Pope Francis greets members of an Amazon rainforest ethnic group at a Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican for the opening of the Amazon synod on Oct. 6, 2019. His encyclical 'Laudato si' is focused on the need to defend the poor and their natural environment. (Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/UCAN files)
Every October, Catholics around the world keep ‘Mission Sunday,’ a day of prayer, sacrifices, conferences and fund-raising for the ‘missions’ — that is, for the poorer Christian communities of Asia and Africa.
It is true however that today this practice has declined considerably.
For as the world is changing, so does the Church, even though it is often felt that the Church lives in a time warp of its own making.
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.
No wonder then that several countries — China and India particularly — have hit out against local communities of Christians, deeming them foreign outposts of imperialism, and persecuting them.
That these allegations are largely trumped up does not lessen their harshness or their severity.
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 Pope Paul VI, as he elaborated the four styles of dialogue — of life, of work, of study and of prayer.
The practice of dialogue is mutual. In our dealings with “the Other,” most of us traffic in stereotypes — usually negative and hurtful. It takes much patience and humility to change.
Paul VI who did so much to encourage dialogue — remember his meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1963, the first time a modern pope traveled out of Europe and his first visit to a “non-Christian” country, India, for the Eucharistic Congress in Bombay (1964) — also gave us one of the best teachings on proclaiming the Gospel in his letter, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1967.
Evangelizing, he says, is the deepest identity of the Church. She exists in order to “evangelize,” 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.”
Integral human development
Today, this last way implies inculturation, promoting human rights, and the protection of women and children, and the marginalized peoples of the world.
Here is a new aspect of missionary activity — not just building communities of faith, not just adding to numbers to the Church, but also committing the local Churches to creating a just and egalitarian society.
Latin America had a long experience with this “theology of liberation” which used the Bible critically (as distinct from devotionally) to understand contemporary society.
The bishops of Latin America through various episcopal conferences — Puebla (1979), Medellin (1968), and Aparecida (2007) — 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.
Dialogue with the secular world
Yet another dialogue — not with the world religions — was with secularism. This refers especially to Western Europe and the Americas where traditional Christianity had lost its value in society.
Largely because of material prosperity, Christians had succumbed to agnosticism and hedonism and saw little place for God. Some had experienced a “crisis of faith,” and as a result had fallen away, and become secularized.
Pope John Paul II it was who wanted a new focus on "re-proposing" the Gospel to such as these, in effect a “new evangelization.”
To this end, the pope encouraged innovative groups that combined social outreach with a sturdy faith, such as Focolare, San Egidio, etc.
Mission and the care for creation
Finally, we may ask: what is the place of mission today in a world threatened by nuclear war and climate change?
The earlier challenge was that of peace and justice; the present challenge relates to survival on an earth threatened by disastrous climate change.
The World Council of Churches phrases it well, “Peace, justice and the integrity of creation.”
Over the years, we have seen the changing face of mission — from strategies to increase numbers in the Church, to the emphasis on the ‘reign of God,’ giving priority to dialogue, to the struggle for justice: and today to the stewardship of creation.
Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si’ (2015), focused on the need to defend the poor and their natural environment.
The recent synod on the Amazon sums up many of Pope Francis’ concerns.
Since March 2015, the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (REPAM) has coordinated the multifarious works of the Catholic Church in the Amazon region to protect both the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and the natural resources of the region from exploitation.
Pope Francis asks for the indigenous communities to be recognized as partners instead of as minorities. He wants to create a church where the indigenous people will feel at home. He feels “all the efforts we make in order to regain the life of the peoples of the Amazon will always be too few.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he comes to “bring abundant life” (Jn 10). The Church makes this mandate its 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.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.