The Archbishop of Wellington in this article clearly identifies the Church as mission and highlights the enduring power of Evangelii Nuntiandi.
Born of a mission
It does not happen often that the business community borrows something from the Church. Yet a decade or two ago companies and enterprises started talking about their ‘mission’ and the need to spell out their ‘mission statement’. They took a well-known word from the Church vocabulary and used it to good advantage to spell out succinctly what they were about.
In the Church we have been using the word mission for so long that we are in danger of taking it for granted, as if we fully understand its meaning. We tended to speak of mission as if it was something the Church has. We thought of missionaries as those who leave their homelands and travel to far places. We thought of the Church as having missionaries and of missionaries as a class within the Church, a part of it, but not the whole.
That is understandable. The Catholic faith came to my part of the world through missionaries. Some months ago New Zealand Catholics gave thanks to those missionaries in a special way when they rejoiced in the return of the remains of Bishop Jean Baptiste François Pompallier. The remains of Pompallier, the first Catholic Bishop in New Zealand, were brought back in January 2002 from a nearly neglected grave in Paris into the loving care of the Maori, the indigenous people for whom he had left his country and family to preach the gospel and implant the church. In 1836 Pope Gregory XVI had formally established the Vicariate Apostolic of Western Oceania an immense area covering nearly one-sixth of the earth’s globe. He entrusted it to the missionary work of the Society of Mary and appointed Pompallier as its first bishop. Together with four priests and three brothers Pompallier set out to proclaim the good news among peoples who had not yet heard the word of God: the Mariana, Caroline and Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons, Kiribati and Tuvalu, Samoa and Tokelau, Tonga and Fiji, the Northern Cook Islands and Aotearoa-New Zealand. All this, since one of the four priests died before reaching the Pacific Ocean, by a missionary band of just seven people.
Such were our beginnings. Theirs was an adventurous and exciting history. The word of God was preached and freely accepted. The result: the growth of indigenous particular churches, including my own, the Archdiocese of Wellington. And as the particular churches of Oceania have matured, they in their turn commenced missions and sent missionaries. For example, the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, an indigenous New Zealand religious order, have a mission among the Aborigines in Australia. Currently nearly 300 New Zealand priests and religious serve overseas.
Having or being mission
So it became customary for us to speak of mission as something the Church has. Yet increasingly, instead of saying that mission and missionaries are something the Church has, we realize that mission, more than anything else, is something the Church is.
The essential nature of the Church, Church universal or particular, Church as the People of God in parish, prayer group or organization, is mission, is to be God’s loving outreach to the world. The very nature of the Church is to be sent which is what ‘mission’ means: sent to proclaim, sent to heal, sent to teach, sent to sanctify, sent to serve, sent to bring hope.
In our Catholic faith, mission has an exciting history. We believe that God sent his Son into our world, to every person sin-scarred and tear-stained, that we might have life, rich, full and overflowing. The Father and the Son sent the Spirit into the world to sanctify and strengthen, guide and empower the followers of Jesus Christ. The Church is by its very nature missionary since it has its origin in the mission or sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Mission means to be sent. The sending of the apostles started in fear, behind locked doors, when the risen Lord showed the disciples his hands and his side, and spoke that exciting sentence: ‘As the Father sent me, I also send you’. (Jn. 20.21)
So the apostles were sent and those who followed them. They include missionaries such as Pompallier and his seven co-workers. Yet mission is not for the adventurous few. Mission is mission of the whole Church. Through baptism and confirmation, every Christian is initiated into the Church and into the mission of the Church. All are sent, all are missionaries. Saint Paul would not allow exceptions on any grounds, race or social status or gender: ‘neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave or free, neither male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus’. (Gal. 3.28)
Thus those who do not travel to far-away places are no less expected to be missionaries. The Second Vatican Council in its Decree of the Church’s Missionary Activity makes the universality of the call to mission clear when it describes mission as follows:
It is carried out by means of that activity through which, in obedience to Christ’s command and moved by the grace and love of the Holy Spirit, the Church makes itself fully present to all persons and peoples in order to lead them to the faith, freedom and peace of Christ by the example of its life and teaching, by the sacraments and other means of grace. (Ad Gentes, (AG) 5).
Good News mission
In the synoptic gospels Jesus defines his mission or purpose as ‘the preaching of the Good News’. Most of us do not go to far-away places where people have not heard of Christ. But all of us are charged with proclaiming the gospel in such a way that the gospel penetrates our societies. In this we imitate Jesus. The mission of every Christian is to be an ‘evangelizer’, to introduce another typical Church term, though one not yet in fashion with the business community!
Not all Catholics are fully familiar with the term either. It derives from the Greek eu-angelos or ‘good news’. My own conviction is that evangelization is best understood if we go back to the very origin of the term, before it was used by the gospel writers. It comes to us from ancient history, when kings and emperors did battle against their enemies. When one army overcame another on the battlefield, the victorious general would choose from the ranks a slave to carry the news of the victory to the palace where the king would be waiting. The slave would literally dance for joy as he hurried with the news to the king, because he knew that, as soon as he had relayed the good news, he would be rewarded: he would be given his freedom. He would be a slave no longer.
That was what the people of those times understood by evangelization: carrying the news of victory which brings freedom. When the gospel writers took over the word they knew that there is no greater victory than Christ’s victory. They knew there is no greater enemy than sin and death which held us in servitude. Evangelization, then is proclaiming the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death, setting us free ... liberating us.
A ‘charter’ for evangelizers
Evangelization includes missionary activity, the cross-cultural proclamation of the gospel. The Decree of the Church’s Missionary Activity reads:
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, are generally called ‘missions’(AG 6).
Evangelization is broader than missions. It also refers to proclamation of the gospel to the unchurched within our own society or culture (‘evangelism’) and to ongoing conversion of those who already are followers of Jesus.
Catholics have been given a ‘charter’ for evangelization in the form of the document published by Pope Paul VI. It was issued on the tenth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. In the document, “On Evangelization in the Modern World”, Paul VI insists on evangelization as the very reason for the Church’s existence: ‘the presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent upon her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people may believe and be saved’ (Evangelii Nuntiandi, (EN) 5).
If that were not emphatic enough, Paul VI quotes from the Third General Assembly of Bishops:
We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. He goes on to stress: Evangelization is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of his death and glorious resurrection. (EN14).
If we take those passages seriously we have to accept the truth that to be a Catholic is in no way a matter of being a consumer of religious goods and services. It means that we belong to a community called to a special, essential and imperative task. Membership means being on a mission, being on the same messianic mission that was inaugurated by Jesus.
Jesus did not only preach the good news; his entire life was a proclamation of a new way of living, of the breaking through in history of the Reign of God. In the same way our mission as evangelizers is not limited to proclaiming the gospel, arousing a personal faith in people and inviting them to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. It is living our faith and making the Reign of God visible in every sphere of life, the life of our communities, our nation, our world.
The complexity of evangelizing action
Evangelizing is a complex activity. Paul VI in his ‘charter’ distinguishes five elements which together make up the full reality. The five elements are: conversion, witness of life, proclamation, celebration and transformation.
Personal conversion is not a once and for all, instantaneous experience. It is a life-long process. For all our days each of us is challenged to deeper union with Christ in prayer; to deeper understanding of his teaching; to deeper fidelity to the Church which is Christ’s Body. We witness to Christ in the way we live, in the Gospel principles which guide our actions, in our love for God and for one another, in family, and working and leisure times. ‘Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News’ (EN 21).
The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life has also to be proclaimed in explicit words: we speak about who Christ is. We speak about what he has done and continues to do for us, explaining and sharing the Catholic faith and defending it when attacked.
Evangelization reaches its full development when it is accepted, adhered to and joyfully received. Such an adherence becomes manifest by a visible entry into a community of believers. Thus the community in its worship is also evangelizing. We evangelize when we celebrate Christ’s birth, death and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, when we celebrate the sacraments which nourish and strengthen, unite and heal us. If we believe, then we will celebrate what we believe. And when others come to know the depth of our faith and hope, they too may come to believe.
Transformation is the fifth and equally essential element in evangelization. True evangelization concerns not only individual human beings, but human society. The Good News needs to be brought to all layers of society: ‘The Church evangelizes when she seeks to convert, solely through the Divine Power of the message she proclaims, both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and the concrete milieux which are theirs.’ (EN 18).
Pope Paul VI expands further the transforming task of evangelization:
For the Church it is a question not only of preaching the Gospel in ever wider geographic areas or to ever greater number of people, but also of affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, people’s criteria of judgement, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration, and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation. (EN 19).
Evangelization and the Church’s social teaching
With sadness I have to admit that social transformation is the most neglected of the five elements of evangelization. It seems to me that the area of social transformation is where least real progress is being made and in which there is least involvement of our Catholic people. Some in our Church community would even have it that the transformation of society and its institutions is no part of the Church’s mission. Yet just as conversion and silent witness of life, explicit proclamation and celebration cannot be left to any one section of the Church, nor can social transformation.
Pope Paul VI made it very clear that there are profound links between evangelization and human advancement:
These include links of an anthropological order, because the person who is to be evangelized is not an abstract being but is subject to social and economic questions. They also include links in the theological order, since one cannot dissociate the plan of Creation from the plan of Redemption. The latter plan touches on the very concrete situations of injustice to be combatted and of justice to be restored. (EN 31 my italics).
Social transformation is the Cinderella of evangelization. The fault is not lack of encouragement by the Church’s leadership or lack of direction in its teaching. The body of Catholic social teaching teaching which has as its purpose the transformation of society according to gospel principles is extensive, rich and relevant. But the Church’s social teaching needs to be taught, received and implemented more effectively than it has been so far.
The Synod of Bishops for Oceania
Missionaries brought the Gospel to the original inhabitants of the Pacific, inviting them to believe in Christ and find their home in the Church. The people responded in great numbers to the call, became Christ’s followers and began to live according to his word. The result of their work was for all to see in November 1998 in Rome, at the Mass for the opening of the Special Assembly for the Synod of Bishops of Oceania. The Special Assembly brought together all the Bishops from the 72 dioceses in the Pacific region. The colourful and inculturated opening and closing liturgies of the Oceania Synod left no doubt that the Catholic Church is now a vibrant reality among many peoples in the Pacific region.
At the Synod the Bishops paid tribute to the many missionaries in the past priests, women and men religious and also lay people who had brought the faith to their region and whose sacrifices had borne much fruit. The Church in Oceania, though young, is so well established and at home among the peoples of the Pacific that its distinctive features warranted a separate Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
The Bishops of Oceania are organized in four Conferences which come together as the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Oceania. The total number of Bishops is small as the region, though vast, includes many small island nations with relatively few people. From a global perspective we are small fry (only 0.8% of all Catholics live in Oceania) and enormous distances make many of us isolated. Those distances are often vast, both between one diocese and another, but also within a diocese (for example the diocese of Geraldton (Australia) is many times the size of the whole of Italy).
Grateful of the past, the Bishops of the Pacific, gathering in Rome in 1998, could not fail to ask: How can the Church be an ever more effective instrument of Jesus Christ, who now wants to meet the peoples of Oceania in new ways? The central concern of the Synod was to find appropriate ways of presenting to the peoples of Oceania today Jesus Christ, through walking his way, telling his truth, and living his life. The Church, as the community of disciples, must interpret the good news for the peoples of Oceania according to their present needs and circumstances. The Bishops stressed that, in presenting Jesus, the Church must show his compassionate love to a world in need of hope and healing. As a priestly people, all the baptised are commissioned to reach out in mercy to all, particularly the most deprived, the most distant, the lost (cf. Pope John Paul, Ecclesia in Oceania (EO), November 2001, n. 5).
Inculturation in the Pacific The Church in the Pacific realizes that it is vital that it insert itself fully into the life and cultures of its peoples. Those cultures offer positive values and norms which can enrich the way the Gospel is proclaimed, understood and lived. One of the most notable features of the peoples of Oceania is their powerful sense of community and solidarity in family and tribe, village or neighbourhood. This gives new depth to the mystery of communio offered in Christ. At the same time the Gospel challenges those cultures and requires that some values and forms change violence and corruption for example have no place in the community of disciples of Jesus Christ.
The interventions of the Bishops and the liturgies during the Oceania Synod showed that the region already offers many examples of unique cultural expressions in the areas of theology, liturgy and the use of religious symbols. Further inculturation of the Christian faith is the way forward. The Church in Oceania needs to continue developing an understanding and presentation of the truth of Christ drawing on the tradition and cultures of the region. All priests, deacons and catechists should be thoroughly familiar with the culture of the people they are to serve (EO 16).
Inculturation is not limited to the traditional religions and cultures found in the region. In many countries in Oceania young people form the majority of the population. As youth they live in a culture which is uniquely theirs. The Gospel needs to be proclaimed to them in ways that they can understand. It means that we must study the culture and language of youth, welcome them and incorporate the positive aspects of their culture into the Church’s life and mission. The Bishops of Oceania applaud young people for their acute sense of justice, personal integrity and respect for human dignity, for their care for the needy and their concern for the environment (EO 44).
A new evangelization in the Pacific
The time is ripe for a new evangelization in the Pacific. New circumstances present great challenges. Global transformation is affecting the region’s cultural identity and social institutions. Many Bishops at the Oceania Synod spoke of a dwindling of Catholic faith and practice in the lives of some people to the point where a completely secular outlook is the norm of judgment and behaviour.
In these changed circumstances it is imperative that each baptized person realizes that he or she is called to share in the Church’s mission. From the very beginning, lay people in the Pacific have contributed to the Church’s mission. Given the needs of the new evangelization they are encouraged to continue to do so in parishes as catechists, instructors in sacramental preparation, youth work and leadership of small groups and communities. They are especially needed as witnesses in their daily lives, renewing the temporal order through personal and family values, economic interests, the trades and various professions, political institutions, the arts and so on (EO 43).
* Individually, and together as communities of disciples of Jesus, all the baptized are invited to be evangelizers. For the Pacific region the Bishops of Oceania asked them specifically among other things to: foster a spirit of fellowship at their liturgies,
* increase their social and apostolic outreach,
* reach out to non-practicing and alienated Catholics,
* strengthen the identity of Catholic schools,
* provide faith formation opportunities for adults,
* explain the Catholic faith effectively to those outside the Christian community,
* bring the Church’s social teaching to bear on civic life in Oceania (EO 19).
Pompallier and his companions would have approved. They who came from Europe to bring Gospel and Church to us they have done their part. They laid the foundations of a strong and vigorous Church. They would have liked nothing better than for every baptized person in the Pacific to take up their mission to evangelize by word and example in their homes, schools and hospitals; professions and clubs, shops and supermarkets; social and financial, legal and political institutions.
In April 2002 the remains of Pompallier, the first Bishop of Western Oceania, were interred in Motuti, in the far north of New Zealand. If he could speak to us, I have no doubt that his emphatic appeal to us would be: “If you really want to honour me, take up with ever greater commitment your missionary task”.
This article appears as a chapter in Hayes, M.A.(ed.) Mission and Evangelization: Vision of the Cardinals, London: Burns & Oates /Continuum, 2004.
Thomas Cardinal Williams is Archbishop of Wellington, New Zealand.
This article appeared in the July/August issue of the Pastoral Review. Reprinted with permission.