Felipe Gómez, S.J.
Felipe Gómez, S.J. holds a PhD in Systematic Theology from the Gregorian University, Rome. He is former editor of the East Asian Pastoral Review. From 1971-1975 he taught theology in Dalat, Vietnam. He has been engaged in theological translations into Vietnamese in Paris from 1989-1996. He continues this work now at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila, where he is also a faculty member. He has published widely in Vietnamese. The Good Shepherd is his recent English publication.
At the beginning of the third millennium, the Catholic theology of mission still draws its main inspiration from Vatican II, although some new developments have added emphasis to certain areas, especially to dialogue, inculturation and theology of religions. Motivation seems to be wavering in some quarters; that is why we deem useful to delve again in the documents of the council and retrieve the solid reasons behind Christian missionary drive. The two main theological sources are the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and the Decree on the Missions, Ad Gentes. The other documents of the council are also unanimous in their missionary thrust, and present missiological conceptions quite similar.
The Trinitarian source of Missionary Activity
The Plan of Salvation
The Plan or Economy of Salvation is the over-all design guiding God’s action toward humankind. This action appears to us mainly in creation and history; here we focus on history and more concretely on Christian history. Among all such historical salvific activities, missionary activity is number one. "Missionary activity is no more and no less than the manifestation or epiphany of God’s purpose and its implementation in history, in which God, through the mission, brings to completion the history of salvation in a discernible way" (AG 9b, see 7c).1 St. Irenaeus sums up the divine purpose in his famous formula, "to recapitulate all in Christ," that is to make Christ the Head of everything, which is the mission of his Church; "therefore –states the council– all laypeople have the noble responsibility to work hard so that the divine salvific purpose reaches more and more to all people of all times everywhere on earth" (LG 33b).
And so we see the unity of the economy of salvation: the mission of Christ, of the Church, of each Christian and of all creatures aims at the same end; still more: the missionary activity is the explicit means to achieve that objective. The final goal is the glory of God, manifested in the salvation of all people through Christ; that is why He must meet all and each of those to be saved, so that they can become members of His Body. The purpose is realized in history and historically, that is to say visibly, socially, progressively (see LG 9, AG 6b, PO 22c, v.v.). God chooses the times, the places, the agents, etc., for his mission (actively speaking, missio Dei,or God sending), always proceeding in a "human way," that is with the free cooperation (and limitations) of his agents. The social dimension of the plan means that salvation is not "individualistic" but social; the main agent is the Church and the individuals are saved into a people, the Church (see LG 2, 9a, AG 2, GS 32a, etc.). We conceive of the plan of salvation as the design of the Father, carried out in time in the mystery of the Son through the Holy Spirit. The plan includes all the dimensions of human destiny (GS 11a), mainly as personal and historical (GS 34, 57b); therefore a human being achieves its fullness only in the Body of Christ. Finally, the plan has an eschatological dimension and will reach completion only "when all the just... will be gathered with the Father in the universal Church" (LG2end).
The Love-source of the Father
The absolute wellspring of everything is the Father. More concretely, "the [salvific] will flows from the ‘love-source’ or charity of God the Father. From Him, who is ‘the origin without origin,’ the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds through the Son, freely creating us out of His surpassing and merciful kindness…" (AG 2b). This means that the inner life of the Trinity is reflected in the history of salvation, or putting it otherwise: the divine dynamism that drives all things towards the ultimate goal of creation ‘incarnates’ itself in a historical activity. This dynamism is simply the mystery of God’s love, which constitutes the background of human history (cf. AG 13b, GS 22a, 45b, 93). By its very nature, love gives itself up; being absolute love, the Father gives Himself totally to the "Son of His Love" (Col 1:13), and both, in their mutual love, give themselves eternally to the Spirit in such a wise that the Blessed Trinity is "the Lover, the Beloved One and Love."2 If love is the "principle of communication" of the divinity in the Trinity (what technical theology calls "processions"), it must also be the principle of communication of the mission to the Son and to the Spirit, whose created goal is the communication of the same divinity to the human persons (cf. 2Pet 1:4; LG 40, UR 15a, DV 2). The means (the "sacrament") to carry out this plan is the Church, "coming forth from the eternal Father’s love" (GS 40b), which has as main obligation "simultaneously to manifest and to work out the mystery of God’s love for man" (GS 45a).
The Trinitarian Dynamics of History
Again, by essence, the dynamism of each divine Person is "to go out:" the Father "goes out" unto the Son, the Father and the Son "go out" unto the Spirit and, ad extra, that is regarding creation, God "outpours Himself" into the creatures. In salvation history, the Father sends the Son (the Son "goes out" as the man Jesus, cf. Jn 16:27, 28; 17:8, etc.), and finally Christ sends the Church (the Church "goes out" into the world as missionary, cf. Mt 28:18-20). That is, for the Church to be born means to be sent. That is the reason why Vatican II can affirm: "The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature, for it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she takes her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father" (AG 2a). It means that the eternal unfathomable divine thrust outwards animates the Church (with the obvious limitations of historical conditionings). Since the primeval source is the Father, the result will not be just athing but a child (adopted sonship). Similarly, when God gives Himself totally as Trinity, the result is not just a divinized person, but a "family" (the Church), or as the council says, quoting St. Cyprian, "a people made one by the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" (LG 4end). Being such image of God, the Church is both communion and mission, but a mission that, like God’s, is carried out in self-emptying, kenosis, giving up her own self in service of others (cf. AG 5b).
a) The mission of the Son. — The first mission the Father entrusts to the Son is when He "sends" him as mediator of creation (cf. Jn 1:3, Col 1:16) and then the mission to save the world (cf. Jn 3:16; Gal 4:4-5, etc.); from this flows any salvific mission in history, that is why Vatican II bases all missionary action on this mission (Cf. LG 3, AG 3 DV 4).
The Father’s purpose is to "divinize" His children. Creating man at his own image means that God imprints in us the likeness of the Son, who is his perfect reflection (cf. Heb 1:3). The incarnated Word is the perfect man, the archetypal image of God, divinized as much as a creature can be. This man is sent to be the only mediator of divinization, that is the meeting point of God and man, where both become one. The Fathers of the Church speak of an invisible mission of the Word from the beginning of history, all along "planting the seeds of himself" among us; from that seed sprouts up the "law of the conscience" which is already salvific (cf. Rom 2:14-15), as well as all religious manifestations. In ancient times, Celsus (end of 2ndcentury) and Porphyry (end of 3rd c.) chided Christianity because our so-called unique Savior was born so late and in an insignificant country.3 The apologists answered that, in fact, the Logos had always been with us, dispensing his salvation to any heart willing to accept it (cf. Acts 17:27-8, Rev 13:8).
However, the "way of anonymous Word" is not the way the Father has chosen. If that Word, "for us and for our salvation," became flesh and was crucified, surely it was not to leave everything as it was… "In order to establish peace or communion between human beings, and sinful at that, and Himself, as well as to fashion them into a fraternal community, God determined to intervene in human history in a way both new and definitive" (AG 3a). This is the doctrine of the New Testament, contained in the teaching on the only mediator of salvation (1Tm 2:5), or the "New Adam" (see Rom 5:14, 1Cor 15:45), the Redeemer of all (cf. Mk 10:45), etc. This Word—Christ—has assumed all the dimensions of human reality, psychological, cultural, historical, and so on. It means that "the way of the Incarnate Word" is the one God wants.
Christ’s mediation embraces various fields:
1) Mediator of Revelation (cf. DV 4): His mission is to make us know God as He wants to be known. He does not just bring good news, he is the good news and, as Pius XII remarked, "the God-Missionary of the Father…"4 sent as "light of the gentiles" (cf. Is 49:6), to "illumine all who come to this world" (Jn 1:9) so that "they may have life and have it abundantly" (Jn 10:10), because his word, though not easy to accept, "is Spirit and life" (Jn 6:66).
2) Mediator of Redemption: A basic teaching of the New Testament is that Christ liberated the human race with his blood (cf. 1Cor 6:20, Pet 1:18-9), "acquiring" thus a people for himself (cf. 1Pet 2:9-10, LG 9). What he achieved in mystery has now to be manifested in real life: "For this the Church was founded: that by spreading the Kingdom of Christ everywhere for the glory of God the Father, she might bring all men to share in Christ’s saving redemption" (AA2a). If the Church does not evangelize or spread Christ’s Kingdom, the work of redemption will remain unfulfilled.
3) Mediator of the New Covenant (cf. Heb 8:6, LG 9a): This means a new relationship of God with humankind, founding a new law, new worship, new people (cf. Heb 9; 2Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19; Rev 18:4, etc): therefore humankind’s relationships with God as ethics, worship and religion pass through Christ.
4) Mediator of gathering the New People: He was sent to "the scattered children of God, to bring them together" (Jn 11:52), and make them into a people. The "convocation" is what makes the Church (ekklesia means convocation or assembly) and is the specifically missionary task. Christ’s salvation is "incarnated" that is visible, social; that is what Vatican II taught: "It has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness" (LG 9a).
Through these mediations, the mission of the Son continues throughout the history of salvation. As the physical body of Jesus had to grow after the fiat of his mother Mary, so his mystical body has to grow in history after the coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost.
b. The mission of the Holy Spirit.- As in the "immanent Trinity" the Third Person "completes" the Trinity, so in the "economic Trinity" (history of salvation) the mission of the Spirit finalizes the enterprise of the Son. Vatican II teaches: "To accomplish this goal [to spread the gospel until the end of the world], Christ sent the Holy Spirit from the Father, in order to carry out his saving work inwardly and to impel the Church toward her proper expansion" (AG 2a). The council wants us to pay attention to the individual action of each divine Person in the "economy" and the continuity in the divine "order": The Father "decides" the plan (AG 2), the Son is sent to implement it (AG 3), and the Holy Spirit is sent to complete it (AG 4). This takes place in history and historically through the mission of the Church (AG 5). Thus the eternal salvific will of the Father is concretized in the temporal mission of the Church, which is the Body of the Son acting through the Spirit. The mission of the Church is, therefore, Trinitarian in its origin, in its implementation and in its end.
The Spirit proceeds from the mutual love of the Father and the Son, that means that both the "spiration" and the "mission" of the Third Person are the dynamism of divine love which, upon reaching the creatures, must result in created love. In the work of creation, the Spirit of God (Creator Spiritus) puts in human hearts an opening toward the infinite, a capacity to love whose horizon is God himself, with a dynamism towards the end of the divine plan. This dynamism is embodied in the missionary activity of the Church (cf. AG 9b). The Spirit was active in the world before Christ and is bringing the plan to completion now, even outside the Church. The same Spirit guarantees the unity of the plan: old/new testament, inside/outside the Church. In the old testament, when Yahweh sends someone, He gives also his ruah, His Spirit, who enables the sent one to fulfill the mission: He is with Moses (cf. Ex 3:10-12), who will in his turn share the spirit with Joshua (Deut 43:9). The Spirit will guide the leaders to success in their tasks, such as Gideon (Jg 6:34), Jephthah (Jg 11:29) or Samson (14:6; 15:14), etc. In the prophets, the Spirit "inspires" their word (cf. Zech 7:12; Mic 3:8; Is 59:21). The summit will be the Messiah, full of the Spirit (cf. Is 61:1; Lk 4:18) whose mission will be "to bring justice to the nations" (Is 42:1)… Now, God promises to pour out his Spirit upon all flesh and all will prophesy… (Joel 2:28-32).
In the messianic times, this prophecy was fulfilled: the gospel of Luke (ch.1-2) shows all kinds of people, both priests and commoners, "inspired" to proclaim God’s mighty deeds. By the Jordan, the Messiah receives the Spirit visibly, who "anoints" him and sends him to announce the Good News (Lk 4:18-19). Jesus then promises his disciples the same Spirit, who will enable them to bear witness to him in all circumstances (cf. Mt 10:20), and to preach the gospel to all nations, beginning by Jerusalem (Lk 24:47). In an "economy of incarnation," this happens in a perceptible way, through a "baptism in the Spirit" (Acts 1:4), which is usually connected with the baptism with water (cf. 19:5-6). The Decree Ad Gentes states: "On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came down upon the disciples to remain with them forever (cf. Jn 14:16). That day the Church was publicly revealed to the multitude and the gospel began to spread among the nations by means of preaching…" (AG 4a). The outpouring of the Spirit the day of Pentecost was so momentous for the history of salvation that John considers the presence of the Spirit before (in the Old Testament or in other religions) as next to naught (cf. Jn 7:39). The Spirit gives birth to the missionary Church, which makes Lumen Gentium 17 say that the Spirit "compels the Church to cooperate" (ad cooperandum compellitur) in the missionary task. This is the whole Church, not the clergy or the religious, because the Spirit dwells in the Body, in all its members, so that all faithful are driven by "the same mission spirit" as Jesus himself! (cf. AG 4end).
Before Pentecost, Jesus’ word had convoked the Church, his blood had redeemed her, but she was like a body lacking a soul, entombed in fear within the cenacle. The Spirit transformed the disciples into apostles. Lacking missionary spirit, many Christians are in a pre-pentecostal state. The Spirit opens the doors and sends the community out as missionary, as Church: holy because the Holy Spirit animates her from within; one because the Spirit unifies the variety of gifts for the common mission; catholic because the same Spirit sends her to all nations, all cultures, all kinds of people, reducing all to one family of God’s children; apostolic because the Spirit warrants the fidelity of the Church in the transmission of the message and in the structures of the community. The main driving force of the mission is not any need—either salvation of pagans or growth of the Church—but dynamism of the Spirit who enlivens the Body of Christ. To refuse the mission ad gentes is to sin against the Spirit.
c. The mission of the Church. -Following the mission of the Son and driven by the Holy Spirit, the Church is sent to be "the universal sacrament of salvation" (AG 1). More concretely, each local Church is sent to the particular region where she lives (AG 20a), with the purpose of building the Kingdom of God in every people, race or culture (cf. LG 5b). The epistle to the Ephesians speaks of the predestination of the Church, from eternity, as the means for the nations to know God’s wisdom (cf. Eph 3:8-11). In principle, the Church could fulfill this purpose in two ways: by concentrating in itself so as to become really "light of the nations" in the way of a "city built upon a mountain" which would act as a beacon (cf. Mt 5:14), or by going out into the world, preaching the Good News of Jesus and making new disciples, as the Lord told her to do (cf. Mt 28:19-20).
The final end of this mission is the glory of God. In human history, this glory consists in helping each person –as far as possible– to give "formal glory" to God, as children to their Father, "through Our Lord Jesus Christ." This means to know Him, worship, praise, serve Him, etc., as Jesus taught us. Jesus is the gift of the Father, precisely as mediator, and no one can spurn this gift, because one’s eternal destiny is at stake (cf. Mk 16:15).
God himself has indicated the method to achieve the goal: preaching the Gospel. To assist Him and to continue His mission, the Lord Jesus chose the apostles—that is "missionaries"—who are the seedlings of the Church (AG 5). By definition, the apostles are to "go out into mission," otherwise they would turn renegades towards the one who chose them and made them to be what they are; they would cease to be themselves. The deep awareness of this, made saint Paul cry: "Woe is to me, if I do not preach the gospel!" (1Cor 9:16). The Church of Vatican II applies this exclamation to herself (cf. AG 7a, LG 17, AA 6). Because she is "apostolic," the Church must, therefore, be "missionary."
"It is plain, then, that missionary activity wells up from the Church’s innermost nature and spreads abroad her saving faith; it perfects its catholic unity by expanding it; it is sustained by her apostolicity; it gives expression to the collegial awareness of the hierarchy; it bears witness to her sanctity while spreading and promoting it" (AG 6f).
In conclusion: missionary activity is not primarily a "duty" of the Church; it is a "function" of her very being.
The Christological Source of Missionary Activity
"The birth of Jesus means … the birth of mission: Christ is the first and the greatest missionary of the Father. Born with the incarnation of the Word, missionary activity continues in time through the proclamation and witness of the Church."5 Jesus Christ is the source of missionary activity, at least, from two viewpoints:
A. The Incarnation: this mystery has a proximate end flowing from its very nature, which is to "recapitulate"—that is to gather– all thing under one head, Christ (cf. Eph 1:10), and an end that we can call ultimate, which is the glory of the Father, in a concrete way, namely that all rational beings, submitted to Christ’s kingdom may finally surrender through Him and with Him to the suzerainty of the Father; that is the way God has chosen to be all in all (cf. 1Cor 15:28). Jesus is the "incarnated divine energy" to reach this goal in history, both as agent and as end, that is as mediator of salvation. He is the pivot on which the Church’s being and mission rest and turn; He is also the center of the modern unrest in missiology.
A deep understanding of the Incarnation of the Son makes unavoidable the acceptance of the imperative of the mission. In the creed, the Church confesses that "for us men—that is for all—and for our salvation He came down from heaven," which means that the Incarnation has a universal salvific finality. "Even for those who do not explicitly profess faith in him as the Savior, salvation comes as a grace from Jesus Christ through the communication of the Holy Spirit."6 It does not come, though, magically or automatically; salvation is always freely given and freely accepted or rejected. Jesus had indicated the normal ways, namely through faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5). But "how can they believe if they do not hear? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how will they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom 10:14-15). These words have always stirred up the Church’s conscience. Another way of describing the end of the Incarnation is "divinization," which consists in the fact that the Son is to share with us His divinity, His Spirit, in order to retrieve and perfect in Adam’s offspring God’s image, disfigured by sin. It means that somehow each one has to come in contact with Him in a human way (otherwise salvation would be magic), to be renewed through His divine energy. Incarnation is not only the greatest grace humankind can receive, but also the wellspring of all graces. Now, Incarnation does not happen in some hidden, invisible manner, but in a concrete man, localized in time and space. Christ came "to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death" (Lk 1:79), because He is "light for revelation to the Gentiles" (Lk 2:32); he must, somehow, be made present everywhere in an incarnated way. This is the purpose of missionary activity.
Like all divine works, the Incarnation proceeds historically, waxing and waning, in constant birth pangs, but growing, in hope, into "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13). We can confidently hope that this goal will be attained, in ways and times that only God knows. Incarnation involves more than the individual man Jesus of Nazareth; the council taught that "in his incarnation, the Son of God has, somehow, united Himself with all men" (GS 22b). Therefore now, in history, this "total Christ" is growing into His own fullness, gathering into His Body the members that will constitute that plenitude. Theology has spoken of a "christic existential" in human nature, as if each individual were "assigned" to Christ, with "potentiality" to share fully in Him. If the Incarnation is destined to all, and all to the Incarnation, we can assume that all have right to know Jesus, so that freely they may build themselves up into their own fullness in Him. As for those who know Jesus already and refuse to make Him known to others… they put obstacles in the way of the Incarnation, weaken its dynamism and may thwart its purpose; sin has the awesome power of frustrating God’s dreams.
Through the resurrection, incarnation reaches its fullness in Jesus, who becomes the "universal man," enabling Him to reach each individual in time and space; this seems to be the meaning of the imaginative "descent to hell." The solidarity of the Risen Lord with all and each of his brethren puts in Him like an exigency to share with them His glory, to share His joy in His wedding banquet with all those that His servants are able to gather from the byways (cf. Mt 22:1ss).
After the resurrection, Christ became the "New Adam" (cf. 1Cor 15:22, 45-49), the ancestor of a new humankind, with a solidarity reaching deeper than that of the "old Adam," as grace is more powerful than sin (cf. Rom 5:16ss). The children of this New Adam are born –so Jesus indicates– from "water and Spirit" through the ministry of the apostles, as we see it happened the paradigmatic day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38ss).
Because of his theandric nature –that is being both God and Man– Jesus Christ is naturally the mediator between the Divinity and humanity (cf. 1Tim 2:5-6). Whoever meets Him meets God in a human fashion. Being also the mediator of a better Testament, the New one (cf. Heb 8:6; 9:15), Jesus convokes the new People of God and guides it in its pilgrim progress to the real promised land. As a vine tree, He transfuses the sap of life to His branches, that only live if they are actually grafted on Him (cf. Jn 15:1ss). He likens Himself to the gate, the only entrance to the sheep fold of the Father (Jn 10:1ss). Though He was humble –or rather becauseHe was humble– Jesus utters what now some dub "triumphalist" word: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14:6). The task of the mission is to show this way, to point to this gate, so that people may walk and enter to the Father, or follow other paths and cross other thresholds.
As mediator of revelation, Jesus does not simply speak the word of God—like other prophets—but He is The Word (Jn 1:1). That is why He alone can reveal what no one else can: His Father: "No one has ever seen God, but God the Only Begotten Son, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (Jn 1:18). His presence and action is that "grace upon grace" which John rejoices on (Jn 1:16): this is the truth that liberates (8:32), the abundant life that He shares with His sheep (10:10). His word not only conveys knowledge but life, and that eternal: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (17:3). But how can they know unless someone brings the good news to them? In the history of salvation, each prophet or divine messenger has been sent to a particular situation; the Son is sent to all, because the Word is "the true light that gives light to every one who is coming into the world" (1:9), undoubtedly an ambitious mission, which has to be extended to all times and places. Jesus himself provided for this continuity, sending the "Energizer," namely the Holy Spirit, who guarantees the sameness of the mission of Christ and of the Church (cf. Jn 20:21-23). Should the Church not strive to bring Christ’s light to all nations, she would betray Her Lord and Master, hiding His light under a bowl of excuses (cf. Mt 5:14-16).
As mediator of salvation, Jesus Christ is the visible source of forgiveness of sins, the most shocking aspect of his earthly ministry (cf. Mt 9:1ss; Lk 7:47ss), and the purpose of his death (cf. Mt 26:28). Sure, absolutely speaking God can forgive sins in endless ways, even, nay mostly, unawares for the great majority of human beings. But it is hardly believable that the Father would like the forgiven ones to remain thankless to their Redeemer. We have the mysterious word of Jesus saying that when he would be lifted up –which means crucified– he would draw all men to himself (cf. Jn 12:32), to the source of living water flowing from his wounded heart. Simon Peter, who did recognize in Jesus the source of words of eternal life (cf. Jn 6:69), inspired by the Spirit uttered the scandalous word: "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Perhaps no other idea has affected the development of Christian missions more than this one.
Other aspects of Christology are also relevant to missionary motivation, which we cannot develop here; suffice it to mention the idea of saint Paul writing of predestination "to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom 8:29). Or Christ who, as head of the church, is also the fullness of all (Eph 1:21-23), in whom the Father wants to reconcile all with himself (cf. Col 1:17-20); before him, all knees in heaven, in hell and here on earth, shall bow (cf. Phil 2:10). Or finally the Son who, as incarnated, sends the Spirit to the world; the Spirit is like the rain that makes the seed (the incarnation) blossom into saving fruits. The Spirit, far from being a "competitor," bears witness to Christ, as the disciples ought to do (cf. Jn 15:26-27).7 The presence of the Spirit in a place is a call to missionary action by the Church (cf. AG 4).
B. The Missionary Mandate.- The ending of the gospels of Mark and Matthew contain the command of the Risen Lord, which, especially in Protestant tradition, is called the Great Commission. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Mt 28:18-20). Mark adds a detail: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned" (16:16). John has also Jesus sending the disciples (20:21) and Luke mentions the mission in succinct way in his two books (Lk 24:47-48, Acts 1:8). All gospel traditions know of the express command of Jesus Christ to have his message brought to the whole world, a task that will never end. The scholars may agitate a number of problems concerning these words, but all Christians recognize the texts as Holy Scripture, that is "the Word of the Lord" inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Of the whole Bible, these are the words most quoted by Vatican II: Mt 18 times, Mk 21 times, John 6 and Luke 7 times; they are applied to various apostolates, but most explicitly to the missionary action. The reason is that, in history, these words have been the most decisive motor of missionary zeal, and especially in times of crisis, when other motives seem to lose muscle or are overtly disqualified, few disciples of Jesus will question the unambiguous and solemn last will of the One they confess as their Lord (cf. LG 19; AG 5).
The Church has always been convinced that her right to evangelize arises from the almighty suzerainty of the Risen Lord. If the Matthean scene is interpreted as a parallel of the Sinai theophany: Jesus as new Moses, proclaiming the new law to the new Israel…, then the missionary mandate appears as a constitutive element of the Church; in any case, it is the final command of the Lord, imposing on all Christians the obligation of obedience (cf. AG 1a, LG 23b, etc.).
The scholars, though, try to find out the exact origin of those formulas. It does not seem probable that Jesus himself pronounced such words. Several reason are advanced: first is the "liturgical flavor" of the expression, especially in Matthew; the baptismal formula presupposes the explicit faith in the Trinity, which was not achieved, it seems, until at least a generation after the Ascension. Then comes the attitude of the Jerusalem Church towards the gentiles, its reluctance to "go out" and to admit them in her community, as we see in the case of the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10-11): had they known such a clear order of Christ, they would not have suffered the qualms of conscience Luke and Paul describe, until after the "council" of Jerusalem (Acts 15, Galatians). The Bible shows how often God "speaks" through historical events. Being pious Jews, they did not realize that the "new wine" could not be contained in the "old skins;" the primitive Church had to experience first the startling effects of Pentecost (usually through the best pedagogy: suffering), before they "remembered" the liberating word of the Lord (Mt 26:75; 27:63; Lk 24:6, 8; Jn 2:17; 16:4; Acts 11:16). They felt the Lord present in their midst and speaking through the events and they "remembered the word" implicit in Jesus’ life and teaching, and mainly in the Paschal Mystery, and they formulated it in the texts the Spirit inspired in our Scriptures. Regarding this missionary mandate, at least three points are worthy of attention:
1) The "Great Commission" is a constitutive element of the Church itself. The purpose of forming the group of the Twelve was "to send them to preach" (Mk 3:14); the group is the "kernel of the New Israel" (AG 5a). Before Easter, they went to preach to their compatriots; after the resurrection, that mission gained universal dimension but was the same mission. The final scene of Matthew makes explicit the meaning embedded in the gestures and words of Jesus. Exegesis discovers significant allusions: the Risen Lord appears to evoke the figure of the Son of Man in Daniel 7; the group of disciples is like the "faithful remnant" and Jesus the messianic king: "He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed" (Dan 7:14). From another viewpoint, Jesus appears as Moses in Sinai; the words: "All power has been given to me…" is the equivalent of "Hear, O Israel" (Deut 4:1; 5:1, etc), making the missionary command like the ten commandments,the law of the new Israel. In Jn 20:22 (the parallel of Mt 28:19), Jesus breathes the Spirit upon the disciples, evoking Gen 2:7, like Yahweh breathed life into the old Adam: the missionary mandate creates the Church. Now the Spirit continues creating new humankind through the mission of the Church. In the absence of the Spirit, the mission is impossible; in the presence of the Spirit, it is inescapable. So the commission to preach the gospel belongs to the essence of the Church by the will of her Founder and by the presence of his Spirit. Ignoring the mission, the Church would renounce her origins and deny herself.
2) The obedience of the Church to Christ is similar to the obedience of Jesus to his Father: unconditional obedience (which Ad Gentes calls "a necessity" and "a sacred duty" with reference to 1Cor 9:16), only out of love, like children to their father, or disciples to their master; this obedience is not just the fulfillment of a law or the effect of fear of punishment. This way –says the council– the missioner, "joined with Christ in obedience to the will of the Father, will continue his mission under the hierarchical authority of the Church and cooperate in the mystery of salvation" (AG 25end). Christian obedience consists in following in the steps of Christ, driven only by the often "foolish" dynamism of love. As the Father sends the Son, so Christ sends his friends (cf. Jn 15:15), not slaves or soldiers…
3) Who must obey this injunction? John says "the disciples," Matthew and Mark speak of "the Eleven" that is the core group, seed of the hierarchy. Lumen Gentium17 applies the command to the whole Church: "The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his ability." The deep reason is that the whole Church is built upon the apostles and therefore is "apostolic" in all her members and dimensions; the mission of the apostles touches everybody.
Nevertheless Vatican II singles out the Episcopal body as direct responsible for the mission, because they are "successors of the Apostles" (AG 1a, 5). AG 5 points to a double source of the missionary obligation: "This duty exists not only in virtue of the express command which was inherited from the apostles by the order of bishops… but also in virtue of that life which flows from Christ into his members…" Number 6 begins saying: "This duty must be fulfilled by the order of bishops…" and afterwards, most emphatically: "Christ’s mandate to preach the gospel to every creature (Mk 16:15) primarily and immediately concerns the bishops, with Peter and under Peter" (AG 38a). The clearest text is LG 23c: "The task of proclaiming the gospel everywhere on earth devolves on the body of pastors, to all of whom in common Christ gave his command, thereby imposing upon them a common duty, as pope Celestine in his time reminded the Fathers of the council of Ephesus." Incorporated into the episcopal body through the sacrament of ordination and the hierarchical communion, a bishop is ipso facto "ordained missionary," with rights and duties directly derived from Christ; a bishop is not an auxiliary of the pope. The ministry of a bishop is comprised of many aspects; the missionary commitment belongs to the function of "teacher," as Lumen Gentium says: "As successors of the Apostles, the bishops receive from Christ the mission to teach all nations and to preach the gospel to every creature" (24a). The first missionary is the pope, in his function of head of the Episcopal body.
As for priests, they receive the missionary mandate at their ordination. The Decree on the Priests of Vatican II states: "Since no one can be saved who has not first believed, priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have as their primary duty the proclamation of the gospel of God to all, so that, obeying the command of the Lord: ‘Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature’, they may establish and increase the people of God" (PO 4a, cf. 10a). A priest is not ordained to take care of a parish, but of the world Christ has redeemed.
Finally, some receive a special charism that is the missionary vocation. They feel entrusted with the Great Commission as their personal responsibility, and execute it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and their ecclesiastical superiors, as "ambassadors of Christ." Anyway, advises the council, "Let them be convinced that obedience is the hallmark of the servant of Christ, who redeemed the human race through his obedience" (AG 24b).
The Scriptures recorded the missionary mandate not as an "ordinary" or "casual" word of the Lord, but as the final statement, which summarizes, so to say, his whole mission. For a disciple, this is Jesus’ testament, last will. It is, therefore, a cardinal element of what it means to be Christian. During his public life, Jesus gathered disciples, trained them and sent them, like in a trial assignment, to preach the good news (Mt 10), that is gave them a share in his own mission. Only that this mission, before and after the Resurrection differed deeply: before, Jesus was only sent to his people, "to the lost sheep of Israel;" afterwards, he embraces the whole creation; before, the good news was "the Kingdom of God is near",afterwards, the good news is "the Lord is risen!" and all the consequences of this unique event; before, Jesus bore witness to his Father, afterwards, the disciples –the Church– bear witness to Christ. However, both missions –of Jesus and of the Church– are radically the same (cf. Jn 20:21). In sum, the missionary mandate is the logical conclusion of Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, person and function.
The Ecclesiological Roots of Missionary Activity
Vatican II proposes this thesis: "The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature, for it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she takes her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father" (AG 2a). The "pilgrim" Church is the one described in the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, and consistently expounded in all the other documents. The very being of the Church is missionary because her purpose—the intention of her Maker—is to serve as instrument of God’s plan of salvation, or putting it in different words, whatever she is and has has been put there with that intention. The essence of the Church appears then in her very origin (the mission of the Son and of the Spirit), in her end (realizing the plan of the Father) and in her existential reality (being the sacrament of universal salvation). Let us reflect on some of these aspects.
The Church as Sacrament
Lumen Gentium opens up linking Christ, "light of the nations," with the Church, which is, "in Christ, a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God and of unity of all humankind, that is, she is a sign and an instrument of such union and unity" (LG1). She is the People of God, sent to the whole world to be "instrument for the redemption of all," in other words, "that for each and all she may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity" (LG 9, cf. 48, 59). This doctrine will be expounded and concretized in the Decree for Missionary Activity; it begins: "The Church has been divinely sent to all nations that she might be the universal sacrament of salvation." This means that if the Church is not present in a nation, salvation somehow suffers there. The Church is compared analogically with the mystery of Incarnation (cf. LG 8a): although the saving Word had been active always and everywhere, yet "for us and for our salvation, He came down from heaven" at a given moment and in a particular place; in analogous fashion, the universal sacrament of salvation has to become effective locally.
The divine plan of salvation is sacramental. It means that God wants to grant his invisible grace in a visible manner. The prime example is Jesus Christ. It follows that the Church has to be missionary not only because she is the sacrament of salvation, but also in a sacramental way; that is the reason why she tries to be visibly present everywhere, to offer to everybody "all the means of salvation" that Christ has deposited in her (cf. LG 14b). The sacramental sign is formed by the elements that make the Church visible: the faithful people united with their pastors, the Scriptures, the rites, a Christian way of life, and so on; the salvation she offers is Christ himself, because she is sacrament in Christ and of Christ. Were this sacramental sign perfect, she would be able to say: who sees me sees Christ (cf. Jn 14:9); because of this, ideally, the council repeats that the countenance of Christ must shine forth in the face of the Church (cf. LG 1, 15; GS 43). The sacramentality of the Church is a derived one, from Christ, the primordial sacrament, whose body she is. Like Christ, the Church has a sort of theandric nature, with a divine energy embodied in her structures (cf. LG 8a). The consequence therefore is that the more perfect her figure is the more efficacious the sacrament becomes; the holier, for example, is the life of the Christian community, the better this sacrament will convey God’s salvation. That is the reason why Mother Church "exhorts her children to purify and renew themselves, so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the Church" (LG15end). According to Jn 17:21, the most efficacious element of this sacramentality is unity; a divided Church –or community– is a broken sign. A united Church would be "like a standard lifted high for the nations to see" (UR 2e), with a double effect: to irradiate and to attract. The ministers of this sacrament are all the members of the Church, who thereby become "christbearers," signs and instruments of Christ’ presence in their societies.
Which is the specific grace this sacrament contains? The Epistle to the Ephesians teaches that the mystery of Christ aims at "bringing all things in heaven and on earth together under one head that is Christ."(1:10); missionary activity is the chosen way to achieve this plan in history. The grace the Church shares is unity of all peoples and cultures in Christ, becoming a new single People, confessing a common faith, sharing a common table, worshiping a common Father. That would be "the fullness of Christ" which is the Church (Eph 1:23). This plan will be fully achieved only in the heavenly Jerusalem, but here on earth the mission ad gentesspells the Church’s striving towards it.
This Church-Sacrament is catholic. "Catholic" (from the Greek kath‘olou, katholikē)means "total," "integral," literally "holistically Christian" and, especially from St. Augustine, "universal." Being wholly in communion with Christ and safeguarding integrally the deposit of faith, the Church possesses all the means of salvation Christ has instituted and makes them available universally. Even when or where she is only "a little flock," the Church is catholic: the dynamism to deploy this catholicity is the source of missionary activity. "This characteristic of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself. By reason of it, the Catholic Church strives energetically and constantly to bring all humanity with all its riches back to Christ its Head in the unity of his Spirit" (LG 13b; cf. Redemptoris Missio 85). "Catholic" means "all-embracing" or "holistic" also from the cultural point of view, what today we express in the slogan: "unity in diversity." The Divine Word has created numberless qualities and multifarious beauty, distributed among all kinds of peoples; the same Word has redeemed all his works, so that through the Church they might be incorporated into his Body. The mission of the Church is precisely to transform into historical realities the content of this mystery of faith. The values—cultural, religious or otherwise—in a people, country, etc., are invitations to the Church to accomplish this task, which has still a long way to go. In this long process, the mission may seem to make no headway, even to suffer setbacks; that’s why the council says that "concerning individuals, groups and peoples, only by degrees does the Church touch and pervade them, and thus take them up into full catholicity" (AG 6b). In other words, the mission consists in transforming the "catholicity of right" into "catholicity of fact:" the awareness about the gap between these two concepts spurs on missionary zeal. That is what Pius XII expressed in Fidei Donum: "Catholic spirit and missionary spirit are the same," which Ad Gentes echoes: "Therefore all children of the Church should have a lively awareness of their responsibility to the world, should foster in themselves a truly catholic spirit and should spend their energies in the work of evangelization" (AG36b).
The Church is a Growing Reality
The Church is a "living organism" and therefore must grow. To expound this idea, Vatican II has used a series of metaphors in nn.5-7 of Lumen Gentium. Let us see some of them:
1) Kingdom of God._ Jesus started his ministry announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God (cf. Mk 1:15), which was the central theme of his preaching. He himself was the budding presence of this Kingdom, which is to be continued and expanded by the Church in history; her mission is simply "to proclaim and to establish among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God" (LG 5b). The Church and God’s (and Christ’s) kingdom have a dialectical relationship: on the one hand, she does not coincide with the Kingdom; on the other hand, she cannot be conceived apart from that Kingdom. The Church is not a mere "servant of the kingdom," she is the seed of the Kingdom and—using other metaphors—the Body and the Bride of the King. Lumen Gentium calls the Church "the Kingdom of God now present in mystery" and growing visibly in the world (LG 3). The reason of this presence is the faith of the Christians who confess openly "Jesus is the Lord," the growth comes from the power of God and will continue until the Parousia, when Christ will hand over the Kingdom to the Father (1Cor 15:24; cf. LG 5b, 9b, GS 39c).
At the service of this mission, the Church plays a crucial role. The Lord has entrusted "the keys of the Kingdom" to the universal pastor of the Church (cf. Mt 16:19), with an awesome power shared with the body of the bishops: "to bind and loose whatsoever" on earth with an effect in heaven (18:18). This means a tremendous responsibility for the Kingdom and for those who will enter into it, resting mainly on the shoulders of the hierarchy. But not only the clergy, all the members share in the quality of "seed of the kingdom." The family, for example, sanctified by the sacrament of Matrimony, "loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come" (LG 35c); in today’s Church, the family is the main place where the kingdom grows. Another instance is religious life; it shines forth as a challenging witness, leaving all for the sake of the kingdom and incarnating in their lives the cause of the kingdom (cf. LG44). Thus the life of the Church, be it in the clergy, the laity or the religious, is like the womb where the kingdom gestates. Like a mother expectant her child, so the Church is in tension of hope, praying unceasingly: "Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev 22:20), and entreating the Father: "Your kingdom come!" This is the basic object of Christian prayer.
God’s Kingdom has to grow: the guests at the messianic banquet, sitting with the patriarchs, will come from the East and from the West, that is, from everywhere (cf. Mt 8:11); but if the servants of the Master do not go out to invite them, nobody comes (cf. Mt 22:10). The Church has understood that the missionary activity is symbolized in this parable. Hence she hopes that "God’s people, undertaking the narrow way of the cross, may spread everywhere the kingdom of Christ, the Lord and Overseer of the ages…" (AG 1end).
The council calls the Church germen et initium, "seed and beginning" of the kingdom (LG 5b), which means that she has to grow into the kingdom and to continue growing, otherwise loses her raison d'être or simply dies. It also indicates continuity between the Church on earth and the Kingdom in heaven; this idea is a pivot of mission theology. This growth can be understood in two ways:
One way is a natural budding forth, like a plant, quasi automatic (cf. Mc 4:26-29), with the inner dynamism of the Holy Spirit, of course. It is the "leaven effect" of sanctity (cf. Mt 13:33): if the people of the Church are holy, their presence will transform the neighborhood into the Kingdom; if they are sinners, the name of Christ will be loathsome because of them (cf. Ez 36:20-23) and "the growth of God’s kingdom is retarded" (UR 4f). Vatican II repeats many times this need to grow, precisely because the Church lives in the middle of the world, is part of a given society, with a "call to form the family of God’s children during the present history of the human race, and to keep increasing it until the Lord comes" (GS 40b).
Another way is through the preaching of the Gospel with the charism of prophecy: "Christ, the Great Prophet… continually fulfills his prophetic office until his full glory is revealed. He does this not only through the hierarchy, who teach in his name and with his authority, but also through the laity. For that very purpose he made them his witnesses and gave them understanding of the faith and the grace of speech (cf. Acts 2:17-18; Apoc 19:10), so that the power of the gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life" (LG 35a). "Preaching of the gospel" here means any way and effort to spread the evangelical values and teach Christian truth, the work for justice, peace, harmony, fraternity, mutual love, and so on in the name of Jesus; a society more just and loving is nearer to the Kingdom of God. Material development or economic improvement is not enough; the council is explicit on this point: "The Church has a single intention: that God’s kingdom may come, and the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass" (GS 45a). But salvation is not an automatic affair: each person has to decide his/her final destiny; saint Paul warns his believers: "Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God" (cf. 1Cr 6:9-10). Jesus also spoke of a narrow gate to enter the Kingdom (cf. Lk 13:24); the Church has the obligation to caution against false security. That’s whyAd Gentes emphasizes: "But it is not enough that the Christian people be present and be organized in a given nation, nor is it enough to carry out an apostolate by way of example. They are organized for this purpose, they are present for this, to announce Christ to their non-Christian fellow-citizens by word and example, and to aid them toward the full reception of Christ" (AG 15h).
2) The Body of Christ._ Vatican II develops this image in Lumen Gentium n. 7. The Church is a social body (1Cor and Rom) and a mystical entity with Christ as head (Eph and Col). The graces and charisms Christians receive are due to the union in this body and with the head, and all have a purpose: to contribute to the health and growth of the body. Christ as new Adam and Head of the body is the source of life and solidarity in the new humankind. The reality of this Body is best symbolized in the Eucharist of the bishop with his people, where appear the Mystical Body’s love and unity, "without which—says the council quoting St. Thoma—there can be no salvation" (LG 26a). For this reason, speaking about separated Christians, the council also urges "to establish on earth the one Body of Christ, into which all those should be fully incorporated who already belong in any way to God’s People" (UR3e). Being body of Christ, the Church also carries the quality of the Head: "man-for-others" and servant. Christ did not keep his fullness for himself, but shared it with others, he lived and died for others; as Jesus was the incarnation of the Father’s universal salvific will, so the Church is the incarnation of Christ’s universal outreach. Christ is "the universal man," and the Church is "the fullness of him who fills everything in every way,"… "growing into the whole measure of the fullness of Christ ... from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (cf. Eph 1:23; 4: 12-16). The Church is Christ-centered, but the way to fully reach Christ passes through "all nations," not in order to gather them into herself but to share herself (her fullness) with them. Translated into plain English, this esoteric language means missionary action.
The growth of the body takes place in two dimensions: inner growth in sanctity and outer increase in numbers.8 Because life is only one, history shows that epochs of great missionary zeal offer also abundant harvest of saints, and the decline in missionary vocations is sign of a lukewarm Christian spirit.
3) Other images._ Number 6 of Lumen Gentium displays a number of images of the Church, taken from various conditions of ordinary life.
Echoing the gospel of John (10:1-16), the Church is compared with a sheep fold and flock; the prophets had used this metaphor to speak of Israel (cf. Is 40:11, Ez 34:11, etc.). Jesus alludes here to "the other sheep that do not belong to this fold," that he must bring them in also (Jn 10:16). He is the Good Shepherd, ready to leave the 99 sheep in the wilderness and go searching for one which was lost (cf. Mt 18:12); strange pastoral priority, that ought to force the Church to refocus her apostolic planning...
The Church is also the field of God or divine agriculture (cf. 1Cor 3:9), which makes us think of the vineyard (cf. Mt 21:33-4) or of the vine tree (cf. Jn 15:1-5); in any case the Lord expects a good yield. If we pay attention to the parables of the sower or the weeds (Mt 13:1ff), we notice that Jesus says that the world is the field where good seed –that is the word of God– has to be sown with various success: some will accept it some will reject it, some will produce much, some little. Theology of mission has often conceived of this activity as "planting the Church" in a territory so that it grows and reaches maturity in it (cf. AG 6c). In this field "grows the ancient olive tree" of Israel, into which the gentiles are being grafted; Saint Paul felt sad because so few Israelites believed in Christ, but revelation taught him that one day, when "the fullness of the nations has entered" the Church, Israel will be saved (cf. Rom 11). Missionary activity is needed to hasten this day.
As the house of God, the Church is built with "living stones" which are the faithful (cf. 1Pet 2:5). The apostles gather stones from the four corners of the world and assemble them on Christ, so that "the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord" (Eph 2:21). It is here that the "non-people" becomes a priestly People of God, able to offer an existential liturgy, made out of their daily chores, that consecrates the world. In this house the old enemies become one family with God as Father.
The Time of the Church: Eschatological Dimension of he Mission
Being a historical reality, the Church must develop in time, while waiting for the Lord to come. The meaning of this waiting period is interpreted by Vatican II as follows: "And so the time for missionary activity extends between the first coming of the Lord and the second. Then from the four winds the Church will be gathered like a harvest into the kingdom of God. For the gospel must be preached to all nations before the Lord returns (cf. Mk 13:10)" (AG 9a). From this viewpoint, missionary activity is an urgent task, "because the time is short" (1Cor 7:29) and the assignment compulsory. It started the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit inaugurated "the last times" and the apostles began to carry out their mission: to be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem and until the end of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). This missionary thrust is the driving force of hope that keeps the Church moving: "While she slow grows, the Church strains towards the consummation of the kingdom and, with all her strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with her King" (LG 5end).
That means that missionary activity gives sense to the existence of the Church and, through her, to human history, because it is through this means, chosen by God, that humankind reaches the end for which it was created: the glory of God and of Christ. "On the day he comes—writes Saint Paul—to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed" (2Thes 1:10), the significance of the mission will be fully understood.
In this context, we must remember that the Eucharist is celebrated while waiting for Christ’s coming: "we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory." We are to be awake, like the servants ready to open the gate to the Master (cf. Lk 12:37, 1Thes 5:10). That is one of the reasons why the Church has to be present everywhere, to keep watch in the Eucharist until He comes (1Cor 11:26). This "eschatological necessity" of missions has prompted some theologians to sustain the thesis that missions are a condition for the Lord to come.9 We do not know which is the exact rapport between missions and the parousia, but the New Testament indicates some kind of connection. When Saint Peter was preaching in Jerusalem, he invited his compatriots to conversion "so that… (hópōs àn) the Lord send to you Jesus Christ…" (Acts 3:20-21); and in his letter he writes that we must not only "look forward to the day of God" but also "speed its coming" (2Pr 3:12). Anyway, the missions multiply those who pray, "Thy Kingdom come!" and "Lord Jesus, come!"
To the eschatological horizon belongs also the concept of "messianic people" that Vatican II develops in LG 9. This People bears the hope of humankind towards the absolute future. The main historical endeavor of this people is to preach the Good News: "its goal is the kingdom of God, which has been begun by God himself on earth, and which is to be further extended until it is brought to perfection by Him in the end of time. This people … is used by Christ as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth" (LG 9b). "Messianic" means "anointed" and sharing in the unction of Christ, especially with priestly and prophetic charisms, which enable them to bear witness to Christ and preach his Gospel (cf. LG 35). At the same time it is a pilgrim people, bringing forwards the hope of the earth (cf. LG 14a, 48c, DV7b). In sum, the goal of this pilgrim, messianic people is to share their hope with those nearby and with those far away.
The Unity of the Church and the Missions
The unity of the Church and missionary activity are so closely related that one can hardly talk about one and bypass the other. Jesus himself established he link between these two realities (cf. Jn 17:18-21). Without unity of the Christians their mission will fail. Aware of the problem, the conciliar Fathers stated in he prologue of the Decree on Christian Unity: Division of Christianity "openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature" (UR 1a). The Decree on the Missions abounds in the same sense and longs for the unity of Christians so that they may bear a united witness to Christ (AG 6f). Conversely, missionary activity is a strong impulse for ecumenism; in fact, the ecumenical movement in Protestantism started in missionary circles. It is unfortunate, though, that the missionary zeal of some groups is spreading not unity but more division. We have also suffered from missionary competition in the same place, leading not seldom to the phenomenon of "stealing the sheep" from one another. Church in Asia, n. 30 states: "In Asia, precisely where the number of Christians is proportionately small, division makes missionary work still more difficult… In fact, the division among Christians is seen as a counter-witness to Jesus Christ by many in Asia who are searching for harmony and unity through their own religions and cultures." It is by engaging faithfully in missionary activity that we hope to receive the grace of unity.
Mission and Human Values
"Missionary activity is closely bound up too with human nature itself and its aspirations" (AG 8a). If missionary activity is an instrument in God’s plan, it cannot but have an import on human welfare, both individual and social.
The main asset of common good is peace. Faith teaches us that peace is God’s gift and the source of authentic peace is Christ. The epistle to the Ephesians says: "he himself is our peace… His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit" (Eph 2:14-18). Thus, making disciples of Christ is to bring them into the realm of peace. Moreover, the common good is variously understood, depending on the worldview of a culture or human group. Undoubtedly Christianity conveys a new worldview, which contributes to a better family life and social justice; the idea of human rights—nay, of "person" itself—if of Christian origin.
Tradition has understood God’s plan from two viewpoints: creation and sanctification, or material and spiritual welfare. In the book of Genesis, we see how sin mars not only human relationships but also the environment, that is nature (cf. Gen 3:16ff; Rom 8:19ff); therefore any action to combat sin and to bring about that "justice of God" which is the kernel of saint Paul’s gospel will have positive impact on the whole society and even on the natural milieu. The council reminds us that "the gospel has truly been a leaven of liberty and progress in human history, even in the temporal sphere, and always proves itself a leaven of brotherhood, of unity, and of peace" (AG 8b). Christianity consecrates the value of labor—Jesus himself was a worker!—and the obligation of contributing to the common good. Establishing a visible "family of the children of God" is the best starting point of that "civilization of love" that pope Paul VI was dreaming of.
History can be ambiguous and shows that missions have harmed harmony and peace in society (see Mt 10:34-36 par); but an honest evaluation of the influence of Christian missions cannot ignore the momentous contributions to education, health care, agricultural improvement, conscientization of marginalized minorities and exploited social classes, and so on. In European Middle Ages, evangelization and civilization were synonymous, and it has often been so; the missionaries have invented the writing systems for most languages of the world. In our times, binding up faith and justice emphasizes this point.
If charity is the soul of all apostolate, missionary activity is driven by love more than any other form of Church’s action. Ad Gentes writes that "the Church undertakes this activity in obedience to Christ command and in response to the grace and love of the Holy Spirit" (AG 5a). This love is first the Father’s love for humankind (cf. AG 12), which is the absolute source of mission and, as a consequence, the missionary Church must be a sort of embodiment of this love. Love being by nature self-giving, the Church’s mission is sharing her very being. The expected response to love is love: the Church’s love goes first and foremost to the Father, whose glory she promotes; then to the Son, who loves her as Spouse: it is unconceivable that the Spouse would not strive at her utmost to make her Beloved one known, honored and loved everywhere. As for individual Christians, how can someone claim to love Jesus and not engaging fully in making him loved by others… (cf. 2Cor 5:14).
But "love" in this context is usually understood as love of others, as Christ has loved us. Christian spirituality, in fact, "gives rise and urgency to the love of one’s neighbor for the world’s salvation and the upbuilding of the Church" (PC 6a). The aim of love is the interests of the beloved from all points of view: material and spiritual, temporal and eternal, individual and collective, and so on. In the domain of the mission, the council explains: "The members of the Church are impelled to carry on such missionary activity by reason of the love with which they love God and by which they desire to share with all men in the spiritual goods of both this life and the life to come" (AG 7b). Being aware of the treasures of grace the Christians enjoy in the Church (revelation, sacraments, divine sonship…), they must remember the word of Jesus: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35), and this applies mainly to spiritual goods. Not to share (or make productive) such divine gifts would mean to incur the "anger" of the Lord, like the slothful servant of the parable (Mt 25:26), or to be simply spiritually egoist. In the history of the missions, the gift that has moved most missionaries –with a heavily emotional component– has been the gift of salvation; today theology recognizes the possibility of salvation outside Christianity. And yet, the Church insists that the main purpose of missionary activity is bringing salvation to others (cf. LG 16end). In this point personal sensitivities have a strong bearing. When loving the needy neighbor is mentioned, the needs are usually spelled out in terms of material dearth or cultural poverty; however a Christian ought to heed the word of Pius XI: "no one can be thought so poor and naked, no one so infirm or hungry, as the one who is deprived of the knowledge and grace of God."10 Vatican II teaches that no one knows himself fully unless in Jesus Christ (cf. GS 22); Christian faith, therefore, brings a person to full maturity. The love of others urges us to dialogue, so that we may know better "others," even enemies; "this love and good will, to be sure, must in no way render us indifferent to truth and goodness, indeed love itself impels the disciples of Christ to speak the saving truth to all people" (GS 28b). In sum, where there is love the missionary will springs up (cf. AG 12), and so we can affirm that as long as there is love of God and neighbor in the Church, the missionary endeavor will continue; and if missionary spirit and commitment decline, it is sign that love is on the wane.
1. Abbreviations used in this article: AA: Apostolicam Actuositatem, Decree on Lay Apostolate; AG: Ad Gentes, Decree on Missionary Activity; DV: Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; GS: Gaudium et Spes,Pastoral Constitution on the Church in Today’s World; LG: Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church; PC: Perfectae Caritatis, Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life; PO: Presbyterorum Ordinis, Decree on the Ministry of the Priests; SC: Sacrosantum Concilum, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy; UR: Unitatis Redintegratio, Decree on Ecumenism.
2. "Ecce tria sunt: Amans et quod amatur et Amor" De Trinitate, 8.10.
3. See Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 4.11.38; 5.36. etc. PG 7.1001s, 1105s, 1221s.
4. See AAS 32 (1940) 425.
5. Message of John Paul II for the Mission Sunday of the year 2000. On this topic, see Ecclesia in Asia chapter 2.
6. Ecclesia in Asia, N. 14; see also SC 5-6.
7. See the beautiful developments in Redemptoris Missio, chapter 3.
8. Vatican II speaks about this growth of the Body in many places, for example LG 7, 8, 18, 30, 43...; AG 5, 7, 8, 36...; UR 24; GE 2; AA 2; etc.
9. See for example Cullmann 1936:210-45; Protestants insist more on this point than Catholics: see Montgomery 1997.
10. Rerum Ecclesiae, AAS 18 (1926) 72, n. 14.
1936 "Le caractère eschatologique du devoir missionaire et la conscience apostolique de saint Paul," Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuse16.
1997 Then the End Will Come: Great News About the Great Commission,(Pasadena: W. Carey Library).