The lay missionary can be a credible witness through his works, living with the people, making himself present. The testimony of brother Marco Monti of PIME, who after a long experience in Thailand, is now in southern Tunisia
I have been living in the PIME reality for thirty years, of which almost 21 on mission. I did my first internship as a lay missionary in search of verification of my vocation in Cambodia, a period we called training, to verify whether there was actually an ability to adapt and live the missionary spirit. It was an experience that I won’t forget because it was very beautiful and left indelible marks. I spent the longest period of mission in Thailand, as director of a center for disabled people. Now, after an intense and demanding experience in the General Directorate of the Institute in Italy, I have been living in Tozeur in Southern Tunisia for three and a half years.
My experience as a lay missionary took place first in Buddhist contexts and currently in a Muslim context, where the Christian presence stands at around “zero point” percent of the population. If we talk about Catholics, then there are even fewer of us. This is the context in which I have always worked: I have never done catechesis, I have never dealt with pastoral care, I have never lived in a parish house. This has also greatly influenced my way of thinking about myself and working in the mission. In fact, I believe that the lay missionary can be a credible witness through his activities and works, living with the people, making himself present.
I have been in situations where explicit announcement can be made but with immense difficulty. I got to the point where, after 14 years in Thailand, I was happy if I could at least raise some questions that I probably couldn’t answer. But at least with my being with people, with my presence – as happens even now in Tunisia – a space for daily sharing is created. We are with the people of these worlds, in different cultures and religious systems, so “being there” becomes a non-explicit announcement which however can lead, perhaps after many years, to making those who meet us ask: “Why is he here?”.
The “why” and the “how” are the two fundamental things of our being on mission. Let us try to live our vocation in a concrete and, I hope, profound way, which aims to be a sign of joy and hope in the risen Christ. In the Buddhist environment there are categories and ways of thinking about man – let alone Christ! – which are totally different; sometimes our language is inadequate to convey something, also because very complex languages are spoken which reflect a culture and a way of thinking about the person different from ours. In Islam, misunderstanding can arise regarding the figure of Jesus. He is mentioned several times in the Koran and is known and respected because he is considered one of the greatest prophets who at the end of time will, according to their tradition, be sent to close the experience human because he will fight the antichrist or the anti-Messiah (“Dajjal”). Therefore we must be very careful because, if on the one hand it is difficult to enter into certain categories of thought, on the other there is the possibility of creating misunderstandings that make any attempt at dialogue sterile or impossible.
Another difficulty is that of living a commitment that occupies us 24 hours a day. But precisely this being totally committed was one of the reasons that pushed me to make the choice to join PIME: to live and die with them and for them, who are not Christians, they are “other”.
The “how” is to think of yourself as an instrument. I borrow a phrase that I really liked from Saint Therese of Lisieux who says that “without love all works are nothing”. So this way of doing things – which has somewhat particular contents and a bit “driven” by Another – is first and foremost a gesture of generosity. What we do is done by God; we are an instrument that lets this generosity and this charity pass.
I’ve seen this affect people a lot, everywhere. I also experienced, while I was in the General Directorate of PIME, what it means to open a project starting from scratch in northern India, especially in the disability sector, and to see how this gratuitousness was always well received. It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of attitude, and the latter becomes important. The laity in mission is not so much an added value, but an essential and unique value: in my experience, the lay person is the most exposed, he is the one who necessarily lives on an equal footing with everyone and everything that surrounds him.
I see a risk in the current mission: that of living it in slippers, in the living space of our home, where small daily gestures, small rituals are repeated at set times without ever going out, understanding what is outside. While I think – and for this reason I consider the lay experience quite unique – that we must live with sandals, always ready to go out onto the street, to get our feet dirty, to let some stone hurt us, to mix in the world and lead the creation towards God and therefore invite human beings to raise their gaze.
I know that the mission is a complex thing, because it is not just a quick launch to bring the truth. It is something that can cause a lot of crisis even from a physical point of view; I spend the summer at 48 degrees and then experience terribly cold winters, because the desert is like that. And then there is the psychological aspect. The warrior sets off on horseback and then when he loses it he asks himself: “What am I doing here?”. There is this sense of emptying that often cannot be avoided. The risk is also that of living a very ideal and not very concrete mission.
I conclude with a fundamental praise of women in the mission, starting from my experience because I have always worked and work mainly with local women and foreign volunteers, who are an incredible driving force because they have an extraordinary ability to understand the work and commit themselves that men do not they have. I have seen this in all contexts, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, that is, in those places where it is believed that women are less considered. In these worlds the missionary woman has a great opportunity to create relationships and the possibility of being more welcomed because she is not tied to roles of power typical of the male world and therefore less threatening. For this reason she can create a revolution not from above, but from within.