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Vatican II on Missionary Activity: Principles

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 22, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

“The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature, since it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father” (2). So begins the first chapter of the Second Vatican Council’s fourteenth document, issued on December 7, 1965, the Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes). This is one of the Council’s longer documents (though not nearly as long as the two constitutions on the Church herself); its length suggests that it covers a topic very dear to the Council fathers' hearts.

Ad Gentes reflects in many ways that positive outlook of the Council which some later commentators have unfortunately dismissed as mere optimism. The sense of the fathers that the Church was on the verge of a great opportunity, if only she could renew herself to take advantage of it, is expressed nicely in the second introductory paragraph of this text:

In the present state of affairs, out of which there is arising a new situation for mankind, the Church, being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, is more urgently called upon to save and renew every creature, that all things may be restored in Christ and all men may constitute one family in Him and one people of God. (1)

The document is divided into six chapters, the first of which (“Principles of Doctrine”) thoroughly articulates the Church’s missionary nature, which arises from God’s plan to “call men to share His life, not just singly, apart from any mutual bond, but rather to mold them into a people in which His sons, once scattered abroad, might be gathered together” (2). I’ll devote this entry to these principles, reserving the remainder of the document to part two.

Ad Gentes teaches that what “the Lord preached that one time, or what was wrought in Him for the saving of the human race, must be spread abroad and published to the ends of the earth” (3). For this purpose Christ ordered the ministry of the apostles and promised to send the Holy Spirit. Finally Our Lord, “having now received all power in heaven and on earth, before He was taken up into heaven, founded His Church as the sacrament of salvation and sent His Apostles into all the world just as He Himself had been sent by His Father” (5). (The word “mission”, of course, comes from the Latin verb “mitto”, which means “to send”.)

The Council sees in this mission not a mere proclamation but a process of enlightenment and healing for diverse peoples in the diverse cultures of the world. God’s universal plan of salvation is carried out not only “secretly in the soul of a man, or by the attempts (even religious ones) by which in diverse ways it seeks after God,” for “these attempts need to be enlightened and healed” even though “they may sometimes serve as leading strings toward God, or as a preparation for the Gospel.” Therefore, God intervened “in human history in a way both new and final by sending His Son, clothed in our flesh, in order that through Him He might snatch men from the power of darkness and Satan and reconcile the world to Himself” (3).

Because this reconciliation must be initiated and nurtured under many different circumstances, the exact pattern of the Church’s missionary activity will vary according to all the factors and opportunities: “The differences recognizable in this, the Church’s activity, are not due to the inner nature of the mission itself [which is unchanging], but rather to the circumstances in which this mission is exercised” (6). These differences depend partly on the situation in the Church and partly on the peoples or groups to whom the mission is directed. But in every case, the term “mission” applies to evangelization, to the spreading of the Faith to those who are not yet Christian. Thus missionary activity “differs from pastoral activity exercised among the faithful as well as from undertakings aimed at restoring unity among Christians” (6).

The Council stresses the importance of the Church for salvation, and reaffirms that “those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ, founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it” (7). At the same time, missionary activity is not something foreign or alien to man, but is “bound up even with human nature itself and its aspirations”, and it transforms not only persons but all the goods of the world, “which bear the mark both of man’s sin and of God’s blessing,” and so must be transformed in Christ for the glory of God. (8)

The need for missionary work “extends between the first coming of the Lord and the second.” Thus, the Council concludes its chapter on first principles by describing the Church’s missionary activity as “nothing else and nothing less than an epiphany, or a manifesting of God’s decree, and its fulfillment in the world and in world history, in the course of which God, by means of mission, manifestly works out the history of salvation.” Therefore, of its very nature, “missionary activity tends toward eschatological fullness” and through it “the mystical body grows to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ” (9).

In the next installment, I’ll summarize the details of how missionary work is to unfold, its basic organization, and the participation of the whole Church in its success.

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Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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