By Cardinal Justin Rigali
The spirit of the Church is always one of “mission,” and so we dwell on that aspect of her identity this week.
The Most Blessed Trinity: The beginning and end of the Church’s mission
If we received a sound religious education as children, we realize that, as we progress in knowledge and grace in the Christian life, we are merely building upon basic truths which were communicated to us in our youth. One of these basic truths is that God shares His life with us. The entire mystery of our salvation and the foundation of our personal relationship with God is found in that expression, which properly-catechized children receive early on. What does this mean and how is it connected with this week’s topic?
In “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” we read: “God is love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God freely wills to communicate the glory of his blessed life.” This reality is the basis for God’s plan in relation to us, His creatures. The Catechism goes on to say that this plan “unfolds in the work of creation, the whole history of salvation after the fall, and the missions of the Son and the Spirit, which are continued in the mission of the Church” (CCC, 257).
The communion of love within the Most Blessed Trinity is manifested to us through the Eternal Word taking flesh in the womb of Mary, for the work of our salvation, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit, sent forth to “lead us into all truth.” This work of sending forth, in the spirit of love and communion, is the essence of God’s Trinitarian love. The word “mission” has its origin in the Latin root mittere, which means “to send,” and missus, meaning “sent.” Hopefully, we are beginning to realize that the very foundation of the Church is based on the concept of “being sent.”
The interior yearning of the human person
We live in an age of great technological progress. I understand that there are many who anxiously await the release of the latest technological device. Indeed, we often read of the lines of people waiting for hours, as the latest technological model becomes available for sale. In many ways, there is certainly no harm in this. In fact, on this page we have often spoken of the wonders of modern technology.
However, we also know that, along with these remarkable scientific advances, there is a restlessness and lack of fulfillment within human society. There are signs of this all around us, and many studies and statistics confirm these facts. This reality can probably be best summed up in the famous phrase of St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
This “restlessness” is the seed placed within us as creatures of God, made in His image and endowed with the power of reason. The fact that we are His creatures imprints upon us the image of His love. The ability to reason makes us look at the world around us and conclude that there must be one greater than we, who brought all of this into existence and maintains it in wonderful order. When we seek peace or fulfillment without responding to the call of those basic needs, frustration and a lack of fulfillment is often the result. This is often true even in highly technologically advanced societies.
The mission of Jesus is to reconcile us to the Father and introduce us into that spirit of loving communion found in the life of the Most Blessed Trinity. For this, His Father sent Him into the world and for this the Spirit has been sent to the living Church Jesus founded. Therefore, the Church also has a “mission,” which is to bring all to the knowledge and love of Jesus, who was sent by the Father and who sent the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, for God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
The mission of the Church
The “Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church” of the Second Vatican Council teaches that, according to the command of Jesus, “the mission of the Church is fulfilled by that activity which makes her fully present to all people and nations. She undertakes this activity in obedience to Christ’s command and in response to the grace and love of the Holy Spirit” (Ad Gentes, 5).
We all know that, from the earliest days of the Church, the work of the Church has been missionary. The followers of Jesus, beginning with the Apostles and their successors, to whom this work was principally entrusted, sought to continue and fulfill the mission of Jesus by preaching and teaching “to the ends of the earth.” The account of this work, beginning with the Acts of the Apostles, through the early centuries of persecution, to the centuries of great growth and extension, to the ruptures of schism and the harm done by human and sinful elements, to the decline of once-flourishing local churches and the growth of new ones has been a story of great faith, self-sacrifice, and adventure.
The history of evangelization is filled with the zeal of those who left all things in order to preach the Gospel. Each country and region of the world can relate the stories of those who evangelized their particular part of the vineyard of the Lord. Very often, this work of evangelization was accompanied by initial persecution, misunderstanding and even death. It was also accompanied, at times, by human weakness or national pride, which sometimes sought to impose a foreign culture along with the message of the Gospel.
Our own country has seen a marvelous example of missionary work, both in the work accomplished here by the early missionaries and the remarkable generosity of so many men and women who have gone forth from our country to bring the message of Jesus to other parts of the world.
Religious communities of men and women such as Maryknoll, founded for foreign missionary work and Glenmary, founded for the “home missions” come to mind. The blood shed by the North American martyrs in the early days of the Church’s mission work in our part of the world has certainly been the seed of great growth of the Gospel in North America. We also do not forget the mission of those who labor in our parishes and schools, always seeking the same goal: the preaching and teaching of Jesus.
The work of the missions is not meant to be “foreign”
Although missionaries often go from one part of the world, which has already been evangelized, to another part of the world that may not have heard the Gospel, the Catholic faith is always universal. This is one of the “marks” or characteristics of the Church of Christ. The history of evangelization in our own country and in many other parts of the world often began with missionaries arriving from other parts of the world. However, the ultimate goal is always to make the Church a part of the newly-evangelized countries, and to make them an integral part of the Church.
In the century that has just passed, we have seen dramatic examples of this, especially in Africa and parts of Asia. Within less than a century, foreign Bishops, priests and religious men and women have been replaced by natives of many recently-evangelized countries.
A recent event in a religious society that has served in Africa for over a century highlights what we have just pointed out. The Missionaries of Africa are a society of apostolic life, founded in 1868 by Father, later Cardinal, Charles Lavigerie. Cardinal Lavigerie, who was French, founded this missionary society to spread the Gospel in Africa and the Middle East. They were known for many years as the “White Fathers,” because of the white robe they adopted as their religious habit, which was so similar to the attire worn in parts of the countries they evangelized.
This society recently elected their first African Superior General, bringing the work begun by Cardinal Lavigerie full circle. The other interesting aspect of the missionary work in Africa is that parts of Africa were actually some of the first places evangelized by the early Church.
At the canonization of the martyrs of Uganda in 1964, Pope Paul VI summarized this remarkable fact. Speaking of the courage of Saint Charles Lwanga and his companions, and not failing to mention the Anglican missionaries who also died for Christ, Pope Paul said: “This is a page worthy in every way to be added to the annals of that Africa of earlier times which we, living in this era and being men of little faith, never expected to be repeated. These African martyrs herald the dawn of a new age” (Homily, 18 October 1964).
We must always expect to be surprised when we see the fruits of the missionary work of the Church. Then again, we should not be surprised because it is the continuation of the mission of the Most Blessed Trinity!
24 June 2010