Catch the Spirit: Missionaries for the Twenty-first Century

This article is adapted from an address to the Women for Faith and Family and the Consortium Perfectas Caritatis.

Who is called to missionary activity? The answer is quite clearly stated in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, Unitatis Redintegration, Ad Gentes, Apostolicam Actuositatem, among others) in the apostolic exhortations Evangelii Nuntiundi and Christifideles Laici, in the recent encyclical Redemptoris Missio, and in the Holy Father’s message for World Mission Sunday, October 20, 1991. All these make clear that each Christian is called by virtue of his or her baptism to mission. There is no avoiding this simple and explicit teaching. We are all called to missionary activity. As the Second Vatican Council’s document on missions, Ad Gentes, says,

wherever they live, all Christians are bound to show forth, by the example of their lives and by the witness of their speech, that new man which they put on in baptism, and that power of the Holy Spirit by whom they were strengthened at confirmation. Thus other men, observing their good works can glorify the Father (cf. Matthew 5:16) and can better perceive the real meaning of human life and the bond which ties the whole community of mankind together. [11]

John Paul II has applied this universal mandate to proclaim Christ to Christian communities as well. For from the family, the smallest and most important Christian community, to the parish community, the local church and beyond, all are called to mission. The Holy Father went so far as to state in Mission: The Right and Duty of Every Christian, his message for World Mission Sunday, that

No Christian community is faithful to its duty unless it is missionary: either it is a Missionary Community or it is not even a Christian community, because these are simply two dimensions of the same reality, which is brought about by baptism and by the other sacraments.

But despite the numerous teaching statements, despite the clear command of Christ to “go into all the world and preach the gospel,” despite the urgent need for the transformation of societies by the saving truth of the gospel, and despite all of the millions who have never heard the Good News — despite all of this, there has been an undeniable decline in missionary activity. The facts speak for themselves. Just when the world seemed so ripe for evangelization; just when the need seemed so urgent; just when the means of worldwide missionary activity became available, we stopped being a missionary Church. How and why did this happen? How can it be overcome?

The many reasons for the decline in missionary activity have yet to be fully analyzed. The upheaval which occurred after the Second Vatican Council both within and outside the Church contributed to a loss of confidence in the Church. (Notice I said after the Council not because of the Council. It is an understandable but mistaken notion to attribute everything that happened after the Council to the Council itself. It is my opinion that if it had not been for the reforms instituted by the Second Vatican Council, the Church would have been less prepared to handle the social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s.) This confusion, with some extremely dubious theological opinions — concerning the universality of salvation, the practical non-existence of hell, and the so-called “anonymous Christian”— led directly to a deemphasis of missionary activity. Cardinal Ratzinger has commented on this in The Ratzinger Report:

It is part of the Church’s ancient, traditional teaching that every man is called to salvation and de facto can be saved if he sincerely follows the precepts of his own conscience, even without being a visible member of the Catholic Church. This teaching … has been put forward in an extreme form since the Council on the basis of theories like that of “anonymous Christians.” Ultimately it has been proposed that grace is always given provided that a person — believing in no religion at all or subscribing to any religion whatsoever—accepts himself as a human being…. According to these theories the Christian’s “plus” is only that he is aware of this grace, which inheres actually in all people, whether baptized or not.

Hand in hand, then, with the weakening of the necessity of baptism, went the over-emphasis on the values of the non-Christian religions, which many theologians saw not as extraordinary paths of salvation but precisely as ordinary ones.

Naturally, hypotheses of this kind caused the missionary zeal of many to slacken: “Why should we disturb non-Christians, urging them to accept baptism and faith in Christ, if their religion is the way to salvation in their culture, in their part of the world?”

These views led directly to a secular, horizontal view of the Kingdom of God. This humanistic, worldly view focused not on the spiritual realm, but on earthly needs. Missionaries abandoned proclamation of the gospel. Instead, they began to proclaim some secular ideology often tainted with the thought of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche — the three great “masters of suspicion.”

Now, do not misunderstand this. It is good and necessary to provide for the physical needs of those impoverished, naked, homeless, hungry. But along with this perishable food must come the “Everlasting Bread come down from heaven.” Men and women are starving not only for physical nourishment but, more importantly, for the spiritual nourishment only found in Jesus Christ. The Holy Father criticized this truncated view of mission in Redemptoris Missio (17):

In this view, the kingdom tends to become something completely human and secularized; what counts are programs and struggles for a liberation which is socio-economic, political, and even cultural, but within a horizon that is closed to the transcendent. Without denying that on this level too there are values to be promoted, such a notion nevertheless remains within the confines of a kingdom of man, deprived of its authentic and profound dimensions. Such a view easily translates into one more ideology of purely earthly progress. The kingdom of God, however, “is not of this world … is not from the world” (John 18:36).

What this (at best) highly speculative and (at worst) erroneous theology led to was a separation between salvation and truth. Yet the New Testament clearly connects these two. As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, “It is knowledge of the truth that liberates and hence saves.”

To fail to evangelize because “everyone is saved” is both presumptuous and uncharitable — presumptuous because it assumes that God will provide salvation in extraordinary ways; uncharitable because it leaves people in ignorance and denies them the many sources of grace available in the Church. As far as I am able to discern, there are at least seven reasons why we must evangelize:

1. While many might be saved outside the Church, all can benefit from the sources of grace within the Church. G.K. Chesterton answered the question “Why did you become Catholic?” with the simple phrase “to have my sins forgiven.” Chesterton had an excellent grasp of the theology of grace.

2. To fail to evangelize leaves people in darkness and error. As Jesus said, one does not light a lamp and place a basket over it. To instruct the ignorant and correct the erring have always been seen as works of mercy.

3. The goal of missionary activity is to enable people to share in the Trinitarian unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the mystery revealed by Christ. The One God is a Trinity of persons who freely created to extend His family. Thus, the goal of all of creation is interpersonal communion between God and man and therefore between man and man.

But for there to be effective interpersonal communion, people must know that they are called to it. Only if people realize the great dignity which they are called to in Christ will they work toward building up the Body of Christ. In short, we are called to divine-human communion — one family with One Father. It is imperative that we tell our brothers and sisters of this calling.

4. Being Christian is really good for human beings. People with the gospel are much better off, in strictly human terms, than people who do not know the Good News. To know is always better than not to know. Not only are they set free from the darkness of sin and death, but they are able to flourish as human beings. They are enlightened as to how to live a life worthy of beings created in the image and likeness of God. As Gaudium et Spes (22) says, “Only in the Mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”

True humanism is Christian humanism. There is no dichotomy between true concern for humanity and Christianity. No better proof of this fact is the Catholic Church’s consistent and liberating teaching about human life and human sexuality. No other group dedicated to promoting human good has stood so long — often against considerable odds — for the dignity of the human person from the moment of conception until death and beyond.

5. Missionary activity is needed to convince people to work towards building the Kingdom of God. While we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress from the increase of the Kingdom of Heaven, this earthly progress is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God, as Gaudium et Spes (39) states:

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood, and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again freed of stain, burnished and transfigured.

If people do not hear the gospel, they will most likely fail to discern the mission which God intended for them. No one can fully make up for this failing. This is one of the great tragedies of abortion. All the service that God intended from those lost babies will never be accomplished because of others’ sinful choices.

6. Missionary activity is good for those who are already Christian. The Holy Father states:

How moving and encouraging it is to imagine the communities of early Christians, as they opened out to the world, which for the first time they looked on with new eyes: with the eyes of those who have come to understand that God’s love is to be expressed in the service for the good of our brothers and sisters. The memory of their experience moves me to repeat once again the main thought of the recent encyclical: “For missionary activity renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others!” Yes, missionary activity offers us an extraordinary opportunity to rejuvenate and render more beautiful the Bride of Christ and, at the same time, it enables us to experience a faith that renews and strengthens our Christian life precisely because it is given.

Christian Faith is never exclusive or isolated or individualistic. It is meant to be shared and celebrated in a community which is itself missionary by nature.

7. Missionary activity is required because it is a mandate from the Lord Himself, as Matthew records in his gospel (28:16-20):

The eleven disciples made their way to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had summoned them. At the sight of him, those who had entertained doubts fell down in homage. Jesus came forward and addressed them in these words: “Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go therefore, and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!”

The false notions which have caused a very discernible waning of missionary activity — “an identity crisis” and a “lack of motivation” in the Church’s mission — must be dismissed. As the Holy Father wrote in his first encyclical, Redemptoris Hominis (10):

The Church’s fundamental function in every age and particularly in ours is to direct man’s gaze, to point the awareness and experience of the whole of humanity towards the mystery of God, to help man to be familiar with the profundity of the redemption taking place in Christ Jesus.


Mission to the Areopagus

To John Paul II, the fundamental function of the Church is missionary. The Church must make her own the urgent cry of Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (I Corinthians 9:16).

By now it must be clear that missionary activity is not optional for the Christian. It is at the heart of the Gospel! St. John Crysostom went so far as to say, “I cannot believe in the salvation of anyone who does not work for his or her neighbor’s salvation. How can such a person who does nothing for anybody else really be a Christian?”

But where does one begin in one’s role as missionary? John Paul II has recommended St. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Athens (and at Lystra) as a model of missionary activity. Here, Paul enters into “dialogue” with the cultural and religious values of the Athenians. He attempts to show them that God is already present in their lives as Creator and Substance of all things. But to recognize Him as He really is, the Athenians must abandon their false gods or the false notion of God which they have made. One can easily see parallels to the false gods of the modern, secular world.

The Holy Father makes reference to many places in need of evangelization. These he calls modern equivalents of the Areopagus. Redemptoris Missio lists first and foremost the world of communications. The mass media is quickly establishing the “global village,” and in many ways is conditioning the way people look at this new world. Other areas the Pope cites as forms of the modern Areopagus are the peace movement, the environmental movement, the various “liberation” movements, the human rights movements and the “new wave” religious movements. It is especially important to mention the “Areopagus” of the so-called “feminist” movement. There is a great need to evangelize the women’s movement and those that make laws affecting women and family. The Holy Father also mentions the “immense Areopagus” of scientific culture and intellectual relations. All these areas are in need of evangelization.

One last question remains to be answered — how can we effectively proclaim the Good News? How can we be good missionaries?

First, some of you may well be called to a specific, special missionary vocation ad gentes. As the Second Vatican Council states in Ad Gentes (23):

Although the task of spreading the faith, to the best of one’s ability, falls to each disciple of Christ, the Lord always calls from the number of his disciples those whom he wishes, so that … he may send them to preach to the nations. Accordingly, through the Holy Spirit, … Christ stirs up a missionary vocation in the hearts of individuals and at the same time raises up in the Church those institutes which undertake the duty of evangelization, which is the responsibility of the whole Church, as their special task.

I can think of no better way to spend one’s life than in total dedication to missionary proclamation of the gospel. If this is your call — follow it! Make a “total gift” of yourself to Christ and His Church. As the Holy Father states in Redemptoris Missio (65):

[A missionary vocation] is manifested in a total commitment to evangelization, a commitment which involves the missionary’s whole person and life, and demands self-giving, without limits of energy or time.

What of the rest of us who do not receive this call? We are called to cooperate with the missions as individuals and as a community. The Holy Father has delineated the ways in which we can meet the challenge to be a missionary community.

Prayer and sacrifice: Christians should never tire of offering prayer and sacrifices to God and advocating that others do likewise. However, I am afraid that we, including bishops, do not speak enough about the efficacy of prayer and sacrifices offered to God. But Scripture constantly witnesses to its importance. Jesus Himself fasted and prayed. He told His disciples that some demons could only be cast out by fasting and prayer. Paul specifically asked for prayers for his mission.

An excellent modern example of this kind of spiritual cooperation is St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. Because of her love and dedication to prayer and suffering offered for the missions, she is rightly proclaimed as co-patroness of the missions although she was never sent to the missions.

Support of vocations and material assistance: Rich nations like ours have a special duty to aid missionary activity financially. This kind of support is necessary and expresses our solidarity with those in need. God has supplied us with many gifts. But they are meant to be shared. C.S. Lewis, when asked if he believed that he would have any of his massive library in heaven, replied, “Only those books which I have given away will I find in heaven.” The gifts that we get to keep into the next life are those we gave away.

We must also encourage missionary vocations. This task falls especially to families. As the Holy Father writes in Redemptoris Missio (79-80):

While acknowledging the validity of various ways of being involved in missionary activity, … a full and lifelong commitment to the work of the missions holds pride of place, especially in missionary institutes and congregations. Promoting such vocations is at the heart of missionary cooperation…. Families, especially parents, should … “offer a “special contribution to the missionary cause of the Church by fostering missionary vocations among their sons and daughters.”

The witness of a holy life: We must realize that ultimately the most successful form of evangelization and mission is the personal witness of a holy life. As the Holy Father writes, “People today put more trust in witness than in teachers, in experience than in teaching, and in life and action than in theory.”

Since each and every Christian is called to be a missionary, each and every one of us is also called to be a saint. You must lead the way by your personal example of a holy, joy-filled life.

For you who are married and have dedicated yourself to the great vocation of wife and mother, you must witness to the truth about conjugal love. You must show the world the joy of Christian motherhood; of fidelity to your husband; of openness and loving acceptance of the great gift of human life; of dedication to the education and rearing of Christian children; and of holy and good friendships.

For you who are called into the professional world, you must strive to sanctify the world through your work offered to God in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. You must witness to Christian values in the marketplace, the academy, government, the hospitals and the courts.

You who are called by God to live a consecrated life have a special obligation to missionary activity. Consecrated life is a powerful witness to the truth that the “earthly treasure” of power, wealth, glory, and sensual pleasure are of fleeting importance compared with the “heavenly treasure” of a God-centered life.

It must be emphasized that while marriage and celibacy are different vocations, they are complementary by nature. Both witness to the future glory of heaven.

The task of missionary activity and evangelization is a vast undertaking. It would be impossible, even unthinkable, if Jesus did not promise that He would be with us to the end of time. In this undertaking women play an essential role — perhaps the vital role. Noting that “two women for every man” are directly involved in evangelization, the Pastoral Commission of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples recently stated that “as givers of life and dedicated in nature to its service, women have the task, before the eyes of an observing world, to give evangelization a human and living face.”

But this is not new. Faith-filled women have been giving the gospels a “human and living face” for almost two millennia. St. Theresa, the “Little Flower,” has already been mentioned. There are also the many foundresses of religious orders represented here today; the great doctors of the Church, St. Theresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena; the early martyrs, such as Agatha, Agnes, and Lucy; American saints, such as Mother Elizabeth Seton and Kateri Tekawitha; Mary Magdalene, known as “the Apostle of the Apostles”; and the innumerable simple, unnamed women of faith who served quietly in their roles as professional women, mothers, wives, or religious.

However, it is to a modern martyr that I wish to turn in summary — Blessed Edith Stein. After her conversion from Judaism, this accomplished philosopher wrote,

Of course religion is not just something for a quiet corner and a few hours of leisure; it must be the root and ground of all life, and this not only for a few chosen ones, but for every Christian…. Immediately before, and a long time after my conversion, I thought living a religious life meant to abandon earthly things and to live only in the thought of the heavenly realities. Gradually I have learned to understand that in this world something else is demanded of us, and that even in the contemplative life the connection with this world must not be cut off. I even think that the more deeply a soul is drawn to God, the more it must also go out of itself in this sense, that is to say into the world, in order to carry the Divine life into it

This is our calling as disciples.

This is our responsibility as missionaries.

This is our joy as Christians.

  • Most Rev. John J. Myers

    John Joseph Myers (born 1941 in Earlville, Illinois) is the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark (New Jersey, USA) and the Ecclesiastical Superior of Turks and Caicos. He was previously Bishop of Peoria.

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