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In his last words to the apostles, the Lord Jesus Christ gave them a mission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).
“Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh and Son of the Father—has an absolutely unique role in the salvation of the world. Similarly, the [Catholic] Church . . . uniquely contains the means of continuing Christ’s saving mission” (Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, Statement on Dominus Iesus, 2000).
Christ’s instruction to the apostles was a great call to those who became the first bishops and the first missionaries of the Church. They were told to go ad gentes—that is, “to the nations,” to those who did not know Christ—and to proclaim the Gospel. Because the apostles were faithful and obedient to Christ’s command, his Church has grown and flourished.
The responsibility for fulfilling that mandate passes on unchanged to the bishops and to all the Catholics of today. The word “catholic”—that is, “universal”—embodies God’s purpose for his Church. He wants to extend it to the farthest corners of the earth. He wants to show all people his love and mercy.
|Missions are those “particular undertakings by which the heralds of the Gospel, sent out by the Church and going forth into the whole world, carry out the task of preaching the Gospel and planting the Church among peoples or groups who do not yet believe in Christ. . . . The proper purpose of this missionary activity is evangelization” (Ad Gentes, no. 6).|
However, this mission is far from complete. There are many young churches that need missionaries to develop and grow. There are many dioceses, eparchies, and countries struggling with poverty, persecution, oppression, war, and immense suffering that need missionaries to witness to the light and love of Christ, bringing hope for the future.
The Church can never “withdraw from her permanent mission of bringing the Gospel to the multitudes—the millions and millions of men and women—who as yet do not know Christ the Redeemer of humanity” (On the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate [Redemptoris Missio], no. 31, original italics). Therefore, all Catholics, by reason of their incorporation into the Church at Baptism, should fully participate and cooperate in Christ’s ongoing mission “to the nations.”
We, the Catholic bishops of the United States, commit ourselves anew to supporting the world mission effort, and we ask all Catholics to join us in this venture.
In order to strengthen this mission effort, we address this letter particularly to all those who fulfill the special role of teaching and forming the Catholics in our dioceses and eparchies. We are enormously grateful for the devotion and skill with which Catholics in the teaching ministry lead the way:
In an ad limina address to a group of bishops in 2004, Pope John Paul II appealed to the Church in the United States to recapture its missionary spirit:
I also wish to express my personal gratitude for the traditional generosity of the faithful of the United States to the Church’s mission ad gentes through the training and sending forth of generations of missionaries and through the contributions of countless Catholics to the foreign missions. I encourage you to make every effort to revive this powerful manifestation of solidarity with the universal Church. History bears witness that a sustained commitment to the mission ad gentes renews the whole Church, strengthens the faith of individuals and communities, reinforces their Christian identity, and gives rise to fresh enthusiasm for overcoming the challenges and difficulties of the moment (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 2). May the Church in your country discover the sources for a profound interior renewal through a revitalization of missionary zeal, above all by promoting vocations to missionary Institutes and proposing, especially to young people, the lofty ideal of a life completely devoted to the Gospel. (Address of John Paul II to the Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Provinces of Boston and Hartford (U.S.A.) on Their Ad Limina Visit [September 2, 2004], no. 4)Pope John Paul II thus reminded us all of something we know to be true: ad gentes mission not only strengthens mission abroad, it also increases our fervor for the faith at home.
Where does the idea of “mission” come from? What exactly is mission? It consists of continuing Christ’s own mission. Mission, from the Latin word “to send,” means obeying his command always to go to all the nations, to baptize, and to teach the faith. We look to Christ himself as the model of the truly loving missionary.
Christ is the first of all missionaries since he himself was sent to live among us by the Father. The Father sent him into the world as an outpouring of love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Pope John Paul II described this in Redemptoris Missio: “the ultimate purpose of mission is to enable people to share in the communion which exists between the Father and the Son” (no. 23).
Jesus lived among people, proclaimed the Good News, and revealed the truth. He took the burdens of all people upon himself and, in carrying them to the Cross, transformed all time and all people in his Resurrection. We are saved through him, body and soul, in the Sacrament of Baptism, and we carry the Good News of Christ’s love, mercy, and redemption to our homes, schools, and workplaces—in fact, everywhere we go. We carry this Good News because God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2:4).
A personal encounter with Christ, especially in the sacraments, compels us to a greater participation in mission: what we have been so wonderfully given, we pass on to those who do not yet know of it or who stand in need of renewal. In this sense, every Catholic who has had a personal encounter with Christ has the heart of a missionary. In fact, God’s desire for the salvation of all requires that we be missionary. For “there is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Missionaries go forth to bring the Church to where it has not yet been founded and to build up churches that are struggling. They carry with them both the Word and sacrament. The same message of Christ that was passed on to the apostles, missionaries now pass on to others. The same fervor for the Eucharistic meal that the apostles shared in, missionaries now bring to others. As John Paul II said on World Mission Sunday, 2004:
How could the Church fulfill her vocation without cultivating a constant relationship with the Eucharist, without nourishing herself with this food which sanctifies, without founding her missionary activity on this indispensable support? To evangelize the world there is need of apostles who are “experts” in the celebration, adoration and contemplation of the Eucharist. (Message of His Holiness John Paul II for World Mission Sunday 2004, “Eucharist And Mission,” no. 3)Whether missionaries are priests, religious, or lay people, it is Christ in the Eucharist, and their unity in the Holy Spirit, that sustains and inspires them.
In this age of extreme moral and religious relativism, Christ’s mission to the world has become more difficult but even more necessary. Mission is never an imposition upon the free will of another; it is an invitation to know Christ or to know him better, and it is made in a spirit of respect toward others. Missionaries deeply desire all peoples throughout the world to share in the riches of Christ and his Church.
The question may still arise, Is it right to invite others to enjoy the gifts of Christ and his Church? John Paul II addressed this in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio:
To the question, “why mission?” we reply with the Church’s faith and experience that true liberation consists in opening oneself to the love of Christ. In him, and only in him, are we set free from all alienation and doubt, from slavery to the power of sin and death. Christ is truly “our peace” (Eph 2:14); “the love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor 5:14), giving meaning and joy to our life. Mission is an issue of faith, an accurate indicator of our faith in Christ and his love for us. (no. 11)A heartfelt “Yes!” should therefore be the answer to questions about mission. In a spirit of respectful communion, Catholics must bring the promise of God’s gifts before all peoples around the world.
As soon as the apostles received the Holy Spirit, they immediately began to proclaim Christ to the crowd (Acts 2:4). Everyone who is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already within them the seed of the apostles’ fiery enthusiasm for proclamation. The Holy Spirit—the Spirit of mission—guides and strengthens our witness to Christ; the same Spirit was the driving force in the life and the mission of Christ himself (see Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity [Ad Gentes], no. 4).
We bishops, as diocesan leaders and successors of the very first apostles—and all those who teach the faith, as Christ’s witnesses—are all disciples, sent by Christ to preach the Gospel to every corner of the earth.
In some ways, modern technology and media have drawn the whole world together. Does this mean that there is less need for us to go out to the nations? Not at all. Mission, while happily making use of technological advances in communications, is still very much a person-to-person ministry. Catholics want Christ’s mercy to reach through his Church to the farthest corners of the world. The Church still responds as Isaiah did in another time: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am,’ I said; ‘send me!’” (Is 6:8).
We applaud all that is good in the idea of the global community, which in its highest form represents a desire for peace and community throughout the world.
We also recognize that our Catholic faith needs to confront those ideas that are perilous. Other values that degrade the human spirit are also promoted worldwide today: extreme secularism, relativism, individualism, and consumerism—all of which drive people further apart. They are contrary to the Gospel of Christ and to all that is good.
The light of Christ shines out from the Church in her mission efforts to unmask these evils, and to bring people to a truer communion with God and each other. The Church in mission is the sign and instrument of such a conversion.
In her missionary work, the Church encounters many different faiths. In many of the beliefs and convictions of non-Christian religions, the Church finds a “ray of that Truth which enlightens” all people, and this can be the basis for making strong bonds of dialogue among us (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions [Nostra Aetate], no. 2). However, true interreligious conversation always begins with knowledge of and grounding in one’s own faith and with catechetical formation, which depend so much on the important ministry of teaching. “Little good would come from contact with other religions, if those speaking on behalf of the Church were to offer an inadequate or very selective picture of the Christian faith” (Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, Statement on Dominus Iesus, 2000).
How do Catholics lovingly proclaim faith in Christ while respecting the differing faiths of those they encounter? This is done through “interreligious dialogue,” and by living our faith in Christ. While we always invite others to the Catholic faith, we also strive to understand—and value—what is positive in their beliefs. This work is done both by missionaries abroad and by us at home.
On the basis of trust built through love, all Catholics reach out as missionaries and confidently announce the Good News of Christ with words and deeds. The best Christian testimony is love for others.
Teaching Missionaries: Fostering the Missionary Spirit through Education
As in the past, the Holy Spirit is calling many Catholics to be missionaries across the globe. There is as great a need as ever for missionaries: more than one thousand dioceses and eparchies in the world are still considered mission territories. There are billions of people who have yet to encounter Christ face-to-face through his missionaries.
The Church in the United States must do her part in fulfilling God’s plan to reach the ends of the earth with Christ’s love. It is vitally important that those who are involved in the teaching ministry of the Church spread the Word. There are many ways to accomplish this: forming a network of concern and prayer for missions; inviting others to consider becoming missionaries; encouraging others to support missions with financial contributions. The Holy Spirit has given to those responsible for the formation of the disciples of this age a special grace to enlighten the minds of others. It is our hope that these minds will join more enthusiastically in our mission to the nations.
Mission in the Parish
Mission education must take place both in the family and in the parish. It is in the family that true Christian minds are first formed, and in the parish that families grow in faith. There are many rich opportunities to teach about mission in the parish:
One Sunday each year, the Church throughout the world publicly renews her fundamental commitment to the missionary movement. The Holy Father sends out a special catechesis for World Mission Sunday and asks the faithful to reflect upon it. Pastors and all who preach and instruct the faithful need to take seriously the meaning of World Mission Sunday, with all its catechetical and sacramental implications.
This celebration, offered in the context of the Eucharist (see Redemptoris Missio, no. 81), is an opportunity for teachers to promote the mission spirit in parishes:
|“We appeal to all educators to help give Catholics a better understanding of the task and demands of mission today. Theological studies should include a strong missionary emphasis. . . . Authors of catechetical texts should highlight the missionary responsibility of every Christian so that young people may be educated from an early age in this essential aspect of the Church’s life” (To the Ends of the Earth, no. 70).|
A tremendous number of resources exist for educating about our common vocation for mission:
The feast of Pentecost paints a picture of the future Church. The apostles, the first bishops, gathered with the Mother of God and received an anointing of fire from the Holy Spirit. Pentecost was the very first Mission Sunday. The Church is founded for mission, enlivened by Christ present and acting sacramentally.
Catholics relive today this grace of Pentecost and say “Yes!” to mission. We bishops pray that all who are united with us in the apostolic mission of teaching share our fervent desire that the spirit of mission ad gentes—to the nations—will be renewed in our Church. The mission ends at the end of time, the end of Christ’s mission on earth.
Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) (October 28, 1965), in Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, NY: Costello, 1996).
Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes Divinitus) (December 7, 1965), in Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, NY: Costello, 1996).
Paul VI, On Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi) (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1975).
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, To the Ends of the Earth: A Pastoral Statement on World Mission (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1986).
John Paul II, On the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate (Redemptoris Missio) (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1990).
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Go and Make Disciples, Tenth Anniversary Edition: National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2002).
John Paul II, Message for World Mission Sunday 2004, “Eucharist And Mission” (Rome: April 19, 2004), no. 3.
John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Provinces of Boston and Hartford (U.S.A.) on Their Ad Limina Visit (Rome: September 2, 2004), no. 4.
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