Appeared in Spring 1992, Vol. XVIII, No. 1 Download PDF here

In this regard, I earnestly ask theologians and professional Christian journalists to intensify the service they render to the Church’s mission in order to discover the deep meaning of their work along the sure path of “thinking with the Church” (sentire cum Ecclesia). —John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio   

Amidst all the flutter in the press over the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus, an earlier encyclical of far greater theological significance has already been forgotten in most quarters. Redemptoris Missio, although initially acknowledged in the press and in Catholic publications, has not been given the attention it deserves. The world, of course, is far more interested in economics than the Church’s divine mission ad gentes.

The encyclical was issued on December 7, 1990 and is well worth a serious reading by theologians and all of Christ’s faithful.*It is a rather lengthy document given the complexities and vastness of the missionary field today. The encyclical is of particular importance because it deals with a number of theological errors and distortions which have weakened the once vibrant missionary outreach of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Holy Father in this document seeks to communicate a sense of urgency regarding this essential activity of the Church as we draw close to the end of the second millennium. A number of missionary churches at the local level have borne fruit, growing in size and activity since the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, the Pope sees a number of ominous signs which are cause for concern and led him to write the document. Missionary activity the pagan peoples seems to be weakening. This tendency, heobserves, is “not in line with the directives of the Council and subsequent statements of the Magisterium.” Throughout the history of the Church a strong missionary outreach has borne witness to the vitality of the Church “just as its lessening is a sign of a crisis of faith.”

The Pope states that what moved him to write this encyclical is the fact that the Church, in proclaiming Christ as redeemer of the world, can be of service to the modern world which has “lost its sense of ultimate realities and of existence itself.”

He also mentions that the encyclical was necessary to clear up a number of “doubts and ambiguities.” These problems have arisen because of “new theological ideas” which have caused many to radically question whether there should be any missionary activity at all. The Holy Father responds by going back to the Church’s theological roots in revelation. Once again, drawing upon the Gospels and St. Paul, he points out that Jesus Christ is the only savior and that the Church possesses the fullnessof truth:

In this definitive Word of his revelation, God has made himself known in the fullest possible way. He has revealed to mankind who he is. This definitive self-revelation of God is the fundamental reason why the Church is missionary by her very nature. She cannot do other than proclaim the Gospel, that is, the fullness of the truth which God has enabled us to know about himself.

The Pope next strikes out against neo-modernist theology by stating clearly that Christ was fully aware of his unique and universal mediation. Recalling the binding teaching of Chalcedon against Nestorius he states that “Jesus is the Incarnate Word – a single and indivisible person.” He teaches that there can be no separation between Jesus and the Christ. One cannot speak of a”‘Jesus of history’ who would differ from `the Christ of faith’.”

The absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ as both fully God and man give Him “an absolute, an universal significance” who, although in history, “remains history’s center and goal.” The Pope astutely observes that so much in the modern world has been closed off to God and the transcendent that man is limited “to his horizontal dimension alone.” The Church’s proclamation of Christ leads to man’s freedom. This proclamation must respect man’s freedom of conscience but mankind has “the right to know the riches of the mercy of Christ.” Recalling the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the Pope reminds us that the truth of Christianity imposes itself in a special way:

“In accordance with their dignity as persons, equipped with reason and free will and endowed with personal responsibility, all are impelled by their own nature and are bound by a moral obligation to seek truth, above all religious truth. They are further bound to hold to the truth once it is known, and to regulate their whole lives by its demands.”

The constant teaching of the Church is reechoed by the Sovereign Pontiff who proclaims that only in Christ is man set free from doubt, error, sin and death. To question the validity of missionary activity is to question the Faith itself: “Mission is an issue of faith an accurate indicator of our faith in Christ and his love for us.”

He again cautions the Christian against the antisupernaturalist prejudice of our age which seeks “to reduce Christianity to a merely human wisdom, a pseudoscience of well being.”

The Holy Father next turns his attention to the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God. After an examination of this concept in sacred scripture he again makes reference to several contemporary distortions which are at variance with the Church’s traditional teaching. Some have reduced the sense of the Kingdom of God to simply concern for man’s earthly needs. This truncated understanding again shuts man off from the transcendent. Christianity is thereby reduced to the level of just one more ideology. Others speak constantly of “the Kingdom” without ever making reference to the King! Christ is not mentioned because they claim that Christ cannot be understood by those who lack Christian faith. They therefore speak of “the mystery of creation” but ignore “the mystery of Redemption.” The result is that Christ is passed over in silence. These are all serious deformations of the teachings of Christ and His Church. Speaking as universal pastor he rejects these unequivocally, stating:

This is not the Kingdom of God as we know it from Revelation. The Kingdom cannot be detached either from Christ or from the Church…. The Kingdom of God is not a concept, a doctrine, or a program subject to free interpretation, but is before all else a person with the face and name of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God.

Here we see clearly that any theology which seeks to separate the Kingdom of God from Jesus Christ or His Mystical Body, which contains the fullness of faith, is erroneous. The kingdom of God is Christ’s who is “the Lord to whom everything must one day be subject.”

The Holy Father next turns his attention to the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church’s missionary life. Again he bases his reflection upon revelation, focusing particularly upon the Acts of the Apostles. He does this intentionally in an effort to call us back to the Word of God as our guide and essential foundation for theological discourse and reflection. He again rejects any false theology which would separate the Holy Spirit from the Person of Jesus Christ or His Church. In order to go forward with a new evangelization all Christians must be inspired with “the same courage that inspired the missionaries of the past, and the same readiness to listen to the voice of the Spirit.” Here and in several other places he recalls the example of the early Christian martyrs who bore witness through the shedding of their blood. This well deserved praise is a timely counterweight to trendy “politically correct” efforts to downplay or dismiss the glorious achievements of Catholic missionaries down through the ages.

With a healthy realism, the Pope next examines the vast complexity of the present situation in which many of the traditionally Christian countries have themselves become mission territories. The Pope acknowledges that some had made this observation even before the Second Vatican Council. He remarks that “the situation certainly has not improved in the years since then.”

The Pope here calls for a re-evangelization of the secularized West in which “many have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church.” This need for re-evangelization still does not invalidate however the primary task of the strict mission “ad gentes” which proclaims Christ to peoples who have not yet heard the good news. The Holy Father emphatically teaches that this effort must proceed forward despite difficulties and obstacles.

A true supernatural vision is required as the obstacles to the spread of the Gospel appear “insurmountable” on a merely human level. Among the difficulties encountered by Christian missionaries in some countries, the Pope enumerates the following: 1) refusal of admission to missionaries; 2) evangelization and conversion are forbidden; 3) even Christian worship is forbidden; 4) cultural difficulties in which the Gospel appears irrelevant, incomprehensible or as a rejection of one’s own people and culture.

The Pope also points out that a number of difficulties are found “within the People of God.” He speaks of these internal problems as “the most painful of all.” These include: 1) lack of fervor due to fatigue and disenchantment; 2) compromise of the faith; 3) lack of interest; 4) “and above all, lack of joy and hope.” Matters are further complicated by divisions between Christians and the “de-christianization within Christian countries” which leads to a decline in both vocations and in authentic Christian witness. The Pope singles out a “widespread indifferentism” and traces this again to theological errors and distortions.

Once again we painfully see that ideas have consequences. Theologians who have strayed from the teaching of the Church have spread their erroneous views to the detriment of the Church and mankind. One here naturally thinks of the impact of Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian.” The one thing we do know about the anonymous Christian is that he is not a Christian! Regardless of Rahner’s intention, this opinion, which is not in line with the full teaching of the Church in this area, has deeply wounded the essential missionary enterprise by leading to the type of indifferentism referred to by the Pope. Concerning this problem the Holy Father writes that:

It is based on incorrect theological perspectives and is characterised by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that “one religion is as good as another.” We can add, using the words of Pope Paul VI, that there are also certain “excuses which would impede evangelization. The most insidious of these excuses are certainly the ones which people claim to find support for in such and such a teaching of the Council.”

The Pope seeks to stir up again zeal for the missions in the cities, mass media and culture in order to end the split between the Gospel and culture. The Gospel alone can satisfy the spiritual hunger in man and is “anantidote” to the dehumanization of contemporary society. In order to achieve this end the Pope reminds us all of the central importance of conversion and Baptism. It is not acceptable to simply leave people on a natural level even when they are working for “justice, freedom, peace and solidarity.” All people have a right to hear clearly and fully the Gospel “of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ so that each one can live out in its fullness his or her proper calling.” This conversion involves a sincere and total adherence to Christ and His Gospel within the Church. Conversion cannot be separated from Baptism. This error, which the Pope states has been proposed by many involved in missionary work, is to be rejected. There can be no individual conversion in isolation from the Church which unites all believers in a communion of faith and obedience. Recalling the teaching of Paul VI on this point, he writes:

Every community must live in union with the particular and the universal Church, in heartfelt communion with the Church’s Pastors and the Magisterium, with a commitment to missionary outreach and without yielding to isolationism or ideological exploitation.

This conversion involves a change of life in cooperation with the grace of Baptism. This in turns leads to a consideration of inculturation which involves a transformationof those cultural elements which are “authentic” by integrating them into Christianity. This is effected by the faith’s entrance into different cultures. Culture is a man made creation and therefore frequently will need to be elevated and purified by the divine message found in Christianity. In the area of inculturation, the Pope again warns against an imbalance:

In this regard, certain guidelines remain basic. Properly applied, inculturation must be guided by two principles: “compatibility with the Gospel and communion with the universal Church.” Bishops, as guardians of the “deposit of faith,” will take care to ensure fidelity and, in particular, to provide discernment, for which a deeply balanced approach is required. In fact there is a risk of passing uncritically from a form of alienation from culture to an overestimation of culture. Since culture is a human creation and is therefore marked by sin, it too needs to be “healed, ennobled and perfected.”

The Holy Father then stresses the importance of interreli­gious dialogue with religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Again he cautions those who engage in dialogue that only in Christ is found the fullness of God’s revelation and love. Although these religions contain spiritual riches there remains “gaps, insufficiencies and errors.” Since salvation comes from Christ “dialogue does not dispense from evangelization.” The Pope further comments on the need for the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation:

I recently wrote to the Bishops of Asia: “… The fact that the followers of other religions can receive God’s grace and be saved by Christ apart from the ordinary means which he has established does not thereby cancel the call to faith and baptism which God wills for all people.” Indeed Christ himself “while expressly insisting on the need for faith and baptism, at the same time confirmed the need for the Church, into which people enter through Baptism as through a door.” Dialogue should be conducted and implemented with the conviction that the Church is the ordinary means of salvation and that she alone possesses the fullness of the means of salvation.

The Pope then spends the next two sections of the encyclical speaking to various leaders in the missionary apostolate (bishops, missionary and religious institutes, etc.) and calls for mutual cooperation in all missionary activity for the conversion of the entire world.

He ends this profound theological reflection by focusing on “missionary spirituality.” The Pope, again drawing upon scripture, calls the missionary to “boldness” in preaching the Gospel. He should be motivated and driven by “zeal for souls.” The proper missionary spirituality will also manifest a deep love for the Church since “fidelity to Christ cannot be separated from fidelity to the Church.” In conclusion, the Holy Father characteristically and fittingly implores the assistance of the blessed Virgin who, as the Church’s Mother and model, inspires and assists all who labor in the establishment of the Kingdom of her Son.

As one who grew up in an era of nickels and dimes sent to the “pagan babies” and who still vividly recalls the holiness of visiting missionaries as well as the deep respect shown to them by everyone in the Church, may the prayerful reading of this profound document renew the missionary spirit in our own hearts.

We cannot be content when we consider the millions of our brothers and sisters, who like us have been redeemed by the blood of Christ but who live in ignorance of the love of God. For each believer, as for the entire Church, the missionary task must remain foremost, for it concerns the eternal destiny of humanity and corresponds to God’s mysterious and merciful plan.

Timothy T O’Donnell, S. T. D.

April 29, 1992

Feast of St. Catherine of Siena