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(From The Catholic Observer, October 6, 2006)

By Mark E. Rondeau

WILLIAMSTOWN — Catholicism may be shrinking in Europe — cradle of the faith’s past glories — but it is growing at a tremendous rate in the non-Western world, a frontier where its future is bright.

This is the view of Lamin Sanneh, professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale University and a Catholic who has served on two Pontifical Commissions, including the Commission for Religious Relations with the Muslims. He gave the keynote address at Williams College Sept. 22 at the Bicentennial Celebration of the Haystack Prayer meeting.

In 1806, five Williams College undergraduates, all Protestants, took shelter from a thunderstorm under a haystack near the campus. Their discussion and prayer that day led to their commitment to become missionaries and led to the rise of the American foreign mission movement. The three-day celebration at Williams looked at the practice and theology of mission from many perspectives.

Sanneh, a native of Gambia and a convert to Christianity from Islam, spoke of a revolutionary shift in membership and vitality from what he calls the “heartland Catholicism” of Europe and North America to the “frontier Catholicism” of places like Africa and China.

During the papacy of John Paul II, for instance, more people left the Catholic Church in Europe than under any other previous pope, and yet more people became Catholic outside Europe and North America than under any other previous pope. In 1900 there were about 10 million Catholics in Africa. In 2006, there are nearly 185 million. Ironically, most of this growth has happened since the end of the colonial era in 1970. This Catholic expansion mirrors what has happened among non-Catholic Christian groups in Africa and elsewhere during the same time period, he said.

Sanneh defined what he meant by heartland and frontier Catholicism.

“Heartland Catholicism is the Catholicism of great cathedrals, great theology based on the [early church] fathers, great architecture, great art, theological schools,” he said. “Great endowments but diminishing membership.”

Religious vocations are also decreasing in the West, he said, noting that there are more Jesuits in India than there are in the United States.

“Frontier Catholicism is the Catholicism of what I call the open road. It is not ensconced in great cathedrals, in big buildings; it’s got very little endowment,” he said. “Very little money, very little infrastructure, but with growing numbers. Exploding numbers.”

“That’s frontier Catholicism — dynamic, young, women-led, oriented toward the future, not in protecting and defending the past and the heritage, not in building walls and monuments, not in defining heretics and non-heretics. But the open road, open to the future. That is frontier Catholicism, and I suggest to you that is where Christianity is headed.”

“In 1900, 82 percent of the people calling themselves Christian were European and/or American,” Sanneh said. “Today, in 2006, only 35 percent of the Christians of the world are European and/or American.”

Pope Benedict XVI sees his major mission as combating rampant secularism in the West. “He thinks his responsibility is to deal with heartland Catholicism and the issues and the problems of heartland Catholicism,” he said. “I think actually it’s in the frontier where the real action is.”

Sanneh is descended from an ancient African royal house. He is an editor-at-large of the ecumenical weekly The Christian Century, and his books include Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans, 2003).

In an assertion that surprised some in the audience, he said that nowhere in the history of the missionary movement, Catholic or Protestant, did missionaries convert even one percent of their target population. Even so, he presented mission in a positive light, noting for instance that 90 percent of the of the grammars and dictionaries of world languages were created thanks to the Western missionary movement.

“People often say to me: ‘Don’t you think...mission is a terrible idea...we have so many problems we should really set our own house in order before we try to meddle in the affairs of other people?’ ” he said. “I usually don’t respond very much to that because I think the question itself is misconceived. Mission is not about preaching your perfection, your gifts, your opinions. Mission is...about the astounding work of God in hearts.”

Sanneh stressed the particularity of humanity, arguing that people cannot be conceived of apart from the society and culture from which they spring. Jesus was Jewish. Each member of the crowd present at Pentecost heard the Spirit-filled disciples speak in his own language.

“Human difference and cultural particularity were not dissolved in the heat of the Pentecostal experience. Pentecost is the affirmation of human particularity and difference,” he said. “I bet you and I are invested in diversity. But for goodness sake do not make diversity the opposite of difference and the enemy of difference.”

If Christianity can move into a place such as China and take native concepts and terms, absorb them, and begin to express itself through them, then “God preceded the missionary in the field,” he said.

“God was there before the missionary came. And because God was there before the missionary came, there is a necessary anticipation as well as continuity in the old cultures, between them and Christianity,” Sanneh said. “And the political implication of this is that the only way to do justice to the Christian Gospel is to allow indigenous leadership to take ownership.”

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