The Missionary Methods of Abbot Francis
"The fire you wish to enkindle in others must burn in yourself" - St. Augustine.
Abbot Francis adopted the Benedictine approach to evangelization. A monastery was established in mission territory. Tenants were taught advanced farming methods and related skills. The seed of Faith was sewn in the process. The principle was ancient and tried, but its application by the Trappists in 19th century South Africa was new.
The Cape Times welcomed the monks and their "Benedictine tradition by which they would teach colonists how, by thrift, self-denial, and a knowledge of farming and industrial pursuits, a land could be made prosperous by steady, earnest, and intelligent labor." Abbot Francis added: "Yes, every Brother, regardless of whether he leads the plow or herds the oxen, has become a missionary, for by his example he teaches our people more about prayer than Rodriguez [Alphonsus Rodriguez S.J., The Practice of Christian and Religious Perfection] with all his learned treatises on prayer."
As a positive innovator, Abbot Francis succeeded in changing people's lives for the better. Championing the cause of equality for the Zulus of Natal, he brought about development and growth. His principal method was a comprehensive educational program and his professed aim: the empowerment of people towards self-reliance and self-management.
Realizing that this could not be achieved without a change in structures, he demanded racial nondiscrimination in all areas of public concern education, employment, law. In his 1890 Principles for Mission he declared that Mariannhill's aim was "to pursue and bring about an equal status for black and white people." His candid defense of the silent majority was like a sharp gust shaking the jealously guarded domains of colonial settlers and officials, and it earned him caustic criticism from the press.
Undaunted, the founder of Mariannhill continued to buy land and settle his converts on it. Eventually, he reasoned, these would establish the first Catholic families, parishes and villages. It was this vision upon which one of his monks, Fr. Bernard Huss, based his famous program "Better Fields - Better Homes - Better Hearts." The daring pioneer was criticized for continually starting new projects before the old ones were consolidated. His reply was the same as Lavigerie's, the founder of the White Fathers, "We are here to initiate evangelization; our African people must complete it."
Like other missionaries, Abbot Francis enlisted the support of benefactors. However, aTrappist monk who spoke from personal experience struck people as unique, as, for example, when he appealed to their sense of solidarity: "The saints have always set the table for the poor even when they had nothing left to give from kitchen or pantry, because they counted on help from outside."
What distinguished his public addresses was not so much their novelty but the refreshing style and emphatic fervor with which he promoted missionary awareness and vocations: "Do you not feel a desire in your heart to leave your homeland and go to Africa as a missionary?" His flaming appeal could not fail to enkindle a response. He magnetized the youth. Women and men followed him, many of them, like Bernard Huss, "experts in humanity, ready to share all its aspirations and at the same time people who had fallen in love with God," as Pope John Paul II would say about missionaries later. His founding charism pulled them along on the steep path of a venture that required additional courage and generosity because the mission to the Zulus had only just begun.
Jesus said, "I have come to cast fire on the earth and how I wish it were blazing already!" (Lk12: 49). Abbot Francis paraphrased these words: "I want the fire to burn in Africa - now!" So powerful was his impact that after a few years his monasteries in Bosnia and South Africa saw several hundred members. In addition, he established two new religious communities: the Congregation of Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood and the society of the Franziners, a forerunner of priests volunteering for some time in the missions, such as the Fidei Donum priests inaugurated by Pius XII in 1957.
However, the most revolutionary change Abbot Francis made was his attempt, as a Trappist monk, to combine the monastic lifestyle with active missionary engagement. Though this was precisely what his spiritual ancestors, the Cistercians, had done in medieval Europe, he called his monks who were working in 19th-century Natal simply the trailblazers of the real missionaries of the future. Once these would come and take over, the Trappists would again resume full monastic observance. Meanwhile, he asked from candidates only a lively faith and the spirit and skills of a pioneer. "A turbine and a brother who can install it are more useful to me than the most splendid picture of a saint and a brother decorating it."
Soon the mission stations he established across Natal and the Transkei developed their own dynamic. The Trappist priests he put in charge found it increasingly difficult to integrate monastic observance with missionary engagement. Twice the founder made a formal request for a mitigated rule that would allow them to do mission work within the context of the rule, arguing that it was a shame for Trappists to recite long prayers in choir when millions of people had not yet seen the light of faith. "I believe," he wrote, "that there is greater joy in heaven over one converted and baptized Zulu girl than over 99 Trappists assembled in the monastery chapel, having no need of baptism."
Each time his request was ignored. Nevertheless, in order to pave the way for an alternative mission practice, four years before his death he drafted the statutes of a new missionary society, which he called propaganda piccola. This society would be directly responsible to Propaganda Fide in Rome and would adopt from the Trappists only practices that were compatible with mission work - a contemplative spirit, discipline, simple lifestyle, and pioneering expertise. Members would be in close contact with people's needs and free to serve the local church. His draft was put on hold.
Today the founder's vision meets with a much better reception than 100 years ago. After Pope John Paul II called for missionaries to be "contemplatives in action" (Redemptorjs Missio, 90), many new ecclesial communities endeavor to combine contemplative and active lifestyles for the purpose of evangelization.
Sister M. Annette Buschgerd CPS