awaken much controversy (for example, syncretism in Latin America, new religious structures). Here I will take note only of contributions to the Christian tradition.

Let us consider one case: a ritual within a meeting of open­hearted Andean Christians (ethnically Quechua, Aymara, and Mestizo). I briefly describe a six­hour ritual, during the fifth annual workshop on Andean Theology: "Indigenous Community and Modern Changes" (1994). The participants were Peruvian and Bolivian active members and leaders of the Catholic Church, meeting in Ayaviri, Peru, as follows:

It is dark and very cold, as some 40 people walk up the slope of a holy mountain. We are participants in a theological workshop, together with members of lay societies devoted to the Virgin Mary and to the cross. We assemble on the top of the mountain. We tower above the city lights. Everyone shivers due to the cold wind; we are at an altitude of over 13,000 feet. Previously, in the meeting place we began the six­hour ceremony with the preparation of the offerings: one of incense for God; one offering of coca leaves, sweets, and flowers for Pachamama (Mother Earth); another offering for the ancestor spirit residing in this mountain; and one for the other sacred mountains. Each one prayerfully places the offerings of three coca leaves (with our personal and communal prayers of petition for family needs, economic well-being, health, etc.). Inside the chapel on the mountain top, led by a Roman Catholic priest indigenous to this area, we pray as we raise a plate of burning incense and light candles to the holy images, especially to Our Lady. There are some spontaneous prayers by members of the group. We enjoy meaningful silence and deep emotions. We then go out into the dark where some have prepared a fire with pieces of wood and dried animal dung. Now we are led by an indigenous religious leader (pako in the Quechua language) and two assistants. We pass from hand to hand the sacred cloths, containing the four offerings, and with fervour kiss each sacrificial bundle. We all address, in silence, the mystery that surrounds and penetrates our hearts. It is midnight and freezing cold. The pako places the four offerings in the fire, as sacrificial gifts from all of us. They are consumed by the sacred entities; it is a ritual banquet. We later go down the mountain, with our hearts full of faith, trust in life, and thanksgiving to God and to Mother Earth. We return to the meeting place where once again women share coca leaves with all those present (placing the leaves in one's mouth). We also share alcoholic drinks, most welcomed in that cold and joyous night; these drinks have a meaning of renewing bonds with all living beings.

All these symbols nourish our faith and our theology. However, one has to acknowledge the abyss separating Christian institutions (present here for more than 400 years) and indigenous structures. If there is some dialogue and interaction, it happens because of people's experience; their Christian praxis is poly­religious.

May I summarise some key contributions of people's indigenous religion to Latin American Christianity? Ritual activity carried out by Christians includes love of creation (called Mother Earth, soul of plants and trees, spirit of water, etc.). An ecological spirituality corrects an anthropocentric type of Christianity. Community (not the modern I­ism) is the basis of expressions of faith. Divine reality includes the feminine and the masculine, their reciprocity and their differences. Offerings to God, ancestors, and many sacred entities are due to reciprocity and a permanent experience of the mystery of life. Material and spiritual well­being are everybody's responsibility and there are abundant moments of peace sharing and of building relationships. Personal aspirations and needs of a poor population become a common human project and a celebration (what we often call liberation).

In general terms, several religious traditions are present in Latin American Christianity (its rituals, ethical perspectives, religious organisation, leadership, and indigenous wisdom). Because of them, the Christian faith becomes inculturated and present in these religions (we may say that faith becomes inter­religionised). Let us not forget that many of these elements have been part of our Andean­Black­American heritage, but were suppressed or marginalised by colonial or by neo­colonial structures. However, those elements are positive contributions to Christianity and allow its re-rooting. Moreover, it can be said that those non­Christian elements are ways in which the God of life is present among us (Cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, [The Church: 21 November, 1964], nn. 16, 17; Gaudium et Spes, [The Church in the Modern World: 7 December, 1965], n. 22; Nostra Aetate, [The Relationship of the Church to Non­Christian Religions, 28 October, 1965], nn. 1, 2, 4, 5; Pontifical Council for Inter­Religious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, 1991, nn. 19, 29); there is one history and mystery of salvation in all humanity, n. 35: the kingdom is present in members of other religious traditions). This implies that our church life and our missiology interact with other religions. Otherwise, our Christian community does not grow holistically, and does not enjoy all the manifestations of life's mystery.

A Particular­Universal Understanding of the Faith

The contemporary search for and the invention of paradigms taking place within the scientific community in fact express desires and praxis of common people. Everybody today is concerned about a healthy and meaningful existence. This concern, this passion, is growing day by day because we are not satisfied with the world as a total market full of individual absolutes (of I­isms). We seek life in the midst of societies where two­thirds of the scientists are involved in war­related enterprises and in marginal areas where most persons are sick, hungry, impoverished, and unorganised. So we all long for new realities, and for paradigms that show us the way toward the new. According to Leonardo Boff, the new paradigm is to see Earth as an unlimited community in which we are members, and here "the particular good arises from being in communion with the universal common good on our planet" (Boff, Leonardo, Principio­Terra, São Paulo, Brazil: Atica, 1995: pp. 36, 79).

I will now outline theological aspects of an Andean paradigm. It is a paradigm for daily existence and also for missiology. This is the product of a series of meetings in Bolivia and Peru from 1990 onward. [For a detailed presentation of this Andean paradigm, see Irarrazaval (1995 "Un pensar creyente: Minusculo y universal", Boletin del Instituto de Estudios Aymaras 49/50/51: pp. 61­94)]. With our modern sensibility we construct paradigms that cover the whole world. In the case of these Andean theological workshops, persons formulate "small" or particular paradigms with universal relevance. With this vision, missiology can be re­founded. Christian mission is given a new orientation. My outline has four aspects: ritual basis for thought; culture and liberation in a holistic perspective; modern responsibility; and names of the Deity.

People's rituals are the indispensable roots for the understanding of the faith and for its communication. So mission does not take rituals from one society to another context. Regarding Andean theology, it is nurtured by its own rituals and symbols; it is not limited to univocal concepts. As was stated in our workshops, "celebration is the model of human action"; "ritual, that is to say, life, is the place to do theology" (Irarrazaval, ibid., 1995, p. 70). This guarantees a missio-logy that is inseparable from spirituality and from community.

It is a holistic journey. All beings have links among themselves; culture is lived in the midst of history, reason and ethics interact with each other, etc. Andeans do not have dualisms (like Westerners), where one reality eliminates the other. They rather acknowledge difference, complementarily, and interaction. As has been said, "each culture is particular, but it has a universal vocation, and it builds relationships of equal rights with other cultures"; "culture and history blend well"; "theology is done within people's history ... discovering the message of Jesus for Andean culture" [Irarrazaval: "How Is Theology Done in Latin America?" Voices from the Third World 18 (1):59-78. EATWOT (Bangalore, India, 1995, pp. 77­78)]. Thus, there is no room for unilateral models, nor for dualistic thinking. Missiology is a holistic endeavour.

Modernity is assumed with critical eyes so that it benefits all. The Andean population fears that modernity may not leave room for their way of living. On the other hand, Andeans see it as a universal human project that is locally reinterpreted and transformed for the sake of everyone's well­being. According to the participants in our workshops: "modernity is like sowing; we choose the seeds, and seeds later give fruits", "from the standpoint of our culture we build a just world, since this is desired by all the poor" (Irarrazaval, ibid., 1995, pp. 79, 81). Thus, modernity is seen as a task in people's hands, without discrimination. There is no fatalism in the sense of a world market and social means of communication that set up absolutes for everybody. Andeans have their own paths and values which allow missiology to be original.

Finally, evangelisation and theology listen to a polyphony of names of God. It has been said: "we are the earth; sons and daughters of the earth"; "God is father and mother", "we live because we walk in the presence of the Creator, of good spirits, of Mother Earth", "communion with God in life and celebration, and not in one's mind"; "with Indigenous eyes and hearts we welcome Christ"; "the Son of God walks in the history of Andean peoples"; "the Holy Spirit is here ... and moves us to love without placing barriers" (Irarrazaval, ibid., 1995, pp. 82­83). It seems to me that these are expressions of a universal theology in inculturated images. No person or thing is excluded. All is taken into account, in its being real. Life's mystery is given different names and has concrete meanings. Therefore, missiology is polyphonic when it is faithful to mystery.

So we have a particular­universal paradigm. It does not conceptualise the faith with the arrogance of modern rationality. Rather, it approaches, loves, and understands God particular­universal with the eyes and hearts of the "little ones" in an Andean context. This implies that missiology is done prayerfully, in the midst of rituals, with the praxis and wisdom of common people, and also takes into account the modern critique. This paradigm also affirms reciprocity and differences between men and women in the human community and in its representations of the divine presence. Regarding liberation, it is understood as a daily task and as grace, as a way of being human in an Earth open to mystery. Through all these "small" or particular insights and symbols, Andean people have a universal significance; they place themselves in contact - and invite others to be in contact - with the ultimate foundations of the human condition, where the Spirit creates life.

New Paths and Insights

A common church procedure is to start from a message that is given to persons; likewise, theological inquiry explains a sacred source to a community. In both instances, specialists occupy all the space; People of God are considered objects of the proclamation and the teaching of the faith: there is no dialogue between the faithful and their ministers. We here have a unilateral hermeneutic; and mission also becomes unilateral.

But things have begun to change. In the past 30 years, small and alternative paths have been opened. The preferential option for the poor touches everything and everyone. The People of God are considered responsible for (and not targets of) mission and its theology.

In the Latin American context we now have our own theological tradition, methodology, spirituality, and ethics. We have new processes and new subjects celebrating the faith and doing theology. They open good roads. God is understood as being present and transforming our history and our identities. Unfortunately, what is being done is often misinterpreted as if it were only social change, or as being one more example of contextual thinking. What we have in our continent and elsewhere are new theological constructs, [cf. Irarrazaval, ibid., 1995 and other essays about world religions in that issue], which give a radical reorientation to missiology. Mission may now be rooted in the "other" (and not seen as a salvation of others); it is work done within the faith and thinking of the common people.

There are numerous paths that have a common thrust. All of these theologies are done out of love. Jon Sobrino calls it an "intellectus amoris" (Sobrino, J. El principio misericordia. Santander: Sal Terrae, 1992:71); it is from the standpoint of the heart, of communion, and of struggling together that we understand faith and we celebrate life's wonders.

In Indigenous theology, ritual (as mentioned above) is what gives birth to understanding. It is holistic and concrete because it has the symbols, narratives, and wisdom of communities. The Christian heritage is assumed and reconstructed. God's presence is felt in Mother Earth, in relationships with ancestors, and in all life­giving forces.

Black theology arises from the history and wisdom of Afro­Latin Americans. Its thinking is communitarian, underlining religious traditions together with struggles for justice and against all forms of dehumanisation and discrimination. God is one who strengthens Black women and men who encounter Christ in their own passion and resurrection.

In Mestizo theology, the history of salvation is understood in a special way through life stories. It considers symbols and daily spirituality of the people, underlining Marian devotions and also the reading of the Word by communities of faith. It affirms - in a similar way to Indigenous and Black thinking - a particular identity and community seeking universal salvation.

Theology done by women is also developing a gender perspective. It deepens a critique of patriarchal structures in society and church. Women's theology is relational: sharing life, being open to divine mystery, and inventing concrete, historical alternatives. The gender perspective allows women and men to reconstruct differences and co­relationships, to envision God and Jesus with the wisdom of each and of both genders, and to celebrate the Spirit's renewing the cosmos and all living beings.

These emerging Latin American essays strengthen and expand the original insights of God's loved ones, the "little ones", who are subjects of theology, as members of communities of faith. May I insist on this: today there is a spectrum of persons participating in the theological ministry: Indigenous and Black people, women, youth, Mestizos, Asian­Americans, etc., who are developing particular­universal paradigms. The Church in Latin America, formed mostly by poor and wise people, has abundant theological charisma and ministries.

All of us become responsible for the Earth and the well­being of humanity. Mission is therefore part of the cosmic and human journey, where the God of all peoples calls us to be church, sacrament of salvation. Regarding mission theology, it is not the private property of a few; it is rather being expressed in a polyphonic way by the whole People of God.

Claims on Missiology

My last section summarises what has been said in terms of the mission entrusted to us by God for the sake of freedom and joy for all human beings. Since other religions enrich the Christian life, then our mission may be inter­religious. A particular­universal paradigm calls for missionary inculturation of Christ and the Spirit. The emerging understandings of the faith arise from the proclamation of God's salvation according to many names. I will underline these three major claims.

May I here include a word of caution? Missiology deals with perspectives, debates, and a Christian discernment of what we do. In regards to policy and strategy, mission is in the hands of the church community and its hierarchy. So a theologian may offer insight, ministry, and systematisation; one does not set out guidelines.

The conclusions are both bold and realistic. I insist that there is a new paradigm; common people are potential and real communicators and thinkers; they cannot be treated as objects of evangelisation and theology. But in the midst of every people there is evil, lack of obedience to the Message and to the Spirit, human and spiritual mistakes, sin. So mission carried out by the people is not the last word. The first and last word belong to God; they belong to a divine Message placed in the heart of the Christian church.

Realism also implies facing gigantic obstacles to mission. Modernity is in part a secular phenomenon, but it is also mostly polytheistic. Its world market and its I­ism function as secular absolutes. Today's progress includes symbols that are incompatible with the Beatitudes. Moreover, churches are very involved in religious "marketing". At times evangelisation fosters spiritual consumerism, instead of communion with the Creator­Spirit. Since we face these huge obstacles, it is necessary - as suggested by Jose Comblin - to "work like ants" in the midst of challenging contexts (Comblin, J. Cristaos rumo ao seculo XXI: Nova caminhada de libertacoo, São Paulo, Brazil: Paulinas, 1996: 373). Yes, we are called to behave like clever ants and to boldly reformulate mission. What realistic projects are ahead of us? Allow me to draw conclusions from the first three sections of my essay.

1. In Latin American and Caribbean contexts, as Christians we share elements with - and of - other religions. Mission can favour interaction among religions. In this interaction, Christian faith (with its religious mediations) is offered to all people, because we believe that in Christ humanity dies and rises. At the same time, other religions have specific input for everyone's experience of salvation. This implies that religions do not merely coexist, nor that we resign ourselves to religious pluralism. Speaking in positive terms, an inter­religious dialogue can deepen communion within the mystery of life, due to the contribution of each human­religious tradition. In terms of our Christian symbols and beliefs, we acknowledge elements of different religions present in our communities (in their particular identities and histories).

2. As missionaries we communicate the truth as we discover it present in people's understanding of the faith. Any communication has cultural, gender, economic, and other components. These components are not the unchangeable Gospel, but they can be signs pointing toward the truth. For example, in the Andean understanding of the Christian faith, there are numerous sacred entities. When one proclaims salvation in Christ, one can remember local beliefs in protectors within nature and in ancestors who take care of us. Personally, I can now relate more intimately with the cosmic Christ and with the communion of saints because of what Indigenous people are teaching me. On the other hand, Indigenous communities that receive the message about the body of Christ may discover christological meanings in their relationship to Mother Earth.

3. Evangelisation and mission are - and should be more - in the hearts, hands, and mouths of common people. Jesus handed over his mission to "insignificant" people; the Church must do likewise today. Each Christian community has its gifts from the Spirit, its theologies, and its talents for the task of evangelisation. In the Latin American plural­cultural and plural­religious scenario, the missionary vocation belongs not to an élite nor to foreigners, but to Mestizos, Blacks, Indigenes, Whites, Asiatics, and in a special way to youth and to women (who are de facto doing the good work). They, with their community experience, religions, cultures, and theologies, are the main bearers of the Good News. But they are also handicapped. Often they assimilate and reproduce our colonial and neo­colonial church structures. Another problem is the powerful influence of foreign personnel and methodologies. So it is always necessary to reformulate and re­root missionary endeavours. How is this reconstruction done according to the Spirit of Christ? The Spirit is the source of inculturation and liberation in our mission, renewing and transforming each Christian community, each culture and religion. Because we live in the Spirit, we say that Christ is the Saviour of humankind and the heart of heaven and earth.

These and other major claims on mission are - I believe - promptings of the Spirit like tongues of fire in today's Pentecost. The warmth and courage of the Spirit is received by the "little ones of the earth". In spite of - and as a protest against - marginalisation and violence, people continue celebrating life. They also demand from the Church and from missiology that the joy of faith be the foundation of all.

Ref.: Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXV, No. 1, January 1997.