Overseas mission of the Australian Church: In the changed world and Church since Vatican II what relationships can we as Australians and Church have with our neighbours in Asia/Pacific region?

Looking back and Looking forward

This conference gives us the opportunity to look back over the last forty years since the start of Vatican II. We can see how we were, what has happened to us in the meantime and where we are now. I intend in this paper to look at what has happened to people like me – Australian missionaries.

Thinking back to 1962 I have an image of the young missionary priest, newly ordained and about to set off to Asia. He is dressed in sharp clericals. In his luggage he has copies of the Latin texts he learned his theology from including his Code of Canon Law. He sees himself going off to Asia to baptise people and to offer the sacraments to them as an assured path to save their souls. In this he is like any other young missionary priest from around the globe. He has other baggage that he is probably not aware of, the White Australia policy. In Asia he will discover just how this demeans his country in Asian eyes. Of course, he does not know about colour television, faxes, computers or text messaging. He is a long way away from where we are now.

How did we get from that sort of Church and country to where we are now? Obviously there is a long story to tell here but I would like address two areas. The first concerns some of the major transitions in the theological thinking of the church and the second concerns some of the changes in missiological thinking arising from cultural shifts in the last forty years.

I will use a somewhat autobiographical approach to order some of this material. I invite you to look back yourselves on the changes in your own understanding of what it means to be a member of the Church in Australia.

One of the major transitions or conversions for me is summed up in that oft-repeated quotation from the Synod of Bishops of 1971. “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel”. I was a bit slow. It took me another couple of years to understand what the Bishops were saying. You may be able to recall your own journey to this understanding of the Gospel of Jesus.


To be able to make that statement one has to move a long way from our young missionary in 1962. I want to mention four key insights, as key events on the journey. Firstly a major insight has to be that salvation is not just about saving souls. We realise that we are talking about saving the whole person. So salvation is not just about heaven, the after-life, but it is also about this life. At this distance it seems such a strange idea that Jesus’ death was about saving souls only. When we talk about the resurrection we are talking about the resurrection of the body! Naturally that means we are talking about the resurrection of the whole material universe, which St. Paul was already addressing on Romans chapter 8. God created the whole universe out of love. It seems strange that that would be the end of God’s care for the world. Biblical texts about “a new heaven and a new earth” start to take on some relevance when our minds are able to make the shift.

Personally, I think this basic intellectual conversion is a major challenge to our regular churchgoers in Australia. A few years ago the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference made a statement, in the form of a video, on Evangelisation with the help of Catholic Mission. The video, “FACES”, had stories of three people. It is a good video. Its purpose, it seems to me, is to help people make the transition from seeing God and religion only in the church building to seeing God at work in and through the events of their lives. In a recent survey of why Australian Christians do not go to Sunday worship one of the main reasons was that they did not see it as connected to the rest of their lives. An understanding of mission that separates salvation from the reality of people’s everyday life does not make any sense and people are right to reject it.


Secondly another new development for which we need to thank the liberation theologians is that we are not just talking about individuals we are talking about structures. Whereas our 1962 missionary was prepared to deal with the souls of individuals in the confessional or maybe in some sort of pastoral counselling he was not prepared to diagnose the structural causes of the poverty he saw all around him. The struggle for justice is a constitutive dimension of preaching the gospel according to the bishops. That there is plenty of injustice in the world is so evident. As our Australian missionary came into contact with the poor of Latin America, the Pacific, Asia or Africa he could not but be moved. He had probably been blind to the poor of Australia but when he came back home he certainly looked at “the lucky country” through different eyes. As he worked with so many others who were committed to helping the poor he too moved from the different understandings of the importance of giving aid, to the need for development, to being in solidarity with those demanding liberation. He moved from giving the fish, to helping the people to fish for themselves to asking why can’t they sell the fish, why are fish stocks being depleted by foreign boats and why are they dying of poisoning? As our missionary looked at his friends in his parish who depended on fishing for a livelihood he came to realise that the answers were and are structural. The politically and economically powerful rule the world. It is the structures that they control which are responsible for the suffering of these fishing families.

Grace and Sin

The third insight was that when we talk about grace and sin we are not just talking about God’s gift in terms of what happens to individuals we are also talking about God’s desire for the transformation of society. Our missionary starts to change his language from sins, as acts of individuals, to structural sin as a power at work oppressing millions of people. Now the prayers of the Eucharist are starting to have all sorts of resonances. “Deliver us from evil” has many meanings for him. When he gathers with friends for Eucharist so often the text being used is Luke 4. In Luke there is no doubt of God’s preferential option for the poor. God loves the rich as well but Luke says the only way that the rich can be saved is by responding to God’s loving call to be converted and to share God’s concern and love for the poor. By this time the brain of our young missionary is getting overloaded. This sort of conversion experience takes time to absorb but he is starting to get help in all sorts of areas.

Church and Kingdom

If our missionary has been keeping up his reading of studies in the Bible he is excited about what liberation theologians are saying about Exodus. God’s gift to the Jews is political liberation from Egypt. Grace has a very concrete shape. Then in the New Testament there is an understanding developing that the historical Jesus preached the Kingdom. So the fourth insight of our missionary is that church is not the main focus of the mission of Jesus and therefore his mission but the Kingdom of God is. The relationship between Church and Kingdom continues to be clarified with the help of quite a few Papal documents. He now understands that the Church is not an end in itself but is at the service of the Kingdom. It is God’s Kingdom and God is bringing it about. In more recent years he will be talking about the missio Dei as the central organising image of his understanding of Church and his own role.

Cultural shifts and their impact

A lot of the change in our understanding of ourselves as missionaries has occurred because of changes in cultural and political realities. Again I would like to make five points under this heading. Briefly they are the feminist movement, the coming to independence of former colonies, inculturation, interfaith dialogue and ecology.

The feminist movement has to be one of the biggest changes in our culture over the last forty years. The church response has been very slow and there is still a long way to go. The Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus project has been a significant marker in our Australian church’s engagement with this reality. Today it is a vital question for our missionary identity which it certainly was not for our missionary of 1962. However he may have had an inkling of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris of the following year which spoke of the emergence of women as one of the major signs of God’s working in our world. Coming out of an Australian seminary he probably did not know what the Pope was talking about.

Another of those signs of the times that the Pope referred to was the struggle for nationhood. Country after country fought for independence from their colonisers and then struggled to become stable communities where the freedom of all was respected. On the ecclesiastical front, new bishops were usually local bishops. Gradually it was not the foreign missionary groups who were making the decisions in the third world but it was the local bishop. The local church became the principal agent of mission on the ground. Foreign missionaries started to talk of themselves as “guests”. Not all were happy to let the local church take control. It was difficult to let go. This movement into the post-colonial period together with an abhorrence of encouraging dependence changed forever the relationship between nations and between local churches.

A major ecclesiological demand that is related to this whole issue is that of “inculturation”. Missionaries who have worked in other cultures have been privileged by an experience of a different way of living the Gospel. They have come to appreciate a different face of Christ, of God. As they experienced the liturgies, the prayers and commitments of people in the local churches where they were working they came to understand more of the variety of God’s gifts and invitations. However it is also obvious that all cultures need to be continually transformed by the gospel. Inculturation of the gospel is a never-ending process. How well do we inculturate the Gospel of Jesus in the Australian culture? In seeking authenticity in our own lives are we also continuing to call our church to authenticity in living as a true Australian?

Not only did our Australian missionary learn about the struggle for justice and the value of other cultures he or she also learnt about the value of other religions. Whether it was among the Hindus in India, the Buddhists in Japan or the Muslims in Pakistan over and over again our missionary discovers holy people. In 1962 he probably thought of them as ‘pagan’. He probably saw them theologically as being in the dark. The light of the Gospel was what he had and he had to bring it to them. However, with Vatican II saying. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (Nostra Aetate par 2.) and his own experience of people he started to realise his theology was way off the mark. When it was stated that people can be saved through their own religion some of his confreres wondered what they were doing trying to introduce people to Jesus anyway. Today he is quite delighted by his inter-faith dialogue efforts. He gets to meet some very interesting people.

This year the Social Justice statement of the Australian Bishops is a video on Ecology. It makes great use of a phrase of the Pope, “ecological conversion”. Our 1962 missionary could not have possibly foreseen this event. I doubt that many Catholics in Australia today would understand this language. Yet it is a marvellous sign of our developing understanding of where God is calling us today and where God is being manifested. People’s concern for the environment and reverence for its beauty are truly manifestations of God’s Spirit.

Looking Forward

This is my brief summary of an amazing period of change and progress in the thinking of the mission of the Church over the last forty years. I hope you can also look back and marvel at the development that has occurred in your own life. With some sense of satisfaction we can now look forward with hope and expectation for what the future will bring.

It seems to me that the question now facing us is what will this Christian community in Australia do vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Or as stated in the flyer “what relationships can we, as Australians and Church, have with our neighbours in the Asia/Pacific region?” Given all the development of thought and changes in our self-image as church and as Australians what are we doing to face our future? I think we have the questions but the answers are slow in coming, but let me speak to three points.

End of an era

It is clear that the modern missionary era is now over. That great movement of Christian missionaries out of Europe, the United States and Australia and New Zealand, which basically followed the colonial powers thrust into the rest of the world is now finished. All of us know that there are not the numbers of priest, brothers and sisters leaving Australia for the rest of their lives on mission work as there used to be. There are not the number of priests and religious as there used to be within Australia. People generally are not finding the Church the place to be. What we don’t know is why? Why are our churches empty? It amazes me that such a simple question cannot be answered by everyone in the church, let alone by its leaders.

Church as sacrament

While we don’t have much understanding of the shifts in our Western culture we do have a theology of church that has very interesting implications. Vatican II said that the church is the sacrament of the unity of human kind (ref. L.G. 1). The Church in Australia, as a sacrament, should be making visible the works of God in our land. We know that the missio Dei is operative in the hearts and minds of all Australians. God’s Spirit is everywhere. That God’s mission is to bring about the Kingdom is obvious. Our task as church, as sacrament of God’s mission, is to point to where God is, to denounce what is opposed to the Kingdom and to celebrate its presence. We need to do this in every aspect of the nation’s life.

If we are looking at the overseas dimension of the Australian church’s life we need to look at the overseas dimension of the nation’s life. Where is God in our international relations, our military connections, and the relationships with our trading partners? The Church should be able to answer these questions. What about our cultural exchanges, our educational sector where so many students are from overseas? The Pope speaks of the new sites of mission. He uses the word areopagi. He is calling us to look to the new arenas of God’s mission, which are not the usual places where up to now we have normally found the church.

The next question is who will speak of God in these places? Who will promote God’s Kingdom in these areas of national life? Who will be the missionaries, in other words? Those Christians who work in these areas are the ones who will promote the Kingdom there. The members of our Universities, the staff of the Departments of the Federal Government etc. These are the new missionaries. Maybe the theologically literate should be helping them to discern and to name the Spirit of God in their midst.

Partnerships with local churches

In practice, I believe one way forward is for us to build partnerships with other local churches in the Asia/Pacific. What do we need partnerships for? We need partnerships to work for the transformation of the world, to reconcile the human family, to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God. No one nation can unilaterally achieve these goals of human desire. It is only by human beings working together that this can come about.

Global connections

Another way to look at the need for partnerships between local churches is to look at the job to be done. Many of the problems of our world cross national borders. Global warming, refugees, the trafficking in women, etc are all global problems. Globalisation calls for “global solidarity” as the Pope calls it. Local churches need to be in solidarity. We in Australia must connect with our brothers and sisters in the churches of Asia and the Pacific to address the issues that affect us all.

Who will preach to us?

One of the most striking comments I heard recently is that “we are an arrogant church in an arrogant nation”. This is a view held by some of our neighbours. It is a challenge to us today. As I looked back over the last forty years of change in missionary thinking I was startled to realise that so much of this change came from the oppressed. Where did we learn most about the struggle for justice and the Gospel? Gustavo Gutierrez and liberation theology are the quick answer. Where did we learn most about inter-faith dialogue? Surely we must thank the Indians for much of that. If the colonised peoples had not fought for justice would we be talking about the mutuality of local churches? If women had not shared stories of their oppression would we have a Commission for Catholic Women in the Australian church? I don’t think so.

It seems a fundamental law that we are alerted to our sinfulness by those we victimise. The call of Jesus is “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”. For the Australian church to grow we need to listen to the victims. The painful experience of listening to the voices of the sexually abused is a call into a deeper life. For the future the Australian nation and the Australian church need to listen to those we dominate in the Asia/Pacific region and be prepared to learn from them what God asks of us. We cannot live without them.


At the end of this paper I am delighted to reflect on the journey of the last forty years. Vatican II may belong to a by-gone era for the younger portion of our church but for many of us it was a life-orienting event. We spent the better part of our lives trying to understand what had been said and then trying to pursue its vision in a changing world.

As I look forward it is hard to see how the Church in Australia will fulfil her role of being the sacrament of the unity of humankind. Until we as church, sit down, listen and participate in the various conversations in Australia about how do we live as human beings in this part of the world we will not have any answers. If however, we believe that God is pursuing the mission of the Kingdom we can have faith that we will find our place and be able to make our contribution, whoever we are and wherever we are, to that future of love, peace and freedom.

(Father Trevor Trotter is a Columban priest, who served in the Philippines, then taught at the Columban Mission Institute and the Catholic Theological Union in Sydney. Currently he is the Director of the Columban Mission in Australia and New Zealand.)