Book Review: How not to write about evangelisation

Book Review: How not to write about evangelisation

Millennial Missionaries - How a Group of Young Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool by Katherine Dugan, Oxford University Press, 185pp, £22.99
 
reviewed by Lucy de Vregille
 
In her Introduction to Millennial Missionaries - How a Group of Young Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool, Katherine Dugan, Assistant Professor of Religion at Springfield College Massachusetts, proposes an “…ethnographic study of U.S. Catholic identity and an examination of the relationship between Catholic prayer and Catholic identity…” (p.4). However, I find the title both inaccurate and a little patronising. The text remains exclusively concerned with a very specific group named FOCUS, a lay Catholic missionary organisation present on U.S. university campuses, and trying to define a subculture of what she terms as ‘millennial’ Catholics. It essentially recounts the history of FOCUS and tries to establish links between their activities and the wider changes in the Catholic Church in the U.S. over recent years. I therefore find it astonishing that FOCUS, the niche basis of her eight years of scrutiny, is left out of the title, which instead erroneously promises to encompass a much wider field.
 
Sceptical
 
“Trying to make Catholicism cool” just about sums up Dugan’s mistaken and mildly belittling attitude towards the incredible, authentic and joyful work of the missionaries involved with FOCUS: young graduates giving one year or more of their lives in direct evangelisation of other students and a committed prayer life rooted in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Perhaps we can see Dugan’s own faith struggle at play as she cannot bring herself to accept entirely the authentic effect, nor identify the real root, of Catholic Mission work. She represents the familiar worldly tone of failing to see the necessity of evangelisation. Moving testimonies that she includes in her research are reduced to puffed-up theatrics, and her descriptions are not entirely free from a gently mocking air. Dugan adopts a sceptical tenor, something which permeates the text, in a misguided pursuit of professional neutrality.
 
The Church as a human construct
 
She describes evangelisation as ‘recruitment’ and drily paints missionaries as those who are employed to present the Catholic Church as attractive, implying the use of a premeditated façade to make people like the Church. Whilst she does (a tad patronisingly) allow them a certain authenticity of prayer life, she mistakenly attributes a grandiose commitment to the cause and fails spectacularly to grasp the real and only motivation for becoming missionaries: the overwhelming truth of the love of God for each person and the dramatic effect of this truth on an individual’s life. Missionaries are presented as “triumphant” (a word used more than once), nervously self-convinced and proud. This being all very earthly, it poses rather a large problem when documenting mission work in general and presents a significant obstacle to readers gaining any authentic understanding of a ‘millennial’ missionary’s life, or even Dugan’s wider aim of shedding light on recent changes in the dynamics of U.S. parish  life. More subtly dangerous, it serves to confirm the mind-set that the Church is an entirely human construct.
 
Painfully secular research
 
There is no doubting her competence as an engaging writer, though her chapters are a little long. Her descriptions are catchy, and the religious landscape of a post-conciliar U.S is well laid out. However, I do find the concept of attending Holy Hours four times a week as an “observer” of other attendees (something the author did for seven months) verging on the ridiculous. Dugan comments on what missionaries are reading and whether they are kneeling on the floor or on kneelers. She sets herself up as a researcher who goes adventurously close to the line whilst observing communities of people (there is even a moment where she is not sure whether to personally go to confession or not because she declares a conflict of professionalism!) The result is that, through an entirely misguided sense of professionalism, she behaves in a certain way for the sake of good, or rather, painfully secular, research practices. This is problematic as I am not sure it won’t be interpreted by some as a bit close to the line.
 
Hollow
 
It is clear that whilst Dugan’s research methods are probably comprehensive, by current academic standards, the tone sits uncomfortably with anyone of faith. Acknowledging that missionaries believe that God is behind it all is somewhat fundamental, if not traditional, to understanding the vocation of the missionary and so to speaking with authority on the subject. If we do not accept this as a basic premise we essentially render the idea empty and the research spiritually uninteresting. Dugan’s attempt to engage with this period of Church history, as experienced through the personal faith stories of young American campus missionaries, remains disappointingly hollow of the true evangelistic joy these ‘millennial’ missionaries radiate and are fuelled by.
 
For me, this text is a painful testament to the pervading secular influence on modern academics in the United States. In research, secularism is preached as objectivity: to remain ‘neutral’ one must adhere to the secular belief system. Dugan does admit in her Acknowledgements preceding the official document that she has been “reshaped” by her time spent following the missionaries, but she states that it has no place in an academic text, more’s the shame. The notion that one can, and should, separate out one’s faith from one’s work, or any other part of one’s existence, as if it is not an integral part of an individual, is impossible, and attempting it limits the human person and thus what they can accomplish at work.
 
Categorisation attempts
 
Many a book has captivated us on the Church at historical turning points and on the role of missionaries in challenging conditions, and I am sure this ‘millennial’ generation of the faithful will not disappoint future authors. However I cannot help but feel Dugan’s attempt, amongst other things, is a little early. The movement is not finished, people are still living it, and without any reasonable distance we lose a sensible or complete understanding of events. With the dramatic increase in the social speed of media and global communications we are frantic to write the pages of history before the dust has even thought about settling. Films of great persons can be attended by the person in question before their life and great works are even finished. Dugan tries to write definitively on a subject (and on people) that has not run its course, which poses major problems for her conclusions and for drawing any conclusion in general.
 
The Church, chased by categorisation attempts and secular measures of success, will never effectively be written about in these terms. Millennial Missionaries- How a Group of Young Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool is not a spiritual work, nor an history of FOCUS (although a factually complete history is provided); rather it is a work of academic curiosity with the unsatisfying non-conclusion expected from attempting to quantify the existence and effect of Faith.

 

Notes:

Lucy Courlet de Vregille is a member of the Emmanuel Community and a stay-at-home mother of three children.