- The Great Age of Mission: Some Historical Studies in Mission History by Lawrence Nemer
It is appropriate that the first chapter in The Great Age of Mission. Some Historical Studies in Mission History by Lawrence Nemer, S.V.D., is “My Pilgrimage in Mission,” his narrative of influential intellectual, spiritual, and personal factors that shaped his life through almost fifty years of teaching seminarians in the United States, England, Australia, and Asian countries. One significant factor in Nemer’s approach to church history was his interaction with Protestant scholars, especially [End Page 595] Leslie Newbigin, Max Warren, and R. Pierce Biever. Past president of the Missionary Institute London, and most recently faculty member at Yarra Theological School in Melbourne, Nemer explores nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic missions in this collection of selected articles, most written after 2005. His teaching philosophy embodies his historical study of “big issues” through a study of “smaller issues” (p. 11), a plan observed in the book’s overall organization (Western Scene, Asian/Oceanic Scene, African Scene). With a focus mainly on men’s mission congregations, some chapters paint a wide geographic sweep, as in his study, “Catholic Missions in Oceania and the Pacific (1910–1920).” Other chapters analyze a detailed context and shorter time period such as “Australian Divine Word Missionaries Go to ‘The Missions’: The First Recruits.”
Nemer’s goal in historical research and teaching is to have students develop a dialogue with church history, as, for example, noting mission concern for peoples and individuals, openness to circumstances, and emphasis on mission spirituality (p. 25). Without denying the often nationalist approach to mission and willingness to collaborate with colonial powers (although there were differences on the point among European countries), Nemer also indicates the expressions of mission stemming from the Second Vatican Council, such as the importance of Christian witness, the “seed of the Logos” within the world, dialogue, and affirmation of local culture (pp. 67–86).
His focus on piquing students’ interest in church history is noted in several ways, beginning with his first assignment at the Divine Word Seminary in the United States in 1962. His students were not concerned with what was “new” at the Second Vatican Council, even though Nemer’s mentors were among those instrumental in the formation of the Council documents. They “were more interested in knowing what would be the implications and consequences of [the Vatican documents] for missionary work” (p. 17). The impact of theology touched him poignantly when a student, who had studied liberation theology with him, was killed as he was negotiating between squatters and cattlemen in Brazil. “Our [mission] theology has consequences,” he states (p. 17).
His extensive research in the Archives of Propaganda Fide in Rome for eight months over several years provides a surprising insight: “The centralization of mission work in the Propaganda [between 1860 and 1914] was a gradual process and the mission congregations were somewhat to ‘blame’ for this process” (p. 169). This was due in part to mission congregations’ unwillingness to reach agreement among themselves on division of vicariates, for example, even though Propaganda sought their advice. By 1900, individual congregations appealed to Propaganda to make decisions, and fewer congregations sent reports on vicariate situations. By then, Propaganda was making decisions without consultation of the missionary groups (p. 170).
A companion Festschrift further illuminates Nemer’s work, suggests new historical sources, and draws out implied topics: Ross Fishburn, Michael Kelly, Christopher Monaghan, and Peter Price, eds., Creating a Welcoming Space. Reflections [End Page 596] on Church and Mission. Essays to Honour Larry Nemer, S.V.D. (Northcote, Australia, 2014).