How Missionary Endeavors Aid Development

According to PIME Father Piero Gheddo

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ROME, NOV. 26, 2004 ( Christian missionary work has made a key contribution to development, says one of the best-known missionaries, Italian Father Piero Gheddo of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

“I am a missionary who has had the good fortune to travel around the world,” said the PIME missionary. “In 51 years of priesthood, I have visited so many places, and been in touch with many problems of development and the environment. I left for the missions in India in 1951.”

Father Gheddo has also been director of some of the most influential missionary publications, such as the AsiaNews agency and the Italian magazine Mondo e Missione.

Q: Why did you become a missionary and what was your objective?

Father Gheddo: To proclaim Jesus Christ and save souls. This gave me the impetus to leave for India.

After traveling through many other missions, I then had a more concrete and immediate objective, to proclaim Christ in order to improve the human condition. The proclamation of Christ, in fact, helps people to learn, to develop, and to change systems and cultures.

As Paul VI wrote in “Populorum Progressio,” Christianity helps to go from a less human to a more human condition.

Q: And yet, the world has tried for many years to surmount underdevelopment.

Father Gheddo: It all began in 1960, when the FAO [the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization] launched the first worldwide campaign against hunger. In those years, it was thought that it was enough to send financial aid, machinery, technologies and to activate trade to overcome poverty.

But then it was seen that money alone does not produce development, nor do machines. If one goes around Africa, one finds cemeteries of machines that don’t work and industries that don’t produce.

In the ’70s the Marxist-revolutionary idea prevailed. It was thought that the poor were in that condition because they were exploited by multinationals and their natural resources were plundered.

This is partially true. It is true that poor peoples are often exploited, but this is not the decisive answer. At the end of the ’70s, it was seen that models such as Mao Zedong’s China, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, the liberation movements in Africa, did not produce development. The models idealized in the West did not promote development and even caused underdevelopment.

In the ’80s, thanks also to the Church’s interventions, talk began of the need for education; there was even talk of intercultural and interreligious dialogue. If man is the agent of development, we must work at the cultural level. In this connection, in his magisterial address to UNESCO on June 4, 1980, Pope John Paul II spoke precisely on education and development.

Ten years later, in 1990, the Pontiff wrote the encyclical “Redemptoris Missio” and, in No. 58 said: “A people’s development does not derive primarily from money, material assistance or technological means, but from the formation of consciences and the gradual maturing of ways of thinking and patterns of behavior. Man is the principal agent of development, not money or technology.”

This is the concrete experience of missionaries who work with poor peoples. Intervening in education and cultures, missionaries foster the development of peoples. Therefore, the Gospel is the first contribution of faith that the Christian world can give to peoples’ development.

Q: But, specifically, how does the proclamation of Christ foster peoples’ development?

Father Gheddo: In Indonesia, there are 210 million inhabitants; most are Muslims divided in 86 ethnic groups. Sadly, in recent times ethnic clashes have arisen, and there have been Muslims who have attacked Christians: villages set on fire and people killed.

When these things happen, the government sends a pacification commission: five men with authority who go to meet with the village and tribal chiefs to try to get them to agree. A missionary in Jakarta told me that there are at least one or two Christians in these commissions.

Q: Why?

Father Gheddo: In Jakarta, I spoke with a top official of the Interior Ministry and asked him: Why do you, who are Muslim in the majority, include Christians in the commissions? And he answered me: “Look, I am Muslim but you Christians have something that we don’t have. The sense of forgiveness. Not only do you preach it but we see that your communities are the most peaceful. They have the sense of gratuitousness, your missions give to everyone, going beyond religious differences. And, finally, they have the sense of the universal. Your religion succeeds in surmounting ethnic, linguistic and social barriers.”

Q: Can you give other examples?

Father Gheddo: PIME missionaries have worked in India for 150 years. In the whole country, but especially in some states there are many pariahs, that is, “outcasts,” who represent 10-12% of the population.

Therefore, in India there are between 70 million to 80 million pariahs. The castes have been abolished, the Constitution prohibits them, but in practice it isn’t like this.

The first thing missionaries established in India was the school for outcasts. Today the government of India acknowledges Christian missions, Catholic and Protestant, for having educated pariahs and tribals of India. The educational help of Christians has helped these peoples to develop.

Another example: I went to Africa in 1985, to Burkina Faso, the year of the great drought, and I was taken from the capital to the north, which is a somewhat desertlike area. I saw terrible scenes: everything burnt, two years without rains, rivers without water, abandoned villages, with lines of people fleeing from the drought toward the humid south.

After a day of travel to the north, I asked to return because I had seen enough. But, shortly after, we saw a green area, where 80 years earlier Holy Family missionaries of Chieri had arrived and founded two factories and a school.

For 80 years, they have brought together 80 young people every year and taught them to conserve water, because it rains in the desert but the water runs down and is soon lost. If they had made many schools like this one in the north, the desert would have bloomed.

Q: Among the many books you have written, there is one on globalization. What do you think of it?

Father Gheddo: We are living in a moment of civilization that is exciting because this globalization that brings remote peoples closer to one another, makes them integrate and even discuss, is an occasion that God offers humanity to seek the common good. A new development model must be elaborated and here Christianity has an important role to play.

Globalization, which can be very positive, is a challenge for us all. Our civilization must rediscover its roots and Christian life to be able to respond to this challenge and be real brothers of poor peoples.

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