Semel Eligenti, Quotidie Eligere Debeo: Metanoia of a Missionary

Jarosław Duraj, S.J.

God’s call to conversion is universally addressed to non-believers and believers alike, regardless of their specific vocation as clergy, religious or lay people. The call to conversion was, in fact, the content of the first words of Jesus when he was announcing the Good News, the Kingdom of God and the need of metanoia (Mark 1:15). However, the imperative verb “metanoeite” used by Jesus literally translates as “change your mind” or “go beyond your mind.” An unfortunate translation of the word into Latin as “paenitentia” by St. Jerome gave it a somewhat moralistic connotation of “repentance.”

What comes first in metanoia is the fundamental transformation of mind and worldview. The change in behavior can only follow this transformation and be a sign and proof of internal conversion. Richard Rohr mentions common misunderstanding when putting the cart before the horse: “we think we can change a few externals while our underlying worldview often remains fully narcissistic and self-referential.” At its core, metanoia is about letting go of old patterns of thinking and behavior that no longer serve us, and embracing new ones that align with our true values and aspirations. It requires us to be open-minded, self-aware, and willing to challenge our own beliefs and assumptions.

Metanoia of a Missionary

There also exists a specific understanding of metanoia in the life of a missionary who is sent by the Church to evangelize in a specific mission territory. A missionary is called not only to his own personal conversion to God but also to the transformation that the task of inculturation requires from him. While this can be a challenging and painful process, it is also a necessary one.

Any missionary needs to be open to a constant verification whether he follows God’s will yet in the spirit of Sentire cum Ecclesia. The choice of vocation made at a specific moment of life and radically reorienting the life of a person is not an excuse for neglecting continuous discernment and decisions that should align with one’s goals or values because semel eligenti, quotidie eligere debeo (“once chosen, I must choose daily”).

A missionary is invited to enter a kenotic process of self-abnegation and self-emptying in order to make space for the Holy Spirit and for the recognition of the “Seeds of the Word” already sown in non-Christian cultures and religions. He will need to understand that he is not the protagonist of the mission but just a witness, mediator or intercessor.

A missionary is, therefore, called to kenotic experience through his living in the missionary context. This often includes challenges related to the study of a new language, culture, customs, religions and philosophies of the place. He needs to understand the mentality and habits of the people and never impose on others his original cultural mindset or even the ecclesiastic framework of his local church as this might be a serious hindrance to the task of inculturation and to the action of the Holy Spirit.

A missionary needs to have a profound experience of freedom in Christ and he must live this experience in greater depth; otherwise, he will not be able to help non-Christians in seeking the same kind of freedom they desire for themselves.

Metanoia as Transformation of Consciousness

Metanoia is a process of deep and lasting change that takes place in the mind, heart, and soul of the missionary. It involves a radical shift in perspective, values, and priorities. Metanoia is not a one-time event but a continuous process of growth and renewal. We come to understand that “this conversion is never realized. It is always in the making, in the remaking and in the process of perfecting” (Yves Raguin).

A missionary should be willing to see the world through the eyes of those he serves as he is challenged by the “plurality of mental universes.” He must be willing to listen to their stories, understand their struggles, and appreciate their culture. This requires empathy, sensitivity, and respect.

A missionary “tries to understand people, because he believes that God is already present among them. …And because his religious background is still exterior to their life, he joins them whereever they are, whoever they are, on the soil where God dwells without their knowledge. This human reality which resists language of his faith is the place where he has to relearn God – God written in characters still unknown to the missionary” (Michel de Certeau).

The transformation of the mind is neither easy nor quick. It requires time, effort, and commitment. It involves facing our own weaknesses, fears, and limitations. It involves seeking guidance, support, and accountability from others. It involves relying on God’s grace and power to transform one’s life. One needs to wait patiently in order to discover what one is ultimately seeking and expecting – namely, “the manifestation of the God who comes, always in an unpredictable but certain way, even where he seems absent” (Michel de Certeau). Only then a missionary will see how God is working in a mysterious and even obscure way in those who do not know him yet.

The transformation of the mind is essential for effective missionary work. It enables a person to connect with others on a deeper level, to understand their needs and struggles, and to offer them hope and healing. It enables one to overcome cultural barriers, to bridge gaps of misunderstanding and mistrust, and to build relationships based on mutual respect and trust. A missionary should be aware that God is also semper maior, always greater than what one’s very heart can possibly think about others. Therefore, he needs to respect the conscience and the intimacy of others in their relationship with the “unknown” God, so as to accompany them in their process of discovery.

In conclusion, metanoia or transformation of the mind is a vital aspect of a missionary’s life. It is a process of deep and lasting change that involves a radical shift in perspective, values, and priorities. It requires faith, humility, empathy, courage, generosity, discipline, perseverance, and reliance on God’s grace and power. If a missionary is willing to undergo this transformation, he may be an effective agent of God’s love and mercy in the world.