The week of study for exams is upon us here in Rome. So, in the interest of study and at the request of some friends who wanted to know what I was up to in the classroom here in Rome, I thought I would give a synthesis of a course I am taking with this title: “The Church is Missionary by Nature”. In a future post, I will tell you what grade I got on the final exam!
From “The Missions” to Mission
When we hear the term missionary, we often think of someone in a far away land, laboring to bring people who have never heard of Christ to faith in Him, to baptize and establish new churches in far away places. Thus, we have movies like “The Mission” and “The Keys of the Kingdom” that show us the life of missionaries in far away places.
The other use of the word “missions” is in the context of the Church’s social teaching. Parish youth groups or university students go on “mission trips” to build houses or visit orphanages, or somehow help other people. In the first example, we can see the obvious link between Christ and the missions. The work of missionaries throughout the world also often includes the type of work for the human welfare of the people to which we aim to preach the Gospel: building schools, hospitals, and homes, providing many things that people cannot provide for themselves.
But in the theological reflection of the 20th century, there was a shift; rather than talk about “the missions”, people began to talk about the “mission” of the Church. The shift to the singular was an attempt to see what is at the foundation of the Church’s missionary work. There were many challenges to the old concept of the missions, and therefore threats to its continuance in the life of the Church: the connection to colonialism, the theory of “anonymous Christianity” (that people who lived according to their conscience the basic truths of human life could be saved without an explicit faith in Christ or belonging to the Church), the purely external mandate of mission (because Christ said so/or else everyone will go to hell) disconnected from its roots.
These threats to “the missions” were the opportunity for a beautiful reflection on the deepest foundations of the Mission of the Church, which was then expressed in the Second Vatican Council and has guided the pastoral aims of the Church since that Council.
The Second Vatican Council
One of the biggest question that Vatican II wanted to tackle was the question of the Church. What exactly is the Church? The very title of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church tells us much “Lumen Gentium”, the light of the nations. But who is the light of the nations? Not the Church! Lumen Gentium begins, “Christ is the light of the nations.” The Church reflects this light, as the moon reflects the light of the Sun. The Church does not make sense apart from Christ and His claim to be the salvation of God in person.
The Church’s foundations, then, are not human, but divine. The Father created the world and redeemed it when it had fallen into sin. He began the work of gathering a people to Himself in the Old Testament with the Jewish people, and now wants to gather all of the nations into His Kingdom. How does He do this? “God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son…” Jesus is God-made-man, who is the revelation of the saving love of God the Father, who accomplishes our redemption through His death and resurrection. Ascended into Heaven, Christ does not leave us orphans, but pours out His Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit–in an image from the Fathers of the Church–is like the water that is mixed into the dry flour of humanity and makes everything stick together. The Holy Spirit accomplishes the work of Christ, who draws everyone to Himself. Where does this happen? In that place and through those means that Christ established to give salvation to the world–that is, the life of the Church, the concrete “continuation” of Christ’s work.
Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. (Lumen Gentium, 1)
This description of the Church’s nature–totally linked to Christ–is the foundation for the Church’s mission, just as “doing” always follows “being”. The Church does not just have a mission, but the Church is mission, caught up in the original mission of Christ and the Spirit. Just as the Spirit “pushed” Christ in His earthly mission, so the Holy Spirit is the internal power of the Church’s mission. Mission does not just have to do with an external command (or fear), and cannot be reduced just to helping other people (even pagans can build houses for poor people, maybe even better!). These things are important, but the deepest depth of mission is the great “movement” of God’s never-failing love for mankind, a love into which I am taken by my Baptism. This love pushes us to point that Saint Paul will say, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!”
The New Evangelization
Another outcome and benefit of this move from talking about “the missions” to talking about the mission of the Church is the new evangelization. Put simply, the new evangelization lives out of the awareness that the boundaries of “mission territory” have changed drastically in the 20th century. A new paganism and new idols have taken hold in societies that were once strongly Christian. In places that would once have been considered “the missions”, now have vibrant Catholic communities. We are all aware of the fact that all those foreign priests that fill our parishes in the US and Europe come from countries that once received missionaries from the US and Europe. Thank God!
Let me return for a moment to the example of college “mission trips”. Can we honestly say that the modern university (even a Catholic university) is a place that “has” the Gospel and that those who go “on mission” are bringing to the people of, say, El Salvador the Gospel that they do not possess? It is often the other way around, which to me is the lasting value of mission trips: the students are struck by the happiness of people in dire poverty. They are struck to the point of asking, “Where does that joy come from?”, and therefore are led to Christ.
All this means, though, that the situation has changed. The reflection of the Vatican Council about the one mission of the Church, founded on the movement of the loving God toward humanity, into which we are all caught up in various ways could not have been timelier. I can no longer think of “mission” as something that pertains to someone else. Thus, John Paul II calls for an evangelization that is new in ardor, in methods, and in expression, in the various contexts where every Christian finds himself or herself in this world.
Our Man of the Year, Pope Francis surprisingly does not use the term “new evangelization” very often. Just listen for it in his homilies and speeches. He is doing the new evangelization, though. And he gives us three contexts in which the one mission of the Church is lived. We are getting rather lengthy, so I will just briefly list them: ordinary pastoral ministry of the parish (because it cannot be taken for granted that even practicing Catholics have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ); those who have fallen away (a great concern in parts of the world that “once were” Catholic or Christian but have lost the faith); those who have never heard the Gospel (the origin understanding of the word “missions”).
We have seen how a deeper reflection on the “being” of the Church yields a fresh perspective on what the Church much be “doing” in the historical period in which she finds herself. This was the work of Vatican II, and the work since Vatican II has been to live this Mission in an ever deeper way. That is a challenge not just for Popes, or for students at the Gregorian University, but for everyone who has the Spirit of Christ in them.