Charles, Pierre, SJ (1883-1954)
Pioneer of Catholic Missiology
Pierre-Albert Charles Hubert was born in Brussels on July 3, 1883 (1). He was the fourth of seven children of Raymond and Clothilde Saey. His father was a magistrate (2), while one of his brothers was involved in the colonial administration of the Congo, and later became Belgian minister for colonies (3). Brilliant and open minded, Pierre Charles, while still in high school, enjoyed reading news of the Belgian Jesuit Mission in Zambezi. He entered the Society of Jesus on September 23, 1899 (4). In his Jesuit training, he studied philosophy and classical letters at the Faculties of Namur and Louvain. He completed his philosophical studies with the German Jesuits residing in Holland, and did theology with the French Jesuits exiled in England (1907-1910). He was ordained a priest on August 24, 1910 (5). His time in Germany and France allowed him to come to know the writings of Immanuel Kant (6) and he took classes with Henri Bergson. Both philosophers were then marginal figures in Catholic circles. He made several trips outside of Europe, visiting Asia, Africa and Latin America. Those trips helped him broaden his horizons. Multilingual, he spoke English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin and Greek.
Pierre Charles was primarily an academician who taught at several universities around the world, in cities such as Louvain, Rome, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, etc. In 1923, he began his vast missiological output (7). He was one of the founders of the “Museum Lessianum,” and he published his first book in that series. Entitled Prayer For All Times (8), this book was translated into a dozen languages. The second of its thirty-three meditations focused on the question: “And the Gentiles?” The answer came in the sixth meditation, and gives us an idea on the progressive character of Pierre Charles: “The demons testify on your behalf, Lord, but I do not understand why the infidels cannot hear me, why they would be able to change my Pharisaic pride, and enlighten me on the nothingness of my works” (9). In another meditation, he spoke about the human vocation, that there is something in the human being that cries above all conventional speech, which is stronger than any rhetoric. This voice cannot be silenced until the will of God is fully realized (10). In the cadre of his spiritual writings, Pierre Charles also published The Prayer of the Missionary (11), inviting us to focus specifically on his missiological writings.
Early Steps in Catholic Missiology
Pierre Charles became Professor of Theology at Louvain at the end of his Jesuit formation, until 1923 when he resolutely became engaged in missionary activities. Was it his way of answering the human call elaborated in his book on prayer? The truth is that he went to write pamphlets about missions (The Lemfu Seminar in Zaïre), to preach sermons in their favor (Advent University 1924), and he created youth associations to support the missions (AUCAM, 1925) (12). Better still, he began to speak of a “strange and new science he called Missiology, for the study of which he wanted to gather in Leuven missionaries from around the world, the majority of whom came from Africa” (13). He referred to those gatherings as “Missiology Weeks.” The disappointment among other theologians in Louvain was immediate, partly due to the fact that Catholic intellectual circles still considered missions to be an “apostolate of the savages” and a matter of secondary importance, reserved to field missionaries.
The concept of “missionogy,” missionswissenschaft (14), emerged in Germany before the First World War. This concept had no French or English equivalence, and had not clear identity as yet, still navigating “between theology and history, and between ethnology and practice” (15). For instance, Pierre Charles was the first to use the term “missiology,” and to introduce it in the academy (16). He used it first in his “Missiology Weeks of Louvain” in the early 1920s. In 1929, the year after the French Academy rejected this concept, he published an article entitled “La missiologie” (17) The reason for this rejection of the term might be what Pierre Charles framed as an “etymological heresy” (18). The word is the association of two roots: the Greek “logie” and the Latin “missio.” Such an association was as mixing apples and oranges for many linguists. Moreover, in mission circles, the term was also suspicious because it was removing the final “n” of mission, which the Spanish and Italian word “misionologia”/“missionologia” carefully preserved (19). In 1931, Joseph Schmidlin used the term missiology in his Catholic Mission Theory (20). But there is no reference of Pierre Charles either in the bibliography or in the index of the book. However, in his Dossiers de l’action missionnaire, written in 1938, Charles acknowledged the missiological works done in Muenster (where Schmidlin was teaching), Rome, Nimègue, etc. (21).
The catalyst for the 19th century missionary outreach in the Catholic Church was pope Benedict XV. On November 30, 1919, he published an Apostolic Letter, Maximum illud, which defined the missions as a “permanent task” of the Catholic Church. The Pope invited mission leaders to actively seek new “collaborators” among religious women and “natives” (n. 27-35), whom he also called “infidels” (n. 12) and “indigenous” (n. 15). These natives were to be well prepared so as to carry out their task in assisting the missionaries, and in the near future to assume the leadership of the mission and the Church. The Apostolic Letter insisted on the Catholicity of the Church, and called for more inclusiveness and universality (people from all nations and races) in its leadership. The Church was to avoid any kind of nationalism, marking a shift from the old “patriotic missions” model (n. 47-48). Finally, missions should promote education, indigenous languages, health services, charity and the life of prayer. The genius of Pierre Charles was to seize on this impetus as he moved decisively to missiology in 1923.
Furthermore, in 1926 Pope Pius XI issued a missiological encyclical, Rerum Ecclesiae, reinforcing the missionary vocation of the Catholic Church and its commitment on behalf of what later became known as “indigenization” (22), “building up a native clergy” (n. 19) and promoting local languages (n. 23). The encyclical opened with an apostolic foundation for the missions despite difficult times, and encouraged greater fellowship and love as the substance of mission (n. 6). It would be a great mistake to look at natives as inferior races, and their clergy as being of a lower grade. There should be no discrimination among the priests (n. 26). The Pope also urged the creation of a Missionary Union for the Clergy in every mission and parish, which would discern and support the mission. According to J. Masson (23) and G. Meessen (24), this encyclical was the first officialization of Charles’ theory of mission, that is, “to plant the Church” building churches, schools, hospitals, works of charity, etc.
Pierre Charles: Mission as Making the Church Visible
The purpose of the mission is the planting of the visible Church or what Pierre Charles referred to as “the extensive growth of the Church” (25). Relying on Thomistic causality and the principle of natural law, he found the efficient cause of mission in “the natural inclination of every man to help others,” and the duty to cooperate with Christ in the extension of his body of which every human person is a member (26). To be effective in his task, the missionary must adapt as much as possible to the conditions of the peoples to be evangelized.
In his writings, Pierre Charles developed several missionary themes: interreligious dialogue, the disposition of all cultures and traditions to welcome the Gospel, the missionary vocation of every Christian, the need to establish local churches led by natives themselves, the restoration of the permanent diaconate, the role of the laity, and the advancement of women in the Church, etc. For him, missionary work was essentially preparatory, not final. The aim of missionary work was not the harvest, but to plantation of the seed (27). The Church was the leaven in the world, which should take roots in the concrete experience of peoples and individuals. It was from this experience that any theological reflection should take place. Missionary work should not focus on the conversion of the masses or the total conversion of a country; rather, it should be brief, and have a concrete impact on both the lives and the society of the peoples to be evangelized. Such an effect could not be achieved if spiritual activity was not joined with social works.
Spirituality and Dogmatic of Mission
Pierre Charles was a son of St. Ignatius of Loyola, deeply rooted in the Church. He prayed in the Church, with the Church, and for the Church. But his prayer in the Church was also a prayer for all things, that is, a contemplative act that sought to find God in all things and all things in God. His vision of the world was therefore more optimistic and inclusive, compared to the anti-modernist debate that marked the ecclesiastical context of the end of the 19th century. His biographer, J. Masson, put him on the same footing with the cosmic thought of Teilhard de Chardin in the 1920s (28). But Pierre Charles’ also criticized Teilhard and emphasized the necessity of important theological dogma. He reproached Teilhard for not having taken the reality of sin sufficiently seriously; but in dealing with this issue in his treaty on the Incarnation, Charles concluded that the Incarnation would not have happened if human beings had not sinned. Consequently, he limited the meaning of the Incarnation to justification and necessity. His whole missiological reflection seemed, however, more nuanced and orthodox. It relied on the inherently expansive nature of all things, but also on a solid theology of the Incarnation and the gratuity of God’s grace.
First, in his “Fundamental Dogmatic of Missions,” Charles enumerated a series of generally accepted reasons for the mission: the natural disposition of human beings to share what they believe is true; and the obedience to the command of Christ to go into all nations and baptize. For him, however, “the Church that the mission must plant is not a system of ideas, or a theory, but a visible institution, a human society” (29). Secondly, Charles gave missionary work an incarnational meaning. Christ saved us because he became man, and descended to our humanity. It is an act of charity, of supreme love. Charles then stressed the importance of the concept of “contact” or “approach.” Among the points of contact with tribal religions, he enumerated four aspects: these religions are social; their relationship to the world of the ancestors helps to understand the transition between “fathers and the Father”; the notion of a sovereign god exists; and morality is dictated by obedience to a supernatural order (30).
Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue
The spirit of Charles’ theology led him beyond the frontiers of the Catholic Church. Mindful of the reconciliation in process between Lutheranism and Catholicism after the First World War, Pierre Charles published La Robe sans couture: Essai sur le Luthéranisme Catholique (The Seamless robe: An Essay on Catholic Lutheranism) (31). This text is a reflection on Christian unity or, more precisely, on the reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans. While the post-war context continued to feed divisions in Western Christendom, Pierre Charles thought that it was the duty of the Church to realize a simple biblical truth, reaffirmed by the tradition: “The robe of Christ was seamless; to that she would never be undone” (32). This seamless dress was the Catholic Church. The pace of this reconciliation between Catholic and Protestant missiologists at the academic level seems to have been slow. In Netherland for instance, the term “missiology” was used by both Catholic and Protestant missiologists only in the 1960s (33), in the ecumenical climate of Vatican II.
Moreover, Charles found “points of contact” with all great religions of the world, following the classification of Weber that included Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, and Islam. Buddhism, he said, had some predispositions for the “form of the Church,” and contained contact elements which could serve as a bridge to Christianity (34). What was missing in Buddhism, Charles said, was a redemptive God. Hinduism was characterized by its ability to appreciate all forms of religiosity and absorb them. Their propensity toward detachment, the significance a supernatural end, and their thirst for holiness are many advantages to promote openness to Christianity (35). The morality of Confucianism, that is, its sense of respect and moderation can serve as points of contact with Christianity, despite the resistance that could be expected because of it being based in Chinese culture (36). In Taoism, the Tao could be closer to the idea of Christian pre-incarnate Logos, just as immortality, the moral call to detachment and gentleness would be excellent points of contact with Christian ideas of eternal life, renunciation, and mercy (37). Finally, “the Islamic doctrine of God and the Word is basically that of Arius,” and its Christology is Nestorian (38). Moreover, Islam recognizes the devotion to Mary and the holiness of Jesus.
In Etudes Missiologiques (1955), an anthology of his missiological writings published after his death and edited by J. Masson, the introductions to various chapters provide better understanding Pierre Charles’ missiological thinking. We learn from the first chapter that what makes a region a land of mission is the absence of the visible Church. Moreover, the purpose of mission is the visible Church in a given region (39). A little further, in Chapter 4, there is a brief introduction to his missionary method. It must be inclusive, based on the principle of what the editor describes as “a work of adoration, respect and completion” (40). The missionary should develop a loving and prudent relationship with the peoples to be evangelized. He/she should also avoid any offensive language, such as the concepts of pagans, infidels, gentiles, and non-Catholics, which sometimes are offensive to Asians or Africans. In fact he wrote many texts on the origin of racial prejudices on Africans, in a forceful attempt to deconstruct their theological and ideological foundations. Jean Lacouture also described Charles’ forceful critique of Nazism in the 1930s (41).
Adaptation was not simply a tactical question; it was a theological principle. The mission was intended by God to extend the Body of Christ, which is the Church. God prepared all cultures to receive the Body of Christ, and divine providence will lead this extension to its completion. Pierre Charles insisted that “the work of the creator cannot be different or contrary to that of the Redeemer” (42). Moreover, all that divine providence prepared and approved was also the heritage of the Church. For him, the diversity of human cultures was part of the providential design of God. As such, the mission should respect these cultures. The missionary had no right to destroy them; he/she should protect this diversity, which enriches the Church (43). Adaptation was not a concession or a special favor granted to neophyte cultures in order to accommodate them. Nor were these the raison d’être of the mission. Adaptation lovingly embraced “all that were born of the genius, the patience, courage, or kindness of humans.” It recognized the divine origin of all things, and its task was to “restore” these realities to their divine origin (ad Fontalem originem), and to do so through the Church (44). Based on the letter of Saint Gregory the Great to Melitus and a declaration of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in 1659, Pierre Charles, on the one hand, invited missionaries not to destroy pagan temples, but rather to “purify them by dedicating them to the true God” (45). On the other hand, missionaries should not ask peoples to change their practices, unless these are contrary “to religion and honesty” (46).
A Lasting Impact
Pierre Charles died on February 11, 1954. His missiology had a decisive impact on the academic and missionary world. His biographer J. Masson recognized Charles’ influence starting with Pius XII who used the term “Body of Christ” or “Sacrament of the world” to define the Church. Charles is also credited to be one of the fathers of missiology as a science. As the father of the Belgian School, his missiology, along with the Spanish School of missiology, shaped the Declaration on mission, Ad Gentes, of Vatican II (47). Even the Council’s definition of the Church as “people of God” was not contrary to the thinking of Pierre Charles. As I noted earlier, he was among the first to promote the idea of a greater involvement of the laity in mission and in the life of the Church.
Charles proposed a dual definition of missiology. The first was theoretical: missiology is a “special science related to history and ethnology” (48). And the second was practical: missiology is a science that has to serve missionary activity, in order to enrich it and make it more effective. This science uses ethnological data, social and pedagogical sciences, formulates a doctrine of missions, studies others religions and pagan mystics, and can supplement the formation of missionary agents (49). In short, it is impossible to study the history of missions today without evoking Pierre Charles (1883-1954). Africanist, the interest of Pierre Charles for Africa was based on his personal commitment to the continent, but also on a belief that the future of the Church was in Africa. Africa, he said, “is the movement, is the future” (50). Nothing suggests at this point that he was wrong.
By Jean Luc Enyegue
(1) J. Masson, “In Memoriam. Le P. Pierre Charles, S.J., Missiologue,” in Les Dossiers de L’action Missionnaire, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Louvain: AUCAM, 1938), 7–11.
(2) Jean Lacouture, Jésuites: Les Revenants, vol. 2 (Paris: Seuil, 1992), 306.
(3) Joseph Masson, “The Legacy of Pierre Charles, S.J.,” Occasional Bulletin, October 1978, 118–20.
(4) G. Meessen, “Pierre Charles,” Diccionario histórico de la Compañía de Jesús (Madrid: Universidad Pontificia Comillas, 2001), 753.
(6) Pierre Charles, “La Métaphysique du Kantisme: Le noumène,” Revue de Philosophie, 1914, 337–60; Pierre Charles, “La Métaphysique du Kantisme: L’analyse,” Revue de Philosophie, 1914, 576–600; Pierre Charles, “La Métaphysique du Kantisme: La chose en soi,” Revue de Philosophie, 1913, 113–36; Pierre Charles, “La Métaphysique du Kantisme: Les catégories,” Revue de Philosophie, 1913, 253–77; Pierre Charles, “La Métaphysique du Kantisme: Les formes de l’intuition Sensible,” Revue de Philosophie, 1913, 363–88.
(7) J. Lopez-Gay, “Misionologia,” Diccionario Histórico de La Compañía de Jesús (Madrid: Universidad Pontificia Comillas, 2001).
(8) Pierre Charles, The Prayer for All Times, trans. Maud Monahan, 3rd ed. (New York: Kenedy & Sons, 1930).
(9) All the translations from French to English in this text are mine. Pierre Charles, La Prière de toutes les heures (Bruges: Pont, 1923), 6.
(10) Charles, The Prayer for All Times, 21.
(11) Pierre Charles, La Priere Missionnaire (Louvain: AUCAM, 1935).
(12) Meessen, “Pierre Charles.”
(13) Masson, “In Memoriam. Le P. Pierre Charles, S.J., Missiologue,” 8.
(14) Pierre Charles, Dossiers de L’action Missionnaire (Louvain: AUCAM, 1927), 13.
(15) Ibid., 14.
(16) Lopez-Gay, “Misionologia,” 2696.
(17) Pierre Charles, “La Missiologie,” Revue Congo 1 (1929): 658–63.
(18) Charles, Dossiers de L’action Missionaire, 13.
(20) Joseph Schmidlin, Catholic Mission Theory (Techny, Ill.: Mission Press, S.V.D., 1931).
(21) Charles, Dossiers de L’action Missionaire, 13.
(22) The term is not used in the letter of the Pope.
(23) Masson, “In Memoriam. Le P. Pierre Charles, S.J., Missiologue,” 8.
(24) Meessen, “Pierre Charles.”
(25) Charles, Dossiers de L’action Missionaire, 162.
(26) Ibid., 164–165. Paragraph 6 of the Vatican II Decree, Ad Gentes, of December 7, 1965, assumed Charles’ vision of mission as “implanting the Church” without naming him. On the footnote of this paragraph, the sources include Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae, Maximimum illud of Pope Benedict XV, Rerum Ecclesiae of Pius XI, etc. Cf: Austin P. Flannery, ed., Documents of Vatican II, 7th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1984), note 14, 819.
(27) Charles, Dossiers de L’action Missionaire, 206–207.
(28) In fact, G. Meessen says he coincided with Teilhard de Chardin in theology. Cf: Meessen, “Pierre Charles,” 753.
(29) Charles, Dossiers de L’action Missionaire, 93.
(30) Pierre Charles, Missiologie. Etudes-Rapports-Conferences (Louvain: AUCAM, 1935), 108.
(31) Pierre Charles, Robe sans Couture: Essai Sur Le Lutheranisme Catholique (Bruges: Charles Beyaert, 1923).
(32) Ibid., x.
(33) F. J. Verstraelen et al., eds., Missiology: An Ecumenical Introduction. Texts and Contexts of Global Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1995), 427–428.
(34) Charles, Missiologie. Etudes-Rapports-Conferences, 116.
(35) Ibid., 124.
(36) Ibid., 128.
(37) Ibid., 132.
(38) Ibid., 152.
(39) Charles, Etudes Missiologiques, 15.
(40) Ibid., 115.
(41) Lacouture, Jésuites: Les Revenants, 2:306–314.
(42) Charles, Dossiers de L’action Missionaire, 170.
(44) Ibid., 171.
(45) Ibid., 172.
(47) Lopez-Gay, “Misionologia,” 2700.
(48) Charles, Dossiers de L’action Missionaire, 14.
(50) Charles, Etudes Missiologiques, 265.
This article is presented with permission from
International Bulletin of Missionary Research
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Lopez-Gay, J. “Misionologia.” Diccionario Histórico de La Compañía de Jesús. Madrid: Universidad Pontificia Comillas, 2001.
Masson, J. “Im Memoriam. Le P. Pierre Charles, S.J., Missiologue.” In Les Dossiers de L’action Missionnaire, 1:7–11. Louvain: AUCAM, 1938.
Masson, Joseph. “The Legacy of Pierre Charles, S.J.” Occasional Bulletin, October 1978, 118–20.
Meessen, G. “Pierre Charles.” Diccionario histórico de la Compañía de Jesús. Madrid: Universidad Pontificia Comillas, 2001.
Schmidlin, Joseph. Catholic Mission Theory. Techny, Ill.: Mission Press, S.V.D., 1931.
Verstraelen, F. J., A. Camps, L. A. Hoedemaker, and Spindler, eds. Missiology: An Ecumenical Introduction. Texts and Contexts of Global Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1995.
From Pierre Charles, Etudes Missiologiques (Tournai: DDB, 1956).