Redemptoris Missio 37(a): Territorial Parameters of the Church’s Mission

After a pause in the discussion lately, we look to the first of three parameters, or as John Paul II wrote about it “Territorial limits.” When Catholics talk about the mission apostolate, traditionally we’ve thought of other countries not Christian, not our own.

Missionary activity has normally been defined in terms of specific territories. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the territorial dimension of the mission ad gentes,(Cf. Ad Gentes 6) a dimension which even today remains important for determining responsibilities, competencies and the geographical limits of missionary activity. Certainly, a universal mission implies a universal perspective. Indeed, the Church refuses to allow her missionary presence to be hindered by geographical boundaries or political barriers. But it is also true that missionary activity ad gentes, being different from the pastoral care of the faithful and the new evangelization of the non-practicing, is exercised within well-defined territories and groups of people.

So this distinction is institutional that relies somewhat on small-t tradition rather than something coming directly from the Lord or from the sacramental perspective.

Some Christians seem relieved or heartened with news of missionary fruitfulness in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, but the pope reminded us that growth in some regions or the elevation of certain leaders in the Third World does not mean that every corner of the world has been evangelized:

The growth in the number of new churches in recent times should not deceive us. Within the territories entrusted to these churches – particularly in Asia, but also in Africa, Latin America and Oceania – there remain vast regions still to be evangelized. In many nations entire peoples and cultural areas of great importance have not yet been reached by the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence of the local church.(Cf. ibid 20) Even in traditionally Christian countries there are regions that are under the special structures of the mission ad gentes, with groups and areas not yet evangelized. Thus, in these countries too there is a need not only for a new evangelization, but also, in some cases, for an initial evangelization.(Cf. Address to the members of the Symposium of the Council of the European Episcopal Conferences, October 11, 1985)

So, there’s also an acknowledgement that some areas will have a mixture of needs, notably, the initial kerygma, or first proclamation of the Gospel and the needed follow-up with baptized believers not yet full disciples.

Situations are not, however, the same everywhere. While acknowledging that statements about the missionary responsibility of the Church are not credible unless they are backed up by a serious commitment to a new evangelization in the traditionally Christian countries, it does not seem justified to regard as identical the situation of a people which has never known Jesus Christ and that of a people which has known him, accepted him and then rejected him, while continuing to live in a culture which in large part has absorbed gospel principles and values. These are two basically different situations with regard to the faith.

As I read this commentary, I’m struck by a reality slowly dawning in some quarters of Roman Catholicism. First, that the level of membership card is hardly sufficient for fruitful discipleship. By this I mean that many of us have been seduced by something akin to the liturgical red/black meme. If we do the classroom experience with the Catechism right, and go through proper sacramental notions, that is enough to get people in the door.

And obviously, that does impart a basic Christian association: one can be married and buried in the Church and have “rights” for one’s children’s upbringing as well. But as is true in the secular political sphere, the notion of responsibility as a companion piece is missing. And by this, I mean that Christian baptism imparts a host of responsibilities on the person. In large part, these responsibilities go untaught by clergy and other leaders. The charisms in most lay people are kept dormant. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in mission lands of four to five centuries ago who have yet to see the same level of fruitfulness as the ancient Roman world of the Patristic Era.

Thus the criterion of geography, although somewhat imprecise and always provisional, is still a valid indicator of the frontiers toward which missionary activity must be directed. There are countries and geographical and cultural areas which lack indigenous Christian communities. In other places, these communities are so small as not to be a clear sign of a Christian presence; or they lack the dynamism to evangelize their societies, or belong to a minority population not integrated into the dominant culture of the nation. Particularly in Asia, toward which the Church’s mission ad gentes ought to be chiefly directed, Christians are a small minority, even though sometimes there are significant numbers of converts and outstanding examples of Christian presence.

And the important thing here is not a question of numbers or percentages, but the thoroughness to which the Gospel is received and absorbed by lay people as a whole. Leaders and saints are important, but if the Church is intent on avoiding another “new” evangelization in generations to come, the importance of conducting the domestic church and lively parish families cannot be understated.

This document is available online here and is © Copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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