General Audience May 3, 1995

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

General Audience on 3 May 1995

1. In traditional terms we speak of "missions" in the plural and of the "missionaries" who work there by a specific mandate. This form of expression does not contradict the unity of the Church's "mission", rather, it reveals more vividly the fundamental commitment to evangelization. Not only do missionaries not overshadow the principle that the whole Church is missionary but, on the contrary, they personally fulfill it.

What are the missions? According to the Council, they are "the special undertakings in which preachers of the Gospel, sent by the Church and going into the whole world, carry out the work of preaching the Gospel and implanting the Church among people who do not yet believe in Christ" (Decree Ad gentes, n. 6). In the Encyclical <Redemptoris missio> it is explained that these are established in territories where the Church "has not yet taken root" and with peoples "whose culture has not yet been influenced by the Gospel" (<Redemptoris missio>, n. 34).

2. We can state that these activities aim at building up the local Church. Not only do they contribute to establishing structures and an ecclesial hierarchy, but they co-operate in forming communities of Christian life through the proclamation of God's Word and the administration of the sacraments. St. Thomas Aquinas already mentioned this implantation of the Church as the apostolic <munus> (cf. 1 Sent., D. 16, q. 1. a. 2, ad 2 and 4; <Summa Theol.>, I, q. 43, a. 7, ad 6; I-II, q. 106, a. 4, ad 4). A concept which belongs to a solid ecclesiological tradition, it has been deepened by the Pontiffs of our century in various documents and taken up by the Second Vatican Council (cf. <Ad gentes>, n. 34). Both my venerable predecessors and St. Thomas also use the other term: <dilatatio Ecclesiae>, that is, the spread, the extension of the Church (cf. St. Thomas, <Comm. in Matth.> 16:28). The Council explained that "the principal instrument in this work of implanting [and spreading] the Church is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.... All over the world indigenous particular Churches ought to grow from the seed of the word of God", in the body of the one Church, in which men "might through Baptism be joined to the Church which, as the Body of the Word Incarnate, lives and is nourished by the Word of God and the Eucharist" (<Ad gentes>, n. 6; cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Pet 1:23). These are Churches with "their own proper strength and maturity", endowed with their own hierarchy and the appropriate means for the Christian life of their own members, and can contribute to the good of the whole Church (cf. ibid.).

This is the ideal to follow in missionary activity: the foundation of a Church which on her own provides for her Pastors and all the necessities for the life of faith, while remaining in communion with the other particular Churches and with the See of Peter.

3. Various stages in missionary activity can be distinguished (cf. <Ad gentes> n. 6): the "beginning or planting", with a preaching of the Gospel aimed at bringing men to Baptism; then follows a "time of freshness and youthfulness", with education in faith and in the Christian way of life, with the formation of the local community, with the birth and development or priestly and religious vocations.

In these formative moments the community is provided with a ministerial structure which helps it to develop in a perspective of openness and missionary co-operation.

There has been no lack of misunderstandings with regard to missionary activity and the value of missions, even in recent times. Starting with the connection that was established for a time between missionary activity and political colonization, due to contingent historical circumstances, some have wished to conclude that the gradual disappearance of the historical phenomenon of colonies should coincide with the parallel disappearance of missions.

In addition to these uncertainties there is the consideration that in the Churches of the first evangelization, from which came many missionaries working in "mission countries", there is an increasing awareness that their territory is becoming "a mission land" requiring a "new evangelization". Thus the problem arose of choosing between missions in countries not yet evangelized and the urgent tasks of the apostolate in countries with an ancient Christian tradition.

4. The question cannot be solved by the choice of the second alternative, taken in the absolute, to the detriment of the former.

It is true that the need for a new evangelization is making itself felt "in the ancient Christian countries" where "entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel" (Redemptoris missio, n. 33). Specific missionary activity cannot be rejected and must be carried out in territories where the Church is not yet implanted or where the number of Christians is very small. The Gospel message must be brought to the knowledge of all, and Christian communities themselves, even if they are flourishing and exemplary, must be able to exercise a beneficial influence on customs and institutions, through a useful dialogue with the other groups and communities.

As I pointed out in the Encyclical quoted, "The number of those who do not know Christ and do not belong to the Church is constantly on the increase. Indeed, since the end of the Council it has almost doubled" (<Redemptoris missio>, n. 3). This results from the fact that as the world's population continues to grow, the numerical proportion of non-Christians has notably increased for well-known demographic reasons and because of greater stability in the preservation of religious elements, almost connatural with culture.

5. With regard then to the relationship between missionary activity and the colonizing policies of some countries, it is necessary calmly and clearly to analyze the facts which show that if in some cases the coincidence had led to reprehensible behavior on the part of missionaries in relation to their countries of origin or in collaboration with local authorities whom it was not always possible to ignore, nevertheless, considered overall, evangelizing activity has always been distinguished by a very different goal from that of earthly powers: to promote the personal dignity of the evangelized, giving them access to the divine sonship obtained for every man by Christ and communicated to the faithful in Baptism. In fact, this generally encouraged the progress of those people towards their freedom and development even at the social and economic level. The missionaries acted out of the respect they felt for men as persons loved by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ.

Today as in the past, their activities with peoples or groups where the Church is not yet present and active does not respond to goals of human power or interest, nor is it inspired by the pride of cultural or social superiority. Rather it desires to be, and is in reality, a humble service of love to those who have not yet received the light and life of Christ within the context of the Church (<Ecclesia>) he desired and founded for the salvation of the world.

The Council also recognizes that there are situations in which missionary activity must limit itself to a discreet presence, because it cannot develop in visibly organized and functional structures (cf. Ad gentes, n. 6). Perhaps, in precisely such cases, missionaries represent even more clearly the Church founded by Christ to preach the Gospel and to build communities of salvation everywhere. Indeed, she is always well aware of the mystery of the Cross, which sometimes involves silent and trusting expectation of the light of Easter, as history amply illustrates.

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