Priesthood: Inherently Missionary

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2009 »Volume 46 2009 Number 3 »Priesthood Inherently Missionary

By James H. Kroeger, MM

James H. KROEGER, a Maryknoll Missioner, is a Professor of Systematic Theology, Missiology, and Islamic Studies at the Jesuit Loyola School of Theology in Manila.He has served mission in Asia (Philippines and Bangladesh) since 1970. He is current President of the Philippine Association of Catholic Missiologists.


The Year for Priests (2009-2010), with the theme "Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests," is focused on the renewal of priests; it recalls the 150th death anniversary of Saint Jean Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars (1786-1859). He served as curé in the "missionary" parish of Ars for 41 years. Pius XI canonized him in 1925 and made him patron of parish priests in 1929.

In the context of this "priestly year," one can fruitfully recall that, since the time of the Second Vatican Council, a renewed vision of priestly ministry has been emerging. It is anchored in the awareness that "the pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature" (Ad Gentes, 2). This means that the Church exists in order to evangelize; it is the grace and vocation proper to her identity. "Evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14). Thus, for the Church and her ministers, to live is to evangelize!

If missionary evangelization is the specific task and imperative of the Church, then all her members should have a vivid awareness of their own responsibility for the spread of the Gospel. Stated succinctly in terms of priestly ordination and ministry, the Church perceives that there is inherently an organic bonding between priesthood and mission; to be formed for the ordained ministry in the Catholic Church today demands a missionary consciousness and dedication. A commitment to the Church’s mission of evangelization is not one function among many that priests fulfill; mission is at the very core of priestly identity.


The Second Vatican Council was summoned by Blessed Pope John XXIII on January 25, 1959; this year the Church commemorates its fiftieth anniversary (1959-2009). This era of renewal and aggiornamento has offered many insights on the missionary nature of the priesthood. To illustrate the intimate connection between priestly ordination, ministry and mission, a brief overview of selected texts will be presented.

Vatican II’s document on the life and ministry of priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) states: "The spiritual gift which priests received at their ordination prepares them not for any limited or narrow mission, but for the widest scope of the universal mission of salvation ‘even to the very ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). For every priestly ministry shares in the universality of the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles" (PO 10). The Council’s mission document (Ad Gentes) notes: "Priests represent Christ, and are collaborators with the order of bishops in that threefold sacred task which by its very nature bears on the mission of the Church. Therefore, they should fully understand that their life has also been consecrated to the service of the missions" (AG, 39). Vatican II has given the Church a vision of a mission-intensive priesthood!

In his first Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday (1979), Pope John Paul II noted: "the pastoral vocation of priests is great, and the Council teaches that it is universal; it is directed to the whole Church and therefore, it is also a missionary vocation." Likewise, in an April 1989 address to the members of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the pope emphasized that "every priest, in a special way, is a missionary for the world."

John Paul II’s 1990 mission encyclical Redemptoris Missio (RM) states: "All priests must have the mind and heart of missionaries—open to the needs of the Church and the world, with concern for those farthest away, and especially for the non-Christian groups in their own area. They should have at heart, in their prayers and particularly at the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the concern of the whole Church for all of humanity. Especially in those areas where Christians are a minority [e.g. Asia, home to over 60% of humanity, is less than 3% Christian], priests must be filled with special missionary zeal and commitment" (RM, 67).

Mission Emphasis. In his message for World Mission Sunday 1990, which bore the title: "Every Priest a Missionary," the pope spoke about the role of the seminary in forming apostolic evangelizers. He wrote that all priests "must have a solid missionary formation, which the seminary above all must provide, during the years of the preparation of future priests. It is important that in the program of theological studies missiology be given a prominent place."

John Paul II’s logic is clear; priests who themselves possess a deep missionary consciousness "will be able to form the Christian communities to an authentic missionary involvement…. The priest should feel and act, wherever he is, like a pastor of the world, in service to the whole missionary Church. He is a born animator and the person primarily responsible for the awakening of missionary consciousness in the faithful…. [Priests] should arouse and maintain among the faithful a most active interest for the evangelization of the world" (Ibid.).

Apostolic Shepherds. In the 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (PDV) [I Will Give You Shepherds], John Paul II emphasizes that "the ministry of the priest is entirely on behalf of the Church; …it is ordered not only to the particular Church but also to the universal Church; … [it] is incorporated in the apostolic structure of the Church. In this way priests, like the apostles, act as ambassadors of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5:20). This is the basis of the missionary character of every priest" (PDV, 16). "It thus follows that the spiritual life of the priest should be profoundly marked by a missionary zeal and dynamism. In the exercise of their ministry and the witness of their lives, priests have the duty to form the community entrusted to them as a truly missionary community" (PDV, 32). They are also expected to reach out beyond their own parish or Catholic community; as authentic shepherds, they need to heed Jesus’ words: "There are other sheep I have that are not part of this fold, and these I have to lead as well" (Jn 10:16). Yes, in the words of Pope John Paul II, "All priests must have the mind and heart of missionaries" (RM, 67).


The foregoing section which highlights the missionary nature of priesthood presumes a contemporary vision of "mission." In the consciousness and teaching of the Church, in the writings of recent popes, as well as in current missiological thought, "mission" today follows a vision of "integral evangelization." For example, a cursory look at the materials of both Paul VI and John Paul II reveals that they have gifted the Church with a rich understanding of the theology and praxis of missionary evangelization. Evangelii Nuntiandi for Paul VI and Redemptoris Missio for John Paul II are each a microcosm of their understanding of mission as integral evangelization. The Church today emphasizes the unity and integral nature of evangelization, while at the same time affirming that evangelization necessa-rily comprises many elements or dimensions; it is a complex, yet rich and engaging reality, which can be explained and articulated.

Naming the Elements. Faithful to a Catholic understanding of missionary evangelization, some "principal elements" can specifically be named. Thus, the Church’s mission and evangelization are composed of: (a) presence and witness; (b) commitment to social development and human liberation; (c) liturgical life, prayer and contemplation; (d) interreligious dialogue; and, (e) proclamation and catechesis (cf. Dialogue and Mission 13 and Dialogue and Proclamation 2). In a word, the one evangelizing mission of the Church is comprised of several component elements and authentic forms. This is integral or holistic evangelization; this is—in compact expression—the wide view of mission and evangelization promoted by Paul VI and John Paul II in Evangelii Nuntiandi and Redemptoris Missio.

This five-point vision has served the Church well in the Vatican II era (1959-2009); this approach expresses the Church’s contemporary task in a manner that ordinary Catholics can readily grasp and appreciate. At the same time, it does not do violence to the richness and complexity of missionary evangelization. Viewing evangelization through its various essential dimensions results in clarity, insight, and proper integration. This is a Catholic vision of evangelization.

Exploring the Five Dimensions. Further insight into the integral nature of evangelization is attained by specifically relating the five principal elements with both papal documents (EN and RM). This exercise illustrates that "evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all strata of humanity" (EN, 18).

According to Paul VI, Christian presence and witness of life form the "initial act of evangelization" (EN, 21). Daily activities, living together in harmony, lives as individuals of integrity, duties in the community—all these are to be a basic "faith-witness" that demonstrates how Christian living is shaped by Christian faith and values. Through this wordless witness, "Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live" (EN, 21). And, in today’s world, people desire and respect authentic witnesses (cf. EN, 41; RM, 11, 42). In Asia, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, known for her loving and selfless care of the poorest of the poor, is an "icon" of Christian presence, life, and service.

Community living as good neighbors based on faith convictions should naturally issue in a commitment to social development and human liberation, a genuine service of humanity. This means serving the most unfortunate, witnessing to justice, defending the integrity of creation; this dimension of evangelization includes the whole area of social concerns, ranging from peace-building, education and health services to promoting family life, good government, and the concerns of farmers, laborers, and women. The area of human development or human promotion is a vast area of the Church’s evangelizing mission (cf. EN, 18-19, 29-33; RM, 58-60).

Integral evangelization and liberation will necessarily include liturgical life, prayer and contemplation. No one can effectively be engaged in the Church’s mission without a strong faith and prayer-life. Evangelization needs holy men and women who are themselves on fire with the love of Christ; spreading the fire of the Gospel will be accomplished only by those already burning with an experience of Christ. As Ecclesia in Asia notes: "A fire can only be lit by something that is itself on fire" (EA, 23b). Holiness is an irreplaceable condition for evangelizers. The "God-experience" achieved in prayer and contemplation, in sacramental and liturgical life, will illumine and transform all other dimensions of evangelization (cf. EN, 23, 43-44, 47; RM, 46-49, 87-92).

All evangelizing activities are inserted into specific contexts; particularly in Asia, these activities naturally assume an interreligious dimension. Thus, the Church in Asia, similar to most places in the world of today, accomplishes her mission in pluralistic and diverse cultures; she enters into interreligious dialogue, cooperating with the followers of the great religious traditions. Interreligious dialogue takes many forms; there are the dialogues of daily life, deeds of service, religious experts, and faith experience, as well as other forms. John Paul II asserts: "Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church’s evangelizing mission" (RM, 55). This dialogue emerges from one’s faith convictions. In contemporary circumstances, dialogue with religions and cultures is the truly appropriate Christian response (cf. EN,20, 53; RM, 52-54, 55-57).

Finally, in mission today there is the role of explicit Gospel proclamation and catechesis. This dimension of evangelization includes preaching, catechesis on Christian life, teaching the content of the faith; in a word, this means "telling the Jesus story." When the Holy Spirit opens the door and when the time is opportune, Christians do tell the Jesus story, giving explicit witness and testimony to the faith. Others are invited, in freedom of conscience, to come to know, love and follow Jesus. Through proclamation Christians themselves are further instructed in their own faith; this is the process through which the Christian faith is communicated to the next generation of believers; holistic evangelization seeks integral faith formation (cf. EN, 22, 27, 42; RM, 44-51).

Obviously, these five dimensions of an integral understanding of evangelization complement and reinforce each other. In speaking of the complexity of the Church’s evangelizing action, Paul VI gave a timely admonition: "Any partial and fragmentary definition which attempts to render the reality of evangelization in all its richness, complexity and dynamism does so only at the risk of impoverishing it and even of distorting it." The pope continued: "It is impossible to grasp the concept of evangelization unless one tries to keep in view all its essential elements" (EN, 17).

Thus, an older concept of the Church’s mission has been set aside. No longer are the elements of social justice, interfaith dialogue, peace-building, education and health care, life-witness, etc. simply "preparatory" to evangelization [praeparatio evangelica]; all five "principal elements" are constitutive of a holistic and integral understanding. Paul VI and John Paul II have expanded the horizons of mission and evangelization; the more restrictive view, which held that only explicit Gospel proclamation and sacramental life constituted mission, has been superseded.

Concomitant with this expanded vision of evangelization, one finds, as noted above, a renewed emphasis on the missionary nature of the entire Church (cf. AG, 2). Every baptized member of the Church is an evangelizer, whether layperson, ordained, or religious. Previously, when evangelization was linked more exclusively with explicit Gospel proclamation and sacramental life, laity often found it difficult to appreciate how they were to be evangelizers. Today, Catholic evangelization engages the entire Church (from top to bottom; especially, all the local Churches), all states of life (lay, religious, ordained, married, single), all apostolic activities and forms of witness (the five principal elements—and other aspects). Yes, the totality of Christian missionary evangelization embraces all these dimensions.

Integration of Perspectives. This section and the previous one have outlined the inherently missionary nature of the priesthood and the integral nature of missionary evangelization. Obviously, the two areas are intimately related. Priests will live out and fulfill their vocation to the extent that they are committed to the totality of the evangelization process. Too frequently in the popular mind there is the perception that diocesan priests are committed to the pastoral care of the faithful, while priests of various religious societies are focused on the missionary dimensions of the faith. Simply stated, this inadequate understanding divides priestly ministry, asserting that some are to be pastors, while others are to be missionaries.

Such a division is particularly unhelpful—especially in the Asian context. Priests are to be involved and concerned with all the people in their locality, not only the Christians. So many of the "joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of people of today, especially the poor" (GS, 1) encompass the entire community; thus, it is only an integral approach to evangelization that adequately fits the Asian context.

In addition, the leaders in the Church—priests in particular—need to be cognizant of forming Christian communities that integrate both the more ad intra elements of evangelization (e.g., explicit Gospel proclamation, liturgy and sacraments) with the more ad extra aspects (service of humanity, interreligious dialogue, witness of life). In making this observation, the author in no way seeks to separate or divide all the five dimensions of missionary evangelization; indeed, some are not ad intra aspects while others are ad extra components. Priestly ministry of its very nature is to be holistic in its approach to evangelization.


The two previous sections of this presentation have elucidated the themes of holistic evangelization as well as the inherently missionary nature of priesthood—elements that necessarily are to be integrated into the vision of any local Church in Asia. These insights are to be more than theological reflection, pastoral exhortations, beautiful visions and dreams. With the reader’s indulgence, the author will highlight a few pivotal missionary milestones in the local Church of the Philippines whereby it seeks to become more genuinely focused on its missionary identity; the stories of the other local Churches in Asia are all equally valid and inspiring.

Milestones. Following the Vatican II vision of renewal, the Philippine Church held the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (January 20 to February 17, 1991); it issued a mandate that "the Church in the Philippines, through the Catholic Bishops’ Conference [CBCP], shall put itself in a more active state of mission" (PCP-II Decrees, Art. I:1). This "active state of mission" was to be concretized, promoted, and implemented through a five-to-ten-year National Pastoral Plan. This plan, issued in 1993, bore the title: In the State of Mission: Towards a Renewed Integral Evangelization. Both the PCP-II and the Pastoral Plan promote the growth of a local Church and its clergy to be "in a more active state of mission" through "renewed integral evangelization."

On July 5, 2000 the Philippine bishops (CBCP) issued a beautiful pastoral letter on mission and evangelization within the local Church. It bore the title: "Missions" and the Church in the Philippines: A Pastoral Letter on the Church’s Mission in the New Millennium. The letter is an inspiring overview of the theological, missiological and pastoral agenda for enabling the local Church to achieve "a more active state of mission."

The Philippine bishops chose to make mission and evangelization central to the entire Jubilee Year experience through a National Mission Congress, held in Cebu from September 27 to October 1, 2000. Approximately 2,300 delegates assembled for this event; the "Message of the First National Mission Congress" expressed the commitment of the participants to become a "Church-in-Mission." Two books were published by the CBCP Commission on Mission in conjunction with the successful congress: Tell the World … Catechetical Modules for Mission Animation and Telling God’s Story: National Mission Congress 2000.

During the last week of January 2001 the CBCP sponsored the National Pastoral Consultation on Church Renewal (NPCCR). "Behold I Make All Things New" was the message of this ten-year evaluation of developments in the local Church since PCP-II (1991-2001). Among the various themes in the document, one finds a commitment to "renewed integral evangelization" and a variety of pastoral priorities which include "Animation and Formation for Mission ad gentes."

On January 26, 2002 at the CBCP Plenary Assembly, Bishop Vicente C. Manuel, SVD presented the strategic plan of the Episcopal Commission on Mission. Comments and suggestions were received. With minor nuances the plan was unanimously approved by the CBCP to become the National Mission Plan.

From July 5-9, 2004 the local Church sponsored the First National Congress of the Clergy; over 4,000 priest-participants joined together for five days of prayer and reflection. The conferences, talks, homilies, and the prayer and silence encouraged the priests to give more and be more. Missionary evangelization and priestly identity received significant emphasis. It was indeed a time of grace, of God’s favor, of depth reflection. A second such congress will unfold in Manila in January 2010. Indeed, each local Church in Asia—and beyond—is invited to continual renewal—especially in this year of the priest (2009-2010).

Vision of Priestly Formation. The current document that guides formation for priests in the Philippines is The Updated Philippine Program of Priestly Formation (UPPPF); it was issued in 2006 by the Episcopal Commission on Seminaries of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). According to the document, a unified vision of theology necessarily includes seven essential theological disciplines. In addition to areas such as scripture, dogma, and moral, missiology is identified as integral to a comprehensive vision of theology. The following paragraph (UPPPF 131) links mission studies into a holistic program of priestly formation.

"PCP-II highlights the role of the Philippine Church to be the foremost missionary in Asia. NPCCR echoes the same urgent call by making Mission Ad Gentes as one of its pastoral priorities. Rolled into one, it is a call for the Philippine Church to become a Church-in-Mission. But for this to happen, missionary formation of the future priests is indispensable. This requires that Missiology should be an integral part of the theological formation of future priests. As such, all major seminaries and school of theologies [sic] should offer courses on Missiology."


Early in all four gospels, one reads of the call of the disciples (Mt 4:18-22; Mk 1:16-20; Lk 5:1-11; Jn 1:35-51). The disciples have questions; Jesus responds by giving a simple invitation: "Come and see," "Venite et videte" (Jn 1:39). In similar fashion Philip invites his brother Nathanael to "Come and see," "Veni et vide" (Jn 1:46). After the resurrection, the disciples proclaim their faith in Jesus in a variety of ways; they announce to doubting Thomas: "We have seen the Lord," "Vidimus Dominum" (Jn 20:25); John says to Peter: "It is the Lord," "Dominus est" (Jn 21:7).

In light of resurrection faith, all four gospels conclude with mission imperatives (Mt 28:16-20; Mk 16:15; Lk 24:48-49; Jn 20:21-23). Notice the dynamic expressed by each evangelist; Jesus’ disciples are called to respond in two parallel ways. First, they are to Come and See; then, they are to Go and Proclaim. In a particular way, priests are to be intimate disciples-apostles of Jesus, who himself is "the missionary of the Father."

This presentation, which cited documents of the universal and local Church, has tried to capture the Church’s vision of a mission-intensive priesthood. More than a simple chronicle of Church documents, this reflection aimed to express how the Holy Spirit is moving us all to become a Church with a clergy that, by God’s grace and the power of the Spirit, truly remains "in the state of mission." Saint Jean Marie Vianney, pray for us!

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