The changing face of the global Catholic mission

The world is changing, and so is the Church. A hundred years ago, in November 1919, Pope Benedict XV wrote an apostolic letter on mission, Maximum Ill

Oct 26, 2019

By Fr Myron Pereira SJ
The world is changing, and so is the Church. A hundred years ago, in November 1919, Pope Benedict XV wrote an apostolic letter on mission, Maximum Illud, which initiated these changes.

When we look back at the past, we are embarrassed at how eurocentric most missionary activity was, how colonialist, and how rigidly Roman in theology, liturgy and church administration. The missions were meant to be distant colonies of Rome, little else.

But in 1919, Pope Benedict proposed in Maximum Illud an appreciation of cultural differences, a separation between the Church’s work and political alliances, and the need to develop the resources of local churches — an indigenous priesthood and episcopacy — once the foreign missionaries withdrew. As he wrote: “… the Catholic missionary is a messenger of Christ, not the ambassador of his own nation.” This was the first papal document to reformulate the traditional Western way of mission.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was a watershed in missionary thinking. Its seminal document, Lumen Gentium (On the Church), presents the whole People of God — not just some missionaries — as being sent into the world as the “light and salvation of the nations.”

The council’s document on missionary activity, Ad Gentes, repeats this theme by locating the Church’s activity within specific historical and geographical contexts. Similarly, the declaration on non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, intended primarily to address Judaism, was soon extended to include the world religions as well. The Church had never respected and appreciated “non-Christian” beliefs and practices before!

Respect leads to dialogue
This appreciation of other religions meant in practice reducing the emphasis on conversions, and encouraging the promotion of dialogue instead. “Dialogue is the new way of being Church,” said Paul VI as he elaborated the four styles of dialogue: life, work, study and prayer.

Paul VI did so much to encourage dialogue. Remember his meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1963, the first time a modern pope had travelled out of Europe? And his first visit to a non–Christian country, India, for the Eucharistic Congress in Bombay in 1964 also gave us one of the best teachings on proclaiming the Gospel in his letter Evangelii nuntiandi.

Evangelising, he says, is the deepest identity of the Church. She exists in order to evangelise — that is, to proclaim the Good News of Jesus, to be the channel of his grace and to reconcile sinners with God.

This proclamation of the Gospel is achieved by Presence, Witness, Proclamation and Integral Human Development. Today, this last way implies inculturation, promoting human rights and the protection of women, children and the marginalised peoples of the world.

Here was a new aspect of missionary activity — not just building communities of faith, not just adding numbers to the Church, but also committing local churches to creating a just and egalitarian society

In Latin America the bishops committed themselves to “a preferential option for the poor” and to forming Christian “base communities” in which the poor would use the Bible to liberate themselves from the “violence of poverty.”

The struggle for justice made a tremendous difference to the Church’s understanding of her mission.

Yet another dialogue — not with the world religions — was with secularism. This refers specially to western Europe and the Americas where traditional Christianity had lost its value in society.

The current Synod on the Amazon sums up many of Pope Francis’ concerns. His encyclical Laudato Si’ (2015) focused on the need to defend the poor and their natural environment.

The Church makes this mandate her own through renewed efforts for reconciliation, justice and peace, and the care of all God’s creation. This indeed has become the Church’s mission today. --ucanews.org

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