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Vincent Donovan

“What happened next?” Vincent Donovan, thirty-five years on.(Essay): An article from: International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Author: John P. Bowen
Publication Date: 01-APR-09

I suspect that most readers of his best-selling Christianity Rediscovered (Orbis 1978) get to the end of the book and ask, “What happened next?” Donovan was a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, also known as the Spiritans, who spent fifteen years as a missionary among the Maasai in northern Tanzania and wrote about his experiences in Christianity Rediscovered, which by 2002 had undergone twenty printings in its Orbis edition and in 2003 was celebrated in a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition. (1)

Donovan’s Ministry

Christianity Rediscovered describes a particularly creative attempt to enculturate the Gospel into a local culture–in this case, that of the Maasai. Although readers of the book usually assume that Donovan was a pioneer in this emphasis, in many ways he was simply a faithful (though highly creative and eloquent) son of the Spiritan order. Girard Kohler, an associate of Donovan’s, points out that the practice of inculturation for which Donovan is famous was actually embedded in the DNA of the Spiritans by Francois Libermann (1802-52), who took over the leadership of the order in 1848. Libermann advised his missionaries, “Put off Europe, its customs, its spirit…. Become Negroes to the Negroes, in order to form them as they should be, not in the fashion of Europe, but allow them to keep what is peculiar to them.” (2)

Donovan’s thinking and praxis were encouraged by his discovery of the writings of Anglican missiologist Roland Allen, particularly in Allen’s book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (World Dominion Press, 1930; Eerdmans, 2001), given to Donovan by a Lutheran missionary friend. Allen adds to the basic principles of inculturation the argument that missions become ineffective when they become bogged down in the institutional accoutrements of mission such as mission stations, hospitals, and schools and become centripetal–what he calls “the choke law.” Allen’s challenge was to recall missionaries to their primary calling: to be centrifugal, going out, as did the apostle Paul, simply to evangelize, to found churches, to appoint leaders, and then to move on. Donovan tried to implement these ideals in his own work.

Vincent Donovan practiced what the Spiritans call “first evangelization” (pp. 24-25) and as a result planted numerous indigenous Maasai churches. (3) Once he had planted the churches, he left (following the spirit of Roland Allen) in order not to “contaminate” them with Western assumptions and practices. To the frustration of readers, the book ends when Donovan leaves Tanzania for the last time. He had hoped to return, but his order had other plans for him. He died in 2000 without ever going back. No systematic follow-up of his work has ever been done, though it receives brief mention as a classic example of inculturation in many works known to missiologists, including David Bosch’s Transforming Mission (1991), Elizabeth Isichei’s History of Christianity in Africa (1995), George Sumner’s The First and the Last (2004), Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder’s Constants in Context (2004), the Church of England’s report, Mission-Shaped Church (2004), and Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy (2004).

Father Ned’s Ministry

I have used Christianity Rediscovered many times in teaching cross-cultural evangelism. I decided a few years ago, after repeated student questions, to see what I could find out about the present status of Donovan’s work. As a result, in the summer of 2006 I went with a graduate student, Erin Biggs, and Sam Waweru, an African driver, to spend a day and a half visiting three American Spiritan missionaries who knew and were influenced by Donovan and who are still working among the Maasai in Tanzania–Ned Marchessault, Joe Herzstein, and Pat Patten. The one who worked most closely with Donovan was Father Ned (who preferred simply “Ned”), now in his seventies, who labored alongside Donovan and then took over the work when Donovan left. This article is based on conversations with him and reflects his answer to the question, What happened next? His answer emerged for us not only from the interview but also from our experience of spending a day with him.

Ned, who is still involved in parish ministry among the Maasai, acts as parish priest for a huge area and visits a number of outstations from his base in Endulen. Having worked for many years in the kind of first evangelization Donovan writes about, Ned has now handed over that work to lay catechists whom he has trained, and he simply visits the villages and celebrates Mass.

We arrived at his home in the evening and, over supper, began our conversation. As we finished for the night, Ned asked if we would like to go with him the following morning to a Maasai village where he was to celebrate Mass. We eagerly said yes.

When we arrived at Ned’s house the next day, he got out a suitcase of the things he needed for the Mass. It included a cow-skin stole, decorated by Maasai women with cowrie shells, much loved of the Maasai, though their significance is unclear. (Some of those who disapprove of Ned’s approach to inculturation refer to him as the cowrie-shell priest.) He also showed us the wafers for communion, commenting that he only used them as a concession to church tradition.

The church, about an hour’s drive away, was a small wooden structure built by the Maasai themselves of small tree branches. Within a few minutes of our arrival, twenty or thirty villagers gathered, mainly women and children.

Although I am not a Catholic and neither is Erin, and neither of us understands a word of Maasai, to anyone from a liturgical tradition the shape of the service was very familiar: the Ministry of the Word, the Prayers of the People, the Creed, the Confession and Absolution, the Passing of the Peace, and then the Ministry of the Table. The sermon was given by a young Maasai catechist, dressed in his red blanket. Even without understanding his words, we were struck by his passion, his attentiveness to the text (which Ned told us was John 6), and his engagement with the congregation.

Throughout the service, Ned held in his hand a bunch of grass, symbol of peace and reconciliation (p. 94). Then, during the Prayers, people
with special concerns came forward. As he prayed for them, Ned sprinkled them with grass dipped in milk, a symbol of life, from a gourd decorated with cowrie shells. At the Peace, people shook hands–except for the young people, who bowed their heads in order to be blessed by their elders.

The singing was haunting, quite different from other Christian singing I have heard in East Africa. As we left the service, Erin said to Ned, “That was wonderful!” He just grinned and said, “Another day, another dollar.”

Changes After Donovan’s Time

Ned’s answer to the question “What happened next?” is basically that things did not unfold as Donovan had hoped, though the underlying principles continued to be honored. There were problems on both the Catholic side and the Maasai side.

On the Catholic side, while the ideal would have been to ordain local leaders as priests to their community (p. 88), within Catholic tradition that was not a straightforward option. As Ned put it, the vision got “bogged down in the structures of organized religion. I mean, what are you going to do about the Eucharist–just have anybody preside?” There were unofficial but short-lived experiments with lay leadership of Eucharist-like services. Ned said, “In places where we could only visit at long intervals because of the great number of outstations and the distances involved, we constructed a service that would not need the presence of a priest. This involved cards with stick figures that people could follow for a service of prayer, scripture readings, and eating together.”

This was a step in the direction of so-called village priests, the natural spiritual leaders of the community who would be “ordained” for that community (pp. 108, 114-15). But here too there was a cultural problem. Would their own people acknowledge the authority of these priests? In a society that values status, people “didn’t want these guys in the village with little or no education [in positions of influence]. The hierarchical aspect of the organization of the church is very important to Africans.”

One way to proceed down the path of radical indigenization would have been for the Maasai churches to become independent, but nobody on the outside would accept village priests or lay presidency, “so you’re putting yourself in the position of starting your own church.” The problems of such an approach made it too daunting to pursue: “The difficulty with that is, then you’ve got to figure out everything, and then you wouldn’t have any more time to do anything else. We talked about stuff like that in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but I don’t think that’s a solution.”

Hierarchical Obstacles

Nevertheless, the frustration continues to this day. When I commented to Ned that the catechist we heard preach seemed like a wonderful potential priest, he replied, “If it was up to me, I would ordain him tomorrow.” More often than not, however, the extensive training requirements are beyond the reach of the Maasai, and the requirement of celibacy is difficult.

In spite of these obstacles, some Maasai have been trained and ordained in the conventional manner; but on the whole they have not pursued an approach to ministry in the tradition of Donovan and the Spiritans. Furthermore, priests often were not sent to serve in the area from which they had come but were assigned by the diocese, as in Europe and North America, and they were not necessarily interested in inculturation. As Donovan said, “Ironically, the first Masai priest [came] from an entirely different section of Masailand” (p. 138).

According to Ned, the present Catholic hierarchy in Tanzania, though entirely African, is not enamored of the kind of indigenization practiced by Donovan. As a result, there exists today the poignant paradox of Western missionaries encouraging inculturation and an African hierarchy rejecting it. One could say that the diocese stresses the constants while the missionaries stress the context.