Principles for the Training of Missionaries by Ivan Illich

What follows is a lecture by Ivan Illich to a Jesuit organization called Pro Vita Mundi at their first international congress in Essen, Germany, held between September 3rd and 5th, 1963.  The conference was called "Die Not Der Kirche Und Die Aufgabe Der Ordensleute" - The Predicament of the Church and the Task of the Religious Orders.  The German text of Illich's talk was recently recovered from the conference proceedings by Italian scholar Fabio Milana.  Milana is working on a book on Illich's formative years that will soon appear in Italy.  My wife, Jutta Mason, translated the text he provided from German to English, and we then edited the English text together.  The paper is a valuable supplement to Illich's essays on mission in The Church, Change and Development and should help to inform the debate begun by Todd Hartch's characterization of Illich as "anti-missionary" in his book The Prophet of Cuernavaca. 


Mission work can be considered either from a sociological or a theological vantage point. Both ways of seeing require attention to two fundamental facts. In the first place, mission work always has to be understood as a way of enabling the act of faith in a new cultural context (and that assumes on the one hand a certain insight into the theology of the Word and on the other hand at least an approximate assessment of the mission territory in question in a sociological sense). 

In the second place, it must be remembered that the missionary church today everywhere in the world does not find itself facing just an individual state structure, but rather a world of international development.



The science of missiology researches the growth of the church in time and space. Its object is the encounter of the church with a foreign people, whose language and culture must be made receptive to the good news. One can apply a sociological interpretation to this encounter, as an encounter between two groups, or a theological one, as a contact between the word of God and a people which hears that Word.


 1. The concept of mission from a sociological standpoint

For anthropologists and sociologists the church represents a social phenomenon, namely a group which is held together by a number of customs and understandings. For politicians the church forms a “pressure group” [Illich uses the English here] and has its own ideology and culture (and how often has the church been misused that way, in order to serve politics!). For many social psychologists the church counts as a particular phase in the evolution of the self-understanding of humanity; in this regard it must be seen as the high point in the alienation of man in his relation to the world, since it wants to fix him in an earlier station of evolution.  In this sociological view the missionary appears to the potential believer, not as a messenger from God, but primarily as a member of a particular social grouping, in relation to whom one might be either positive or negative or perhaps just indifferent.


2. The understanding of mission from a theological standpoint

Here the church is seen as the coming into being of the church, as the word of God made flesh in a new human community. That point of view offers two important perspectives. On the one hand the church is only built up in the relevant community through individual conversions. On the other hand the local church only acts as an outward sign when a Christian group comes into being.  And it becomes such a sign for those particular people when it is expressed in the unique terms of their culture. So the individual and the community depend on one another in the mission. The concept of mission should therefore signify the building up of the church in the imagination and in the wishes and dreams of the community. Its structure will be expressed through the people’s own words and gestures.


3. The missionary

Every Christian is a missionary who is sent out from the church in one world into another world, specifically with the task of bringing the church into view as a sign of Christ in that other world’s own language and way of living. This new world could be a new people, but it could just as well be a new scientific milieu or a different social structure. Never does the missionary bring the Word of God in a way that is abstracted from culture. Christ himself was not only an actual person, but a Jew, and in addition lived at a particular time of world history. The church is forever identified with its semitic origin: through the language and the cultural milieu of the Old as well as the New Testament, she remains rooted in Israel. When later Roman missionaries announced the word of God in northern Europe, it was only able to become a broadly comprehensible sign when the Germanic people were able to comprehend the message from within their own representational world. This obstacle again and again presents the greatest difficulty for mission work: to carry the particular, enfleshed, acculturated word of God into another cultural world. In South America it didn’t work; no Indian church was established, but a Spanish church on an Indian ground, and the cultural world of the indigenous people collapsed. For that reason the missionary must not attack or simply replace the traditional texts and customs of a people who have not yet found Christ in the church. Rather, he must bring the indigenous culture into relationship with the texts and customs of a people who have already succeeded, at least in part, at making their own culture into a genuine sign of the church. Putting the two cultures side by side in this way must not lead to a suppression. Instead it should foster a mutual cultural exchange. In consequence, the group which is the object of the mission, will find its own culture being fermented with a new spiritual principle, and at the same time the mission church will be enriched through a new expression of the faith.


In the theological sense the missionary is therefore the one through whom faith becomes transparent in a new language. In human terms his witness forms a dialogue between two cultures. But in this way he is exposed to a double danger – either to betray his own past, or to rape the world to which he has been sent.

The best image for mission might be a marriage. Think of a very elderly married couple, who sit in front of their little house. In the course of their lives, he became more a father and a man; she became morea mother and a woman.  And now in the evening of their lives they see themselves as equally brother and sister.

In the same way the missionary becomes to an ever-increasing degree, the son of his own homeland, and a conscious member of his own mother church in the homeland.  And yet he has been totally accepted into the new people, in the sense that the adoption in which he has taken part has become the starting point for the growth of the church. In this perspective it is compelling to read the letters that the sixteenth century missionary Matteo Ricci wrote in his old age. The man who became Chinese among the Chinese as probably no one after him ever did, appears in these letters as a man who to an in ever-increasing extent was concerned about the reports he got from his brother in Italy about the condition of the family wine stocks.



The missionary must be adopted into his new homeland.  He always remains the man who is just tolerated, the guest and foreigner, even in the practice of his fatherly task. His acceptance into the lap of a new people remains a favour and a gift, which he cannot earn but of which he needs to prove himself worthy.

For that reason not everyone is suited to being trained as a missionary. There are certain types of applicants for mission, who must be excluded right from the beginning, whereas there are others whom one can immediately recognize as suitable. So those who seek to escape from their own homeland for one or another reason, are almost all completely unsuitable for the career of a missionary.  Then again there are others who are very nationalistically minded and who defend – usually because of a lack of a deep inner and personal spiritual life – the views of their previous homeland in their new home. One must very tactfully help such types to reach a deeper and more original spiritual life.  

Others see mission as an exciting adventure. Here serious character formation is necessary, to transform the willingness to become an offering, born from fantasy, into virtue. Others again show up as churchly conquistadores, who either want to baptise as many souls as possible, without even taking account of the need for a thorough education and for building a solid community, or who seek only to lift up the people as fast as possible to their own European or American way of living, thus overlooking their cultural uniqueness. 

The education of the missionary must enable him to keep in mind that it is not he but his friends that will be making the church comprehensible by means of local understandings, and that ultimately he can only play a secondary role. That kind of a spiritual stance assumes a deep reverence toward the difference in the other, and toward the secret of the singular aspect of each people.


2. Inseparably entwined with the education of the missionary is the development of the gift of making  distinctions. The candidate must be able to distinguish between:


a) the revealed truth, which we must read in the revelation;

b) the actualization of the same truth, in the form familiar to us in the church of the homeland and

c) the form this actualization takes, as it appears, in endlessly varied shapes, to viewers from other cultural worlds.


The missionary must do more than just learn to recognize new forms in which a Christian sense of shame or a Christian form of brotherly love can find expression. At the same time he must be ready and remain ready to see more deeply into the nature of Christianity itself, by opening himself to the truth of his tradition as it appears in the frame of a new spiritual world, even though this world remains for him in part still incomprehensible. 


3. It is of course also important that the religious, who is preparing himself for the work of mission, not only sees and learns his task as apostle, but also as a divinely consecrated witness. The religious missionary arriving in in a modern developing country may come with three different points of view. As a well-educated member of a high status community he almost always expects to take on the task of a technician working on secular development. But as a missionary he also cares for souls and carries a churchly office. Finally, as a religious he is and remains, even though in completely different circumstances than in his home, the poor witness and announcer of the greatness of God.  In his character as a religious, it is also his task to share this witness within the church in community with others. The preparation of the religious for their work of mission must take account of all these almost incompatible viewpoints. As a consequence of his activities in the mission, new opportunities offer themselves for the religious to observe his three evangelical oaths in a very special way.  In his new situation poverty is experienced in the cultural domain. The cultural accomplishments he brings with him appear largely worthless in his mission. In relation to the culture of the inhabitants of his new home he will always be the one who receives more than he is able to give. Nor should he confuse his dominance in the technical sense with capability in the genuine Christian sense. He will have to remain, as an individual as well as a community member, a symbol of renunciation and of freedom, despite his collaboration in technical progress.  


His obedience will also present much more severe demands; especially regarding the orders that his superior at his old home gives him. The missionary will have to carry out these orders in such a way that one the one hand he does not use them as an excuse for his inability to adapt the Gospel to its new setting and yet on the other hand he must know how to give full and total respect to his superior’s actual intention.

As to chastity, he will ultimately need to learn to see it in its positive sense as the virtue which enables him to love the individual, always starting anew, instead of only seeing the “souls” as a kind of material on which he can practice the virtue of the apostles. For the missionary, chastity in the activities of the mission means the flourishing of such tenderness in love that he is able to see the unique and singular personality, even in the people most foreign to him



1. The church has always had to penetrate a world still in the process of becoming. But in our time, new elements have been added to this forward movement. The difference between the culture of the occident, from which the missionary originates,  and the civilization of the mission regions is more and more experienced as the contrast between the rich and the poor; and these poor become aware of this, and experience it as an injustice. More and more people realize that they ought to have more opportunities, and should have the right to a higher standard of living, and that they don’t want to wait any longer. This demand for an immediate alteration of the psychological and social structure in various domains announces itself everywhere with an unbelievable speed. The acceleration of this growth process requires a Christian interpretation and a Christian position.


2.  During the last century, the church in its mission work sometimes encountered peoples who still lived in complete independence from the rest of the world. In most cases during that period the church was not successful in taking root in the cultures of these peoples.

Now, as these peoples are dragged along the wild evolutionary process of today, they are in danger of seeing their traditional ways of living abruptly disappear. So the man who finds himself in the situation of pastor as well as helper in the work of development, faces a doubly difficult task. For on the one hand these new peoples strive to get ahead quickly, with the support of international development assistance, and they regard the missionary as a cheap aid in this task of development. On the other hand they try to protect their national traditions, and then they regard the missionary as a dangerous element and a potential source of alienation.  


3. So what then is the specific task in this chaotic situation?

The question for the missionary is whether he can make the church, which has come from an established state, into a source of spiritual dynamism in this more fluid development domain. In many areas of mission that would have to involve giving up much of the existing supply of church capital (in schools and buildings); for in the hasty evolution of the affected society the scant resources of the mission ought not to be expended in rapidly aging and numerous material investments but should rather be a spiritual investment in persons.

In this regard, the education of the missionary can hardly be called complete, if it does not prepare him to humbly and discreetly take account of the resistance that he must unavoidably expect from his predecessors.  



1. Technology has created possibilities for learning languages systematically, whose consequences we cannot yet comprehend. The average student in the Mexican mountain city of Cuernavaca (the original Ouauhuahuac) speaks Spanish better after a couple of months of instruction than the average missionary after a stay of about ten years.  In Cuernavaca just as in the elegant Brazilian city of Petropolis, we demand of our pupils (mostly in small groups of three with a teacher originating from the relevant place) that they settle into the rhythm of the language. Language teaching is thus done with scientific seriousness, and yet also accompanied by a deeply-experienced encounter with the entire thought- and emotional world which is so tightly bound up with language. On top of that we must consider the way in which the influence of socio-economic development, expressed in every language, affects this language study. Every social development is preceded by a psychological development, and that means a decisive alteration in the language. So one notices that a training for greater productivity will always also be a lesson in new words and things.


2. The missionary must try to protect the language and the character of a people from alienation, both from the outside (coming from other countries) and from the inside (internal reversal due to technological change). He must know how to accommodate himself to the old traditions and often also, as in Latin America, to an already existing Christianity, in order later on to help further develop that Christianity from the inside out.  


3. A final and broader task, which defines the missionary of our day, can be delineated by the concept of mutuality between church communities. After all, the missionary carries an apostolic responsibility toward his own country of origin. Only through him and his experiences will his homeland become aware that what he clearly observes in the mission land can just as well apply to his homeland. Who else in Europe would think of asking the questions which occupy us day in, day out, in South America:  “Do we really need seminaries to make sure that we get new priests?” – “Do we really still have to ensure that each child that’s born is also baptized, and thereby to make sure that a community of baptized catechumens continues to exist?” – “Does it make sense for the church to hold on to the requirement that the baptized attend mass every Sunday, or shouldn’t we rather come to a kind of ‘disciplina arcani,’ and teach that only those must attend Sunday mass, who are also aware of what is at issue?”

In order to make possible this mutual relationship, an ongoing contact between ‘young’ and ‘old’ churches is completely essential.




This congress is a new kind of event in the history of the church. The boundaries between the traditional mission domain and the old established Christianity have been breached. The need for more effectiveness in pastoral strategy is clearly felt. But on the one hand there is a danger concealed in the erection of the “Pro Mundi Vita” Foundation, namely to forget that religious only fulfil their pastoral task as they increase in the supernatural virtue of renunciation. On the other hand the religious can only observe their vows in a way pleasing to God and in a way that fits their time, if they do so in a place where the church is called to act.