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Vatican II on Missionary Activity: Mission Work

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 23, 2010

Following its exploration of principles in the first chapter (see the previous entry), the remainder of the Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes) covers missionary work itself, both in its character and stages and in the means necessary to ensure its progress.

The second chapter (“Mission Work Itself”) contains three parts. In Article 1 on “Christian Witness”, the Council picks up the theme of enlightenment and healing mentioned earlier. In order to offer salvation to all the various groups and cultures of mankind, the Church “must implant herself into these groups for the same motive which led Christ to bind Himself, in virtue of His Incarnation, to certain social and cultural conditions of those human beings among whom He dwelt” (10). Thus the missionary is to become one with the culture to which he is sent (insofar as this is possible for a Christian), living as those people do and speaking their language, but for a higher purpose:

Even as Christ Himself searched the hearts of men, and led them to divine light, so also His disciples, profoundly penetrated by the Spirit of Christ, should know the people among whom they live, and should converse with them, that they themselves may learn by sincere and patient dialogue what treasures a generous God has distributed among the nations of the earth. But at the same time, let them try to furbish these treasures, set them free, and bring them under the dominion of God their Savior. (11)

In Article 2, the fathers describe the first phase of missionary activity, the “preaching of the Gospel and gathering together of the People of God,” and in Article 3 they describe the second phase, the “forming of the Christian community” so that over time it comes to possess the “priestly, prophetic and royal” offices within itself, including its own clergy, in communion with the universal Church. The Council recommends the restoration of the permanent diaconate (16) for service in mission territory and stresses the importance of lay catechists, who typically play a critical role in new Catholic communities (17). It also insists on the fostering of religious communities, including those pursuing the contemplative life (18).

The third chapter (“Particular Churches”) covers the next phase, when the Church in a mission territory comes to a realization of its full stature, under its own bishops, and marked by an active, self-aware Catholic laity who are beginning to transform the larger culture. “In such new churches, the life of the People of God must mature in all those fields of Christian life which are to be reformed by the norms of this council.” Such churches are likely still to be quite poor and in need of assistance and support from more established churches throughout the world, yet they too must begin to play their role in the universal Church, and the first duty of the bishop is to be “a herald of the Faith who leads new disciples to Christ” (19).

The Council fathers emphasize that “the church has not been really founded, and is not yet fully alive, nor is it a perfect sign of Christ among men, unless there is a laity worthy of the name working along with the hierarchy” (21). The main duty of the laity “is the witness which they are bound to bear to Christ by their life and works in the home, in their social milieu, and in their own professional circle” (21)—a point which applies to the fully mature Church everywhere and in all times. Once again, these young churches are to “borrow from the customs and traditions of their people, from their wisdom and their learning, from their arts and disciplines, all those things which can contribute to the glory of their Creator, or enhance the grace of their Savior, or dispose Christian life the way it should be” (22).

The final three chapters deal primarily with pragmatic issues. Chapter 4 (“Missionaries”) covers the preparation and formation of missionaries. They must be “sent by legitimate authority” and “set apart for the work” (23) and ready to stay at their vocations “for an entire lifetime”, renouncing themselves and all that they once considered their own, for the missionary must “’make himself all things to all men’ (1 Cor 9:22)” (24).

Chapter 5 (“Planning Missionary Activity”) outlines the duties of bishops, the role of special institutes, the need for study of the mission territories, the importance of accurate reports, the assignment of mission territories to various groups, lines of authority, and the role of the episcopal conferences and the Holy See (28-34).

Chapter 6 (“Cooperation”) stresses that “all the faithful are duty-bound to cooperate in the expansion and spreading out of [Christ’s] Body, to bring it to fullness as soon as may be.” But it also issues this caution: “Let everyone know that their first and most important obligation for the spread of the Faith is this: to lead a profoundly Christian life” (36). The fathers emphasize too that “all bishops, as member of the body of bishops succeeding to the College of Apostles, are consecrated not just for some one diocese, but for the salvation of the entire world.” (38) Therefore, they should designate some of their best priests for mission work. All Catholic priests and teachers should “stir up and preserve amid the faithful a zeal for the evangelization of the world” (39); religious institutes should also participate in or pray for the success of the missions (40); and the laity are likewise called to be involved, through their direct work in mission lands and through their economic cooperation with missionary work (41).

Ad Gentes closes with a prayer that “the nations may soon be led to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4) and the glory of God which shines on the face of Jesus Christ may shine upon all men through the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 4:6)” (42).

Previous in series: Vatican II on Missionary Activity: Principles
Next in series: Vatican II on Priests: Priestly Ministry

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