International Bulletin

of Missionary Research

Vol. 33, No. 2
April 2009
pp. 79–82

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“What Happened Next?” Vincent Donovan, Thirty-five Years On

John P. Bowen

Vincent Donovan left Tanzania thirty-six years ago, in 1973. I suspect that most readers of his best-selling Christianity Rediscovered (Orbis 1978) get to the end of the book and ask, “What happened next?” Donovan was a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, also known as the Spiritans, who spent fifteen years as a missionary among the Maasai in northern Tanzania and wrote about his experiences in Christianity Rediscovered, which by 2002 had undergone twenty printings in its Orbis edition and in 2003 was celebrated in a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition.[1]

Donovan’s Ministry

Christianity Rediscovered describes a particularly creative attempt to enculturate the Gospel into a local culture—in this case, that of the Maasai. Although readers of the book usually assume that Donovan was a pioneer in this emphasis, in many ways he was simply a faithful (though highly creative and eloquent) son of the Spiritan order. Girard Kohler, an associate of Donovan’s, points out that the practice of inculturation for which Donovan is famous was actually embedded in the DNA of the Spiritans by François Libermann (1802–52), who took over the leadership of the order in 1848. Libermann advised his missionaries, “Put off Europe, its customs, its spirit. . . . Become Negroes to the Negroes, in order to form them as they should be, not in the fashion of Europe, but allow them to keep what is peculiar to them.”[2]

Donovan’s thinking and praxis were encouraged by his discovery of the writings of Anglican missiologist Roland Allen, particularly in Allen’s book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (World Dominion Press, 1930; Eerdmans, 2001), given to Donovan by a Lutheran missionary friend. Allen adds to the basic principles of inculturation the argument that missions become ineffective when they become bogged down in the institutional accoutrements of mission such as mission stations, hospitals, and schools and become centripetal—what he calls “the choke law.” Allen’s challenge was to recall missionaries to their primary calling: to be centrifugal, going out, as did the apostle Paul, simply to evangelize, to found churches, to appoint leaders, and then to move on. Donovan tried to implement these ideals in his own work.

Vincent Donovan practiced what the Spiritans call “first evangelization” (pp. 24–25) and as a result planted numerous indigenous Maasai churches.[3] Once he had planted the churches, he left (following the spirit of Roland Allen) in order not to “contaminate” them with Western assumptions and practices. To the frustration of readers, the book ends when Donovan leaves Tanzania for the last time. He had hoped to return, but his order had other plans for him. He died in 2000 without ever going back. No systematic follow-up of his work has ever been done, though it receives brief mention as a classic example of inculturation in many works known to missiologists, including David Bosch’s Transforming Mission (1991), Elizabeth Isichei’s History of Christianity in Africa (1995), George Sumner’s The First and the Last (2004), Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder’s Constants in Context (2004), the Church of England’s report, Mission-Shaped Church (2004), and Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy (2004).

Father Ned’s Ministry

I have used Christianity Rediscovered many times in teaching cross-cultural evangelism. I decided a few years ago, after repeated student questions, to see what I could find out about the present status of Donovan’s work. As a result, in the summer of 2006 I went with a graduate student, Erin Biggs, and Sam Waweru, an African driver, to spend a day and a half visiting three American Spiritan missionaries who knew and were influenced by Donovan and who are still working among the Maasai in Tanzania—Ned Marchessault, Joe Herzstein, and Pat Patten. The one who worked most closely with Donovan was Father Ned (who preferred simply “Ned”), now in his seventies, who labored alongside Donovan and then took over the work when Donovan left. This article is based on conversations with him and reflects his answer to the question, What happened next? His answer emerged for us not only from the interview but also from our experience of spending a day with him.

Ned, who is still involved in parish ministry among the Maasai, acts as parish priest for a huge area and visits a number of outstations from his base in Endulen. Having worked for many years in the kind of first evangelization Donovan writes about, Ned has now handed over that work to lay catechists whom he has trained, and he simply visits the villages and celebrates Mass.

We arrived at his home in the evening and, over supper, began our conversation. As we finished for the night, Ned asked if we would like to go with him the following morning to a Maasai village where he was to celebrate Mass. We eagerly said yes.

When we arrived at Ned’s house the next day, he got out a suitcase of the things he needed for the Mass. It included a cow-skin stole, decorated by Maasai women with cowrie shells, much loved of the Maasai, though their significance is unclear. (Some of those who disapprove of Ned’s approach to inculturation refer to him as the cowrie-shell priest.) He also showed us the wafers for communion, commenting that he only used them as a concession to church tradition.

The church, about an hour’s drive away, was a small wooden structure built by the Maasai themselves of small tree branches. Within a few minutes of our arrival, twenty or thirty villagers gathered, mainly women and children.

Although I am not a Catholic and neither is Erin, and neither of us understands a word of Maasai, to anyone from a liturgical tradition the shape of the service was very familiar: the Ministry of the Word, the Prayers of the People, the Creed, the Confession and Absolution, the Passing of the Peace, and then the Ministry of the Table. The sermon was given by a young Maasai catechist, dressed in his red blanket. Even without understanding his words, we were struck by his passion, his attentiveness to the text (which Ned told us was John 6), and his engagement with the congregation. {80}

Throughout the service, Ned held in his hand a bunch of grass, symbol of peace and reconciliation (p. 94). Then, during the Prayers, people with special concerns came forward. As he prayed for them, Ned sprinkled them with grass dipped in milk, a symbol of life, from a gourd decorated with cowrie shells. At the Peace, people shook hands—except for the young people, who bowed their heads in order to be blessed by their elders. The singing was haunting, quite different from other Christian singing I have heard in East Africa. As we left the service, Erin said to Ned, “That was wonderful!” He just grinned and said, “Another day, another dollar.”

Changes After Donovan’s Time

Ned’s answer to the question “What happened next?” is basically that things did not unfold as Donovan had hoped, though the underlying principles continued to be honored. There were problems on both the Catholic side and the Maasai side.

On the whole the Maasai have not pursued an approach to ministry in the tradition of Donovan

On the Catholic side, while the ideal would have been to ordain local leaders as priests to their community (p. 88), within Catholic tradition that was not a straightforward option. As Ned put it, the vision got “bogged down in the structures of organized religion. I mean, what are you going to do about the Eucharist—just have anybody preside?” There were unofficial but short-lived experiments with lay leadership of Eucharist-like services. Ned said, “In places where we could only visit at long intervals because of the great number of outstations and the distances involved, we constructed a service that would not need the presence of a priest. This involved cards with stick figures that people could follow for a service of prayer, scripture readings, and eating together.”

This was a step in the direction of so-called village priests, the natural spiritual leaders of the community who would be “ordained” for that community (pp. 108, 114–15). But here too there was a cultural problem. Would their own people acknowledge the authority of these priests? In a society that values status, people “didn’t want these guys in the village with little or no education [in positions of influence]. The hierarchical aspect of the organization of the church is very important to Africans.”

One way to proceed down the path of radical indigenization would have been for the Maasai churches to become independent, but nobody on the outside would accept village priests or lay presidency, “so you’re putting yourself in the position of starting your own church.” The problems of such an approach made it too daunting to pursue: “The difficulty with that is, then you’ve got to figure out everything, and then you wouldn’t have any more time to do anything else. We talked about stuff like that in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but I don’t think that’s a solution.”

Hierarchical Obstacles

Nevertheless, the frustration continues to this day. When I commented to Ned that the catechist we heard preach seemed like a wonderful potential priest, he replied, “If it was up to me, I would ordain him tomorrow.” More often than not, however, the extensive training requirements are beyond the reach of the Maasai, and the requirement of celibacy is difficult.

In spite of these obstacles, some Maasai have been trained and ordained in the conventional manner; but on the whole they have not pursued an approach to ministry in the tradition of Donovan and the Spiritans. Furthermore, priests often were not sent to serve in the area from which they had come but were assigned by the diocese, as in Europe and North America, and they were not necessarily interested in inculturation. As Donovan said, “Ironically, the first Masai priest [came] from an entirely different section of Masailand” (p. 138).

According to Ned, the present Catholic hierarchy in Tanzania, though entirely African, is not enamored of the kind of indigenization practiced by Donovan. As a result, there exists today the poignant paradox of Western missionaries encouraging inculturation and an African hierarchy rejecting it. One could say that the diocese stresses the constants while the missionaries stress the context.

Cultural Obstacles

The difficulty has been exacerbated by the culture of the Maasai themselves, and this is the second half of the problem with implementing Donovan’s ideology. His intention, following Allen, was that each nation and tribe should discover its own way of being church: “the missionary’s job is to preach, not the church, but Christ. If he preaches Christ . . . the church may well appear, but it might not be the church he had in mind” (pp. 62–64). Ned’s discovery, however, was that “Africans in general and Maasai in particular want to know how it should be done. Especially when it comes to religion, because [what matters is] pleasing God or doing what God wants. They want to do church the way God wants it done and be done with it. I mean, let’s not play games with anything as important as our relationship with God!” Ironically, the missionary’s desire to do things in the tradition of the local culture is turned on its head when the local culture dictates that things should be done in the tradition of the missionary.

So how do things stand today? One answer is that people like Ned are themselves exercising missional creativity. His conduct of the Mass provides one model for maintaining fidelity to European tradition (desired by both the Maasai and the national church leaders), while at the same time incorporating local elements into the liturgy (even though it does not go as far as this generation of Spiritans had originally hoped) and thus honoring some of the significant symbols of Maasai culture. The constants are modified, but not radically changed, by the context.

Evangelization and Pastoral Care

Is the process of first evangelization that Donovan pioneered still continuing? The answer is that it is; indeed, it has never stopped since its inception in the 1960s. (One measure is that Pat Patten told us that after ten years of ministry he himself was visiting seventy-two Christian villages.) At first, Ned preferred to do this work himself. “My first two years in Endulen, I did evangelization in the Maasai villages in this general area, within a twenty mile radius. Then I had the first baptisms of Maasai villages in the Endulen area and these places became Christian communities. After this I moved to the Ngorongoro crater area, evangelized in various villages and again established centers. Finally, I moved {81} to Nainokanoka on the other side of the crater and did the same thing, evangelizing and eventually establishing Christian communities in that area.”

Vincent Donovan baptizing Maasai

Vincent Donovan baptizing Maasai
at a creek in 1967

The process is almost identical to that described by Donovan. According to Ned, “When I go directly to work with Maasai villages as villages, I teach the whole group together, elders, women, and the whole family, and then make a real effort to have those traditional leaders continue as leaders in the church.”

Over time, however, Ned moved more into a role of training catechists to do it. “Now that I am in my seventies, I am slowing down.” He presently has eight catechists, all paid—something Donovan was against (pp. 82–83) but that has become necessary. These days, once a village decides to accept baptism, it becomes an outstation of the mission, and Ned adds it to the list of villages he visits to celebrate Mass.

Although Christianity Rediscovered gives the impression that Donovan, following Allen’s guidelines, saw a clear distinction between evangelization (the work of the missionary) and pastoral care (the work of the priest or pastor, pp. 24–25, 30), in fact there are hints in the book that the distinction was not easy to maintain in practice: “It became for me a personal temptation, to settle down with these beautiful, new, exciting Christians, instead of moving on, as I had to. . . . Of course, I could not abandon the new Christians, because they had no priests to lead them in their new life. . . . As it was, I would have to take care of them in some way” (p. 75).

Eugene Hillman, in his essay in the 2003 edition, writes of the pull pastoral needs exerted: “We, his friends . . . teased him, because we were witnesses to his persistent pastoral empathy and compassion. He would graciously modify his best laid plans to keep free of pastoral entanglements whenever people presented themselves to him with needs” (p. 162).

Ned confirms that it proved impossible to draw a clear line between evangelization and pastoral care: one led into the other. After he had done initial evangelization, he stayed in relationship with those communities, not only to lead Eucharist but also to teach: “I had my first baptisms and made places where we go for teaching. . . . After [a further] two years [in a new area] I had my first baptisms and established again a centre, and then I moved to Nynukanoka and did the same thing—evangelizing and then eventually creating centres. Then I came back here and tried to keep contact with all of them—go back, do liturgy, [and] especially to have good catechists in all the different areas.”

Individual vs. Community Response

One of the revelations Donovan experienced in his work was that the expectation that individuals would respond to the Gospel one by one was a Western cultural assumption. The Maasai taught him the importance of thinking communally and not just individually, of believing that a community could respond to the Gospel as a whole (pp. 64–70). We asked whether that emphasis had continued. “Well,” said Ned, “that’s roughly still the case, but still one or another family in a village, or even more than one family [will decide differently from the majority].” We then asked whether that caused difficulty for them in continuing to relate to the rest of the community. Ned replied, “I don’t think so. I think that’s the way it should be. I mean, it shows at least some people are making a choice, and that’s pretty hopeful. But the decision of the elders probably would influence most people.”

Even in Donovan’s own experience, communities did not always respond as a whole. In the book, for example, he describes one village that decided to refuse the Gospel (pp. 80–82). Western readers can hardly help but wonder whether there were not a few individuals within the community who wanted to respond to the Gospel but who were overruled by the leaders’ decision. In an unpublished letter (January 1971) describing the same village (a Sonjo village named Ebwe), however, Donovan tells of how a smaller community within that same village did come to accept baptism later.[4] Even during Donovan’s time, therefore, it was obviously not clear-cut to say that a whole community would accept or reject Christian faith.

A New Role for Education

Although those who knew Donovan still continue today with the patterns of evangelization he pioneered, in some respects the ministry has changed direction. One of these is the area of education and health. Donovan, following Allen, felt that it was not the job of missions to get involved in forms of ministry other than evangelization, because the “choke law” would come into effect and the work of primary evangelization would stop (p. 75). When he first arrived in Loliondo, however, he was enthusiastically involved with completing the building of a hospital at nearby Wasso (unpublished letters, September–October 1966). Then in 1973, the same year that Donovan finally left Tanzania, a hospital was built at Digodigo in the Sonjo community where he had been working. Thus, while his ideal strategy might not have included such institutions, in practice they were part of the overall ministry to the area.

These days, education has become more important, particularly in Ned’s work. His rationale is simple and pragmatic: “Without education, the Maasai people are going to cease to exist as a people. We need a voice in the decision-making process about everything. And if you reject education, well, you’re rejecting their survival.”

With financial support of up to $14,000 per year from friends in the United States (mainly retired Spiritan missionaries), Ned has sponsored many Maasai young people to train for various professions so they can help their own people: “We have a girl who just graduated from law school and two boys who are lawyers now. Four of our girls have completed Teacher Training College and two more are in training. Two girls are in medical school and another is about to begin medical studies.”

We asked whether Ned has the common experience that, once young people finish their training, they do not return home. This has not happened so far; they do actually come back and serve {82} in Maasailand: “All the girls have come back, every single one. And I’ve educated now over a hundred, well over a hundred. There might be a few of the boys who haven’t come back, but the vast majority of the boys have come back.”

What would Donovan have thought about such a development? Ned was unwilling to speculate. His attitude is that Donovan “gave the basic philosophy, and then we reimplemented it as we saw we should.” This seems as good a summary as any of Donovan’s legacy.

Donovan’s Long-Term Impact

Ned reflected on Donovan’s long-term impact. “Vince—like most people who are very charismatic, in the sense of people who make an impact on other people, who can kind of grab you and carry you on a mission—he talked beautifully and strongly about things. . . . He gave that initial talk to us in Arusha, he had us all fired up—and it still carries me to this day. It’s still the source of the impetus for the kind of work that we do.”

Vincent Donovan was a visionary, and Christianity Rediscovered describes not only what actually happened but what he believed should have happened. (William Burrows of Orbis Books suggested to me that there is a distinction to be made between the Donovan of history and the Donovan of faith.) Since he left, his friends and colleagues have taken his ideals and, over several decades of faithful service, have worked at grounding his ideals in the realities of life in Maasailand. It is impossible to say how he would have adapted to the problems they have encountered—the difficulties of ordaining Maasai leaders, the need for ongoing pastoral care, an unsympathetic church hierarchy, the encroaching destruction of the Maasai way of life, and the need for education and medical care. Maybe he could not have made the transition from pioneering to maintenance, from vision to reality: it seems not to have been his gift. Spiritans like Ned, however, were not the visionaries but the implementers of the vision. In the body of Christ, both are necessary.

What will happen next? After this generation of Spiritans leaves or dies, the future of the church among the Maasai of Tanzania is really in the hands of the Tanzanians. What they do with Donovan’s legacy will be up to them. It will be a sad irony if the local decision is to follow traditional Western models of church. Ned’s own conviction, on the basis of current experience, is that Donovan’s vision will die out. New priests may come in, almost certainly Africans and possibly Maasai in some cases, but it is unlikely that they will share the vision for inculturation. The Donovan era will have been a noble experiment, brilliant and courageous, offering the church around the world many lessons for the hard work of inculturation, but now in need of a new generation to adopt the vision.[5]




[1]. Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1978; 25th anniv. ed., 2003).

[2]. Letter, quoted by Marc R. Spindler in “Libermann, François Marie Paul,” in The Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 399.

[3]. Page references in the text are to the 2003 edition of Christianity Rediscovered.

[4]. This development draws the sting of Elizabeth Isichei’s criticism that by this action Donovan “not only took it upon himself to deny people the right to change their minds, but also deprived the next generation of the right to choose at all” (A History of Christianity in Africa [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1995], p. 261).

[5]. This article is an extract from my concluding essay for The Letters of Vincent Donovan (Orbis Books, forthcoming).



John P. Bowen

John P. Bowen, Associate Professor of Evangelism at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, is the author of Evangelism for “Normal” People (Augsburg Fortress, 2002) and The Spirituality of Narnia (Regent College Publishing, 2007). He is editing The Letters of Vincent Donovan for Orbis Books.—


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