Wednesday 8 February 2017

Not where we live, but how we live

Image: Japanese Jesuit martyrs, Paul Miki, James Kisai and John de Gotò carrying palm branches, traditional symbols of the martyr. But clearly, the European painter had no idea what Japanese people looked like, nor aware of how the missionaries’ dress was localised in the Far East.

Those who have been part of our community for a while know that there is a certain language we use – for example, magis, discernment, cura personalis. ‘Accommodation’ is another such word.  It is not about an address, or place of abode. It has to do with adaptation or, in more recent parlance, enculturation.

People sometimes have the wrong impression about Jesuits or their modus operandi. We are often portrayed as ‘the Pope’s marines’, the stormtroopers whose vow of obedience is unwavering, whose mindset is programmed by years of formation, steely in inflexibility. But if we turn at the start to Ignatius’ Constitutions, something quite different jumps off the pages. We soon discover that after Ignatius proclaims a rule clearly and unambiguously, he will often add a coda, allowing a local superior – the man on the spot – to modify the rule “according to times, places and circumstances”. This is freedom and adaptability. The phrase “adapting to times, places and circumstances” is a leitmotif that runs through so much of Ignatius’ writings.  It is not a mere whim or ‘anything goes’ attitude, but a discerned flexibility for mission, an ability to discern the means from the end.

This freedom has been labelled license by some over the years. We are engaging in relativism, they charge. Or they say that we never see reality objectively in black and white, but always slide too comfortably into the grey. Or, we are not faithful to the constant teaching and practice of the Church. But it is not that at all. It is always a discerned position, a discerning freedom. That is, options weighed up in prayer and reflection; searching for the underlying truths and values; seeking God’s will in this particular context, then opting for the magis. It is far from insubordination, relativism or disrespect.

One of the earliest expressions of this in mission was in the Far East. This week we celebrated the feast day of the Jesuit martyrs of Japan at the close of the sixteenth century: Paul Miki, James Kisai and John de Gotò. The Jesuit mission in Japan, begun by Ignatius’ companion Francis Xavier, flourished for a half century. With the sensitive application of Ignatian accommodation, the Jesuits had ditched their black cassocks and adopted the silken dress of scholars so as to engage with the people. They were happy to converse as much about the sciences and philosophy as religion. All went well until the local feudal lord, Hideyoshi, overheard some Spanish sailors (in a somewhat drunken state) boast that Spain was planning to conquer Japan. Christians were also being perceived as threats to the emerging unification movement in the country. So the Christian purge began. The three Jesuits were sentenced to death with six foreign missionaries and seventeen Japanese lay Christians. All were forced to march to their place of execution – a journey of one month – humiliated and abused along the way. At one point, two “undercover” Jesuit missionaries received the vows of Kisai and de Gotò, who were only novices at the time. At present day Nagasaki, they were crucified and speared in the manner of their Lord.

This feast comes at an interesting time with the current release of the movie, Silence. The film comes from the novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo. Martin Scorsese had been wanting to translate it to the screen for many years. It tells the story of a Portuguese Jesuit, Cristóvão Ferreira, who, some decades after Miki’s time, was missionary superior in Japan during an anti-Christian purge. Ferreira was captured and suffered inhumane tortures like many others. As it transpired, he renounced his faith and apostacised. When this became known, it was a huge blow to Jesuits world-wide, the more so since Ferreira was the senior man in the mission. The novel explores the almost greater emotional torture of him wrestling with the choice with which he was confronted. And he was facing not only a private or personal sin, but a social sin as well since his action might cause others to weaken in their faith or lose it.

Xavier blazed the trail of accommodation in his eastern travels. Following him was probably our greatest reflector on cross-cultural engagement, an Italian missionary to the Far East, Alessandro Valignano who developed all the principles which we today take for granted. Valignano, at the age of thirty-four, was the General’s delegate for all the lands of the far East in the late sixteenth century. He enumerated a number of core principles: a sympathy and respect for the cultural, social, intellectual and spiritual values of the people among whom one was working; a perfect command of the language, the idiom, in which that culture was incarnated; science and scholarship in the service of introducing the values and ethos of one culture into another; a long-term endeavour of serious writing and personal dialogue. He was among the first to recognise what twentieth century theologians would later describe as God’s Spirit and presence indwelling in cultures even before missionaries arrived centuries later “bringing the faith”.

A century ago, Sir Percy Nunn, a noted educator at the University of London, wrote that teachers are “ambassadors of society to the kingdom of the child.” Somewhat quaint-sounding, but so true. Young people have a culture, a language, a dress, a mode of engagement, rites of passage, foods, and so on, which at times seem so foreign to an older generation. Parents and teachers who wish to cross that border, to be invited in, to navigate an interaction, need sensitive and respectful skills. Only then will real engagement and dialogue occur. Ignatian accommodation is not a bad starting point.

Fr Ross Jones, SJ