Pio Estepa, SVD
Aspects of Missio ad Gentes
(April 2005)

Born in the Philippines, PIO ESTEPA, SVD, was ordained a priest in 1978. He worked as a ‘bush missionary’ in Congo from 1981-1984, and as an urban pastor in Mexico City from 1995-1999.
He has an MA in philosophy, a diploma in social communication, and a PhD in social sciences. He served as lecturer of sociology and missiology in the Pontifical Gregorian University [Rome, 1993-1995], Christ the King Seminary [Manila, 1992-1993], Centro de Reflexión Teológica and Universidad Intercontinental [Mexico D.F., 1995-2000], Pacific Regional Seminary [Fiji, 2000], and Yarra Theological Union [Melbourne 2001-2003].
Fr Estepa is a full member of the Anthropos International. Since September 2003 he is serving as Secretary General of the Society of the Divine Word.


WHAT DOES missio ad gentes mean? In other words, what is our mission as Church among any people, of any culture, at any period of history? None has so far outdone the answer of classic theology that sums up that mission in just three Greek words: kerygma, diakonia and koinonia. Kerygma means to share – out of faith – the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ ‘in season or out of season’ (2 Tim 4:2). Diakonia means to help – out of love – all who suffer, preferentially the poorest marginalized by society. Koinonia means to gather – out of hope – in ways that our fellowship as believers preview and foretaste the Peace of God’s Reign. These three concepts refer to the ‘constants’ or perennial aspects of our ecclesial mission.

Constants of Missio ad gentes

On the other hand, the added phrase ad gentes implies the ‘variables’ – the changing settings in which that perennial mission needs to be fulfilled in creative fidelity. So what are such variables in today’s world? At this dawn of a new millennium, a growing number of thinkers claim that we no longer live in an age of rapid and radical changes. Rather, so they say, we are now living through a rapid and radical change of ages. Economists, for example, speak of the historic shift from industrial to ‘postindustrial’ society. Experts in social communication prefer to label it as a transition from literate to ‘post-literate’ culture. Finally, artists and social scientists prefer to describe it as a counter­cultural movement from modern to ‘postmodern’ ethos. If these claims are true, then perhaps the Catholic Church needs to convene a Third Vatican Council to discern anew the ‘signs of the times’.

Variables of Missio ad gentes

The topic I was asked to expound is ‘aspects of missio ad gentes’. With what I have briefly said so far, surely you will agree that this title bites off much more than it can chew in a quarter hour. So I propose to limit the focus of this last reflection on just one constant – that of kerygma … and to discuss it in the light of a timely variable – that of postmodernity. Given these limits of theme and time, we can now precisely state our central question as follows: in what meaningful way(s) can we hand down the Gospel to an emerging generation of postmodern peoples?

Central question of the paper

LET ME start an answer by narrating a personal experience. Ten years ago, I went to Taizé for spiritual retreat. As I prepared to leave the village, a monk of the community requested me to stay a day more and serve as translator. So there I was among an assembly of some 30 youngsters from France, Germany, and USA. When asked what Christian traditions they belonged to, they laughed. Some readily admitted to be no longer churchgoers since their late teens; others would not even want to identify with any religion.

After his talk, the monk started an open discussion by saying: ‘By the way you presented yourselves to one another a while ago, most of you seem to be post-Christians’. These youngsters welcomed his quip with friendly applause and laughter. Then he went on, ‘So please tell me.... What of Christianity still attracts you?

Generational Missio ad Gentes

The first ones to talk were the American youngsters for whom I was translating. Before coming to Taizé, they sauntered through Rome as tourists without guides. They recalled their visit to the Sistine Chapel... the awe they felt upon seeing with their own eyes the Creation of Adam and the Last Judgment – known paintings of Michelangelo. In turn their French and German peers echoed on what was so far said, this time by way of auditory experiences. How ‘religiously’ haunting, so they said, were Schubert’s Ave Maria or Händel’s Messiah … or the plain chants of the monastic community in Taizé.

In short, their varied stories were commonly saying: an esthetic aah! spurred them onwards to some meaningful aha! That may sound like a gigantic leap of abstraction. So let us retrace our steps back to the world of concrete experience. I invite you now to ponder for yourselves what may have touched them as masterpieces of both art and faith....

Are post-moderns Post-Christians?

Powerpoint Presentation on Michelangelo’s Giudizio Universale (with Händel’s Messiah as background music) — Duration: 4 minutes 20 seconds.

FRANCOPHONE SOCIOLOGY is promoting a neologism – that of médiatisation. It refers to the current expansion of information techno­logy. Walkmans and TVs, cell phones and computers, digital diaries and cameras, etc. are fast spreading. At the same time, the Internet is making these affordable gadgets converse among themselves worldwide and instantly through cables or satellites. The information passing through that technology is presented less and less in literate discursive form, and more and more in narrative audio­visual mode. Thus, médiatisation is raising up a new generation that is electronically sophisticated and ‘post-literate’.

Art speaks the narrative language of music and image. This explains why yester-artists like Michelangelo and Händel are still able to touch the hearts of today’s youth… whereas theologians of today seem to be brilliantly conversing just among themselves. When the young ask to become Christians, what they expect is not God-talk but God-experience. And such experience finds better expression not through rational explanation but through narrative imagination. This, in turn, may help us better grasp a mysterious allusion in the gospels to the historical Jesus that ‘ … he never spoke to people [about the Reign of God] except in parables’ (e.g., Mt 13:34-35). How is it then that image and story constitute the privileged language of faith?

Médiatisation and the ‘E-Generation’

Memory plays a crucial role in our inner life. For what truly shapes our present is not the past –but how we recall our past. From countless events that we had gone through, our memory forgets many and selects just a few. But it weaves these chosen few into a life story. Depending then on whether we narrate our lives as sad or glad, we dim or light our hope for a brighter tomorrow. If we then ask: who am I? a meaningful response is that each of us is a story in search of a plot.

On the other hand, what is the Gospel? Is it some system of rites and doctrines … or perhaps ethics? No, first and foremost the Gospel is ‘good news’ – a love story about a caring God in search of fallen humanity. Faith can then be understood as a process of interweaving our life stories with the Gospel. Such narrative dialogue sooner or later turns our human tragedies into what Dante poetically called a ‘divine comedy’.

Kerygma as narrative dialogue

THE THEME of this symposium feasting 50 fruitful years of Regina Mundi as a ‘kerygmatic’ institution is: The Feminine Face of the Church. As I bring this last reflection to a close, you may still be asking: ‘…what has such face got to do with missio ad gentes?’ One may see a close link if I you allow me to re-entitle my talk retroactively as: Narrative Evangeliz­ation in a Postmodern Age. I hope that you react by retorting: ‘… but what has being narrative got to do with being feminine?’.

Even before Carl Gustav Jung proposed his theory of archetypes in the collective unconscious, many and diverse cultures have long related the masculine with the mind (razón), and the feminine with the heart (corazón). Through my years of having taught men and women, young and old, I have gained this much insight into human nature…. The way to lead the mind to serious reflection is through logical discourse. But the way to stir the heart to active compassion is through resonant story.

Ref.: Text sent from the author, by e-mail, for the SEDOS Publication. April 2005.