In describing “A Complex and Ever Changing Religious Picture,” Pope John Paul II commented on several social changes we experience in today’s world. We cannot be effective in evangelization unless we are aware of the overall climate in which people live and in which we must make our best effort in witnessing to the Gospel.
Today we face a religious situation which is extremely varied and changing. Peoples are on the move; social and religious realities which were once clear and well defined are today increasingly complex. We need only think of certain phenomena such as urbanization, mass migration, the flood of refugees, the de-Christianization of countries with ancient Christian traditions, the increasing influence of the Gospel and its values in overwhelmingly non-Christian countries, and the proliferation of messianic cults and religious sects. Religious and social upheaval makes it difficult to apply in practice certain ecclesial distinctions and categories to which we have become accustomed. Even before the Council it was said that some Christian cities and countries had become “mission territories”; the situation has certainly not improved in the years since then.
This is certainly true. Readers here have seen me critical of “country club Christianity,” an approach to faith that self-defines as membership in an organization rather than commitment to a wholly different way of life. This is one aspect of the “new evangelization,” as it has been realized: the notion that Christians themselves have yet to hear the kerygma, the proclamation of the Gospel, even many of those who worship regularly on Sundays.
On the other hand, missionary work has been very fruitful throughout the world, so that there are now well-established churches, sometimes so sound and mature that they are able to provide for the needs of their own communities and even send personnel to evangelize in other churches and territories. This is in contrast to some traditionally Christian areas which are in need of re-evangelization.
The maturity will come to full flower when churches have raised up their own saints for recognition. But John Paul II is correct here: in many places we can see a certain fruitfulness in liturgy, theology, and in human leadership.
As a result, some are questioning whether it is still appropriate to speak of specific missionary activity or specifically “missionary” areas, or whether we should speak instead of a single missionary situation, with one single mission, the same everywhere.
I think I’d be among those asking this question. What about you?
The difficulty of relating this complex and changing reality to the mandate of evangelization is apparent in the “language of mission.” For example, there is a certain hesitation to use the terms “mission” and “missionaries,” which are considered obsolete and as having negative historical connotations. People prefer to use instead the noun “mission” in the singular and the adjective “missionary” to describe all the Church’s activities.
If there is a tendency to avoid “missionary” and related terms, it might be because of the very negative and antigospel tendencies of European colonialism. It’s not a bad thing, according to John Paul II. It gives us an opportunity:
This uneasiness denotes a real change, one which has certain positive aspects. The so-called return or “repatriation” of the missions into the Church’s mission, the insertion of missiology into ecclesiology, and the integration of both areas into the Trinitarian plan of salvation, have given a fresh impetus to missionary activity itself, which is not considered a marginal task for the Church but is situated at the center of her life, as a fundamental commitment of the whole People of God.
I think we have seen some green shoots sprouting in many initiatives over the past three decades since this was written: Alpha, Evangelical Catholic, Discerning Our Giftedness, Rebuilt, and other models that seek to complete the Christian life of those already baptized into membership.
Nevertheless, care must be taken to avoid the risk of putting very different situations on the same level and of reducing, or even eliminating, the Church’s mission and missionaries ad gentes.
I’m not sure I’ve seen serious movement along these lines. I think there is some rightful rejection of education-as-evangelization. In Evangelii Nuntiandi 41, Pope Paul VI remarked that people today are more persuaded by witnesses than teachers. Do Christian missionaries give the witness of good example in their lives? Do their actions speak loudest and most clearly? In the principle of good writing, do they show the Gospel, not just tell about it?
To say that the whole Church is missionary does not preclude the existence of a specific mission ad gentes, just as saying that all Catholics must be missionaries not only does not exclude, but actually requires that there be persons who have a specific vocation to be “life-long missionaries ad gentes.”
This is true, but I would offer a significant caution here. An old way of thinking suggests that vocations discerned are vocations for life. Even among great missionaries, this has not always been true. Initiatives over the past several decades have opened to include people doing mission work for brief periods, a year or two. Perhaps a bit longer. It suggests that the mission apostolate is open to a person “trying on” the mantle before assuming it for life.
Certainly, the commitment to being a missionary involves a significant investment in learning new things: culture, language, art and music, etc.. It involves a displacement from old friends and old ways of life. Better for the Church to permit people from various walks of life to be involved as they and their spiritual directors have discerned.
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