October 2019: Apologetics
Apologetics: The Missio Ad Gentes
Continuing Pentecost Today
Go and Make Disciples of all Nations
In his last words to the apostles, Jesus gave them a mission: ‘So, you must go and make disciples of all nations. Baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 28:18-19). His instruction to the apostles was a great call to those who became the first missionaries of the Church. They were told to go ad gentes – to the nations – to those who did not know Jesus, and to proclaim the Gospel. The Church is missionary by her very nature and continues God’s mission by proclaiming to the ends of the earth the salvation Christ offers to those who believe in him. As parents, teachers, catechists and pastors, we are responsible for keeping this missionary spirit vibrantly alive.
A Universal Mission, Free from the Burden of Colonialism
Over the centuries, the Church has frequently reflected on her missionary identity. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Pope Benedict XV’s apostolic letter, Maximum Illud. Papal documents always reflect the period of history in which they appear but, at the same time, they present new and creative insights that prove fruitful in theology and praxis. Maximum Illud was no different in this regard.
Pope Benedict highlighted the need for missionaries to disassociate themselves from the ideas and consequences of empire and colonialism: ‘the true missionary is always aware that he is not working as an agent of his country, but as an ambassador of Christ. And his conduct is such that it is perfectly obvious to anyone watching him that he represents a faith that is alien to no nation on earth (MI 20).’
Whilst Pope Benedict repeated the biblical instruction to ‘go to the ends of the earth and preach the Gospel,’ he also recognised the importance of training local people for a local Church. There must be ‘special concern for the sacred ministry,’ asserts the Pope, ‘In this policy lies the greatest hope of the new churches. For the local priest, one with his people by birth, by nature, by his sympathies and his aspirations, is remarkably effective in appealing to their mentality and thus attracting them to the faith (MI 14).’ Insisting missionary congregations train and value indigenous clergy, he effectively began ‘internationalising’ the leadership of the Church. Raising major questions about colonialism, the growth of local churches, and the role of local missionaries, Pope Benedict also fostered the missionary vocation of people at home and organised more effectively the Pontifical Mission Societies.
From Distant Missions to Evangelisation
Maximum Illud would become the ‘Magna Carta’ for future papal documents on mission, such as Rerum Ecclesiae (1926), Evangelii Praecones (1951), Fidei Donum (1957), and Princeps Pastorum (1959). The Vatican II Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes (1965), is in many respects a consequence of these missionary documents. The most notable themes found in these previous documents are also found in Ad Gentes, such as establishing the Church being the primary task of mission (AG 5); the nature and virtues of a missionary, (AG 23- 27); missionary cooperation and the diversity of missionary endeavours (AG 35- 41); local clergy for local churches (AG 16, 33) and the promotion of lay participation in mission (AG 41).
The Second Vatican Council was, in effect, a missionary council. It was not called for any particular crisis in doctrinal or governance structures, but to find new ways of teaching doctrine in light of political and cultural changes. Pope John XXIII’s aggiornamento was a call to mission, and mission gave the Council its basic direction. Mission was not to be understood any longer as a territorial reality that focused on a particular people in a particular country. Mission was everywhere to everywhere! Culture too was looked upon positively as missionaries were asked to ‘learn by sincere and patient dialogue what treasures a generous God has distributed among the nations of the earth (AG 11).’
This theology of mission was not without problems. If mission is from everywhere to everywhere and everything is mission, then there is no need for a ‘special mission’ across cultures, or for foreign missionaries. Missionary vocations began to fall, and many missionaries left the mission field to return to their own countries. However, Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) broadened the understanding of mission to include activities such as inculturation, working for justice, liberation, and the ‘restoration of the full unity willed by Christ (EN 77).’ Using the term ‘evangelisation’ to avoid identifying mission with colonisation, Paul VI wished for it to be understood broadly, as inclusive of all the forms that evangelisation could take, rather than the narrower principle of proclamation by word and witness. He affirmed the Church was continuing the mission of Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and that those who accept the Good News and seek this Kingdom ‘make up a community which is in turn evangelising (EN 13).’ He insisted that the Church ‘begins by being evangelised herself … by constant conversion and renewal, in order to evangelise the world’ and since the entire Church is missionary by nature, everyone in the Church is to participate in its mission (EN 15).
Evangelisation Back to Mission
This broadening of mission continued with Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (1990), when he spoke of mission including not only inculturation and work for justice, but also interreligious dialogue. He spoke of new worlds and social phenomena as places for mission including, megalopolises (mega cities), youth and young adults, migrants and refugees, and situations of dire poverty. In cultural sectors, the pontiff included the modern equivalents of the Areopagus: the world of communications; the commitment to peace; the development and the liberation of peoples; the rights of individuals, especially those of minorities; the advancement of women and children, and the safeguarding of the created world. He also included culture, scientific research, and international relations which promote dialogue and open new possibilities (RM 37). The following year, 1991, Dialogue and Proclamation, a joint document of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, elaborated on the relationship between interreligious dialogue and mission.
The Joy of Mission
In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), Pope Francis presented the missionary task as a joyful experience of faith. He presented a feeling of joy that has accompanied missionaries since apostolic times, and emphasised the missionary spirit that animates the whole Church. He spoke of a ‘missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation (EG 27).’ Mission for Pope Francis is to make the pastoral structures and activity of the Church on every level more inclusive and open, ‘to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth (EG 27).’
Continuing Pentecost Today
The apostles, gathered in the upper room, received an anointing of fire from the Holy Spirit. Pentecost was their call to mission. Baptism is ours! We too must go and make disciples of all nations. This mission involves all of us in our parishes, in our dioceses, and universally. This October, Pope Francis is asking all of us to become involved in the Extraordinary Month of Mission (EMM2019). His message, entitled Baptised and Sent: The Church of Christ on Mission in the World, invites us to look inside ourselves to reawaken and reactivate our missionary hearts and to see the importance and relevance of the Gospel in a rapidly changing world and perspectives. Today, we can relive the grace of Pentecost by saying yes to our baptismal call, yes to mission, and yes to renewing the spirit of missio ad gentes.
Julieann Moran is the
for the Society of
Missionary Children at
World Missions Ireland