One of the challenges that the Church found herself facing as the Second Vatican Council convened was that the very idea of missions found itself in a crisis. Much of the sense of urgency with which the Church viewed missionary activity had been lost. Many began to question whether missionary activity was even still necessary, especially in light of the truths that could be found in many of the world’s other religions. After all, God can and wants to save all men, even those outside the Church. It is from within this theological climate that the Council Fathers addressed the question of why the Church must continue her missionary activity by issuing the Decree on the Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes(AG). Unfortunately the almost half a millennium that has passed since the close of the Council has seen the crisis associated with the missionary character of the Church heightened rather than alleviated. In hopes of stemming this crisis, we should reflect upon the missionary teachings of the Council.
The call for a missionary Church evokes in the minds of most people the need to go off to some Third World country and baptize its inhabitants. While this is certainly part of the missionary character of the Church, with the advent of the New Evangelization we no longer need to go off to a foreign land. There are many in our personal spheres of influence who have not yet encountered Christ truly. Despite all the information we have at our fingertips, we are perhaps the most religiously ignorant society in the history of Christendom. This ignorance can only be shattered if we all recognize we have a missionary vocation.
In coming to understand why the Church should be missionary, it is first necessary to understand what exactly one means when using the term “mission”. The Council Fathers defined missions as “the term given to those specific undertakings by which the heralds of the Gospel having been sent out by the Church into the whole world to carry out the task of preaching the Gospel and planting the Church among peoples who do not yet believe in Christ.” (AG 6) In this definition we see two important concepts joined; that of individual conversion and the extending of the Church’s territory. In defining it in this way, the Council Fathers sought to emphasize the goal of missions is to save souls and not just extend the Church’s borders. With a proper understanding of this twofold meaning of mission, we can better begin to address the question as to why the Church must still be missionary.
The Church is described by the Council Fathers as “divinely sent to the nations of the world to be unto them ‘a universal sacrament of salvation’” and thus “missionary by her very nature” (AG 1, 2). On a practical level what this means is that if the Church is missionary by her very nature then for the Church to cease mission would mean that it is no longer the Church.
However there is a much deeper meaning to this statement that is addressed by the Decree. The Church is missionary by her very nature because the Church’s mission has a Trinitarian foundation. In God, the communion of divine Persons manifests itself in the interplay of the processions of the Son from the Father and the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. The sending or missions of the Son and the Spirit in time presuppose and reveal these eternal processions and continue throughout time in the presence of the Church in mission. In this way the Church is a sacrament, but it nevertheless seeks through its missions as its goal communion. It is this communion then that is both the origin and the goal of the Church’s mission.
This might explain why the Church must be missionary, but it does not necessarily instill any sense of urgency or absolute necessity on the part of the Church. However, if we examine a further facet to the missionary nature of the Church, we find that it instills both the sense of urgency and absolute necessity. It is the link with Christ Himself. We hear this in the unequivocal words of the Decree in the declaration that there is “‘one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim. 2:45), ‘neither is there salvation in any other’(Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him…”(AG 7).
The missionary mandate is based upon the clear convictions that Christ is both the fullness of salvation and that outside of Him there is no salvation. In a world that is drinking from a relativistic fountain, this is often thought to be very intolerant. Nevertheless, even if this foundational truth is exclusivist in that only through Christ is eternal life offered, the Decree is also inclusive in that it does not exclude from salvation those who do not know Christ through no fault of their own.
The overemphasis on the inclusive character of the Decree has led to a culture of universalism in which all men are already saved. A traditional motivation for preaching the Gospel has always been that there are men whose salvation is in jeopardy. Once this motivation is taking away the urgency of missionary activity dies. The true “spirit” of the Council seems to agree with St. Thomas’ assessment that the majority of non-Christians are lost when she proclaims in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium that:
“…often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature’, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention” (LG 16).
Therefore at the heart of the mission of the Church is proclamation of the Truth. This Truth is not just an idea, but a Person. Proclamation entails both an invitation to commit to Christ and to enter into His Church through Baptism. The Council would respond to the quote that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi of “preach the Gospel and use words when necessary” by saying that “words and invitation are always necessary.” This proclamation is more than simply the witness of a life of charity. The priority is always on proclamation, albeit done in respectful dialogue.
The Council taught in Nostra Aetate that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy” in non-Christian religions. These truths can often be a starting point of dialogue with non-Christians. Dialogue then is an inseparable part because it offers a new way of relating to and understanding the situation of those to whom the proclamation is made. Within this dialogue there is a notion of equality. But this equality
“…refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ in relation to the founders of the other religions. Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Dominus Iesus, 22)
Finally, the Council would reject the notion that ignorance is bliss. Missionary activity is still necessary for the Church because the Gospel is really Good News. Those who hear it and conform their lives to it are better off both in this world and the next. Christ is the answer to man’s deepest longings and aspirations. As the Council reminds us “(F)or by manifesting Christ the Church reveals to men the real truth about their condition and their whole calling, since Christ is the source and model of that redeemed humanity, imbued with brotherly love, sincerity and a peaceful spirit, to which they all aspire.”
Christians know that a life without Christ is a life that is incomplete and so it is a supreme act of charity and a sacred duty to go out and meet the desires of all men with the liberating truth of the Gospel in its fullness. In this way we can see that in the Church’s history missionary drive has always been a sign of the vitality of the faith of the members of the Church.
For their part, the recipients of the message have a duty to seek the truth and once it is found they must conform their lives to it. Nevertheless this must be done freely and the Church rejects anything that resembles proselytism.
In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II remarked that the number of those who do not belong to the Church had nearly doubled since the close of the Second Vatican Council. It seems that today, as possibly never before in the history of the Church, there is both the need and opportunity to bringing souls to Christ by both witness and word. This can only be done if the truth of Christ is emphatically preached and believed on the part of those who preach. In this way the missionary path of the Church lays wide open.