St Augustine on an Algerian stamp.
Vatican II presents the Church as an ongoing story; the Church is a pilgrim, living; she has a mission: we have all lived a chapter or two. The Church comes from the Son and the Spirit, according to the Father’s word. It is not the theology that lies behind the story, but the story that lies behind the theology. So how do we tell that story? My dear local Arians – the Jehovah’s Witnesses – knock on doors every month, but the Council Fathers realised that:
sometimes … there is no possibility of expounding the Gospel directly and forthwith. Then, of course, missionaries can and must at least bear witness to Christ by charity and by works of mercy, with all patience, prudence and great confidence. Thus they will prepare the way for the Lord and make Him somehow present. (AG 6).
This preparation is what each of us may be called to do at any moment of our lives. Can we in effect tell a story to the little girl or the troubled young mother, starting with, ‘Once upon a time I met a girl called _____ and she was good and beautiful.’ That is Good News, and if our script makes it plain ‘by charity and by works of mercy, with all patience, prudence and great confidence’; that is part of Evangelisation. One man sows, another reaps, but before they can do their work, someone else has prepared the ground.
Richard Bawoobr, of the Missionaries of Africa, the society who welcomed the Uganda Martyrs into the Church, distils Ad Gentes into two activities: Proclamation of the Good News of Jesus, and Witness to this Good News. These complete each other and need each other as the left hand needs the right hand or the left leg the right. Both are essential to our Mission and emphasising one at the expense of the other is detrimental to the Mission itself.
But the Missionaries of Africa have worked in North Africa as witnesses rather than proclaimers for a century and a half; making very few converts, yet achieving a mutual respect with their Muslim neighbours, to the extent that, for example, the Algerian Government helped pay for the restoration of Saint Augustine’s basilica in Hippo, recognising him as a great Algerian. Despite the witness of their martyrs in the 1990s, the Fathers are berated by evangelical protestants for not actively seeking converts by their preaching.
Elsewhere in Africa, despite terrorist groups like Boko Haram, the story is more often one of a peaceful and respectful dialogue of life. A community in a slum area of Dar es Salaam with 70% Muslims reports:
Poverty is a bond between Christians and Muslims. Faith is respected. Coexistence is pacific. Interreligious dialogue is experienced through daily human sharing between neighbours. Christians and Muslims mutually invite each other to eat at the religious festivals: Christmas, Easter, Eïd (after Ramadan)… There is great solidarity at funerals and wakes. The Christian community shows no prejudice whenever help is needed by underprivileged Muslims. The majority of the poor receiving help from parish-based Caritas and World Food Programmes are Muslims. There are many examples of love and trust in a compassionate living together. At the same time, strictly theological dialogue is almost non-existent.