10/01/2012, 00.00
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The Ad Gentes decree, Vatican II’s difficult mission

by Piero Gheddo
The Decree on the Church's mission had a difficult road to follow during the Second Vatican Council: due to organizational problems of the great ecumenical gathering, but also difficulties related to the changing global reality: decolonization, localization of the Church, or refusal of foreign missionaries. The word of a witness (Part Two).

Rome (AsiaNews) - The "Ad Gentes" Decree was the last document approved at the last working day of the Second Vatican Council, 7 December 1965. The many arguments and their complexity were an almost insurmountable task already before the Council. At the end of the first session of the Council (October-December 1962), although concrete results in the field of mission were still few, the Council had expressed its most important purpose, the goal towards which all efforts tended: the renewal of pastoral care for the re-Christianization of the Christian world, new impulse in the search for unity with our separated Brethren and a clear view of the "missionary outreach" given all the issues at stake.

For Ad Gentes the decree, in the pre-preparatory phase of the Council (17 May 1959-5 June 1960) all those who were entitled to express their opinion were consulted with their "votes" printed in large volumes (the one on Asia 662 pages, on Africa 580 pages). The commission "De Missionibus" met for the first time October 24, 1960 with 57 members, under the chairmanship of Card. Peter Agagianian Prefect of Propaganda Fide: five subcommittees were formed.

In 1961-1962 the Preparatory Commission was actively working and printed seven draft texts for as many topics to be discussed at the council. In 1962 Pope John XXIII appointed the members of the Council's commission on mission (16 elected and 9 appointed), with the "experts" (about thirty, including the undersigned), who would participate in the plenary meetings of the Committee, the first on October 28, 1962, the second March 20 to 29, 1963 for the complete overhaul of the draft, etc..

The journey of the "Ad Gentes" Decree was labor intensive and not without sharp contrast. Following its "iter" and talking about it with several members of the Committee, much more experienced than I, we all would conclude by saying: Who knows how we will ever finish this! There were so many proposals, which were often conflicting, the timing was so tight ... Constantly new and contradictory suggestions would arrive, various texts were sent back to the committee from the Council chamber with many "juxta modum" to insert (text adopted, but with changes requested); few in committee worked full-time, the majority did not have sufficient time or expertise.

The difficulties in drafting the text arose from five facts:

1) From the outset of the first draft, everything was provisional: we had to wait for the development and approval of other drafts (on the Church, on the liturgy, on the bishops and the clergy, on ecumenism, on non-Christian religions, etc.). to guide and finish the work on mission.

2) The mission "ad gentes" is exercised (depending from Propaganda Fide) on every continent, including some parts of Europe (Albania, for example), in an almost infinite variety of situations. It was not easy to draw up a document that would meet everyone's needs and the solutions proposed by the Council Fathers differed greatly on the different continents. To give just one example that I recall: the Asian churches, rich in vocations and with a long tradition of celibacy in local religions, insisted on the requirement to maintain priestly celibacy, Latin America and Africa, instead requested that the issue be discussed and some bishops even demanded that it be abolished or the admission of married clergy under certain conditions. Instead, Asia was particularly interested in inculturation and interreligious dialogue, the other continents much less.

3) During the time of the Council very rapid and radical changes were occurring in the non-Christian world, which made future missions problematic: the independence and birth of young nations, awareness of their cultures and religions, strong opposition to foreign missionaries, the multiplication of indigenous bishops, the urgent need for strong measures for the "inculturation" of the Gospel, the difficult relations between the Church and political authorities, lack of rules for the participation of the dioceses of the countries of ancient Christian missionary activity (the "Fidei Donum" had aroused a great missionary fervor in the diocese, but the bishops of the missions were complaining about various problems, etc.). The draft to be discussed in the Council hall, prepared before the Council, according to a traditional perception of the missions, lent little attention to these new problems. It was far too different from what the council fathers indicated in their interventions. There were forms of protest from individual bishops and even two or three bishops' conferences (which never came to the fore in the press), which had impressed the members of the Committee, who at the time, were not used to these rough forms of "protest".

4) These difficulties intensified when on April 23, 1964, between the Second and the Third Session of the Council, the Secretariat of the Council sent a letter to our Committee on missions: the draft had to be reduced to a few proposals. They no longer wanted a long and reasoned text, but a simple list of suggestions! The attempt was to simplify the work of the Council and conclude with the Third Session (14 September-21 November 1964). Some basic texts tended to be quite long, others deemed less important, were limited to a few pages of suggestions. It was common voice that the cost of the council fathers (about 2,400 in all) and the machine of the Council were completely unsustainable for the Holy See. It seems that later the wealthier Bishops Conferences intervened,  especially the U.S. and Card. Spellman of New York, an expansive and friendly character symbolic of American power, and whose interventions in Latin (the language of the Council) became the subject of amusing anecdotes.

The Commission on missions worked at maximum speed round the clock to accede to this request, formulating 13 proposals. Then, as soon as the news spread among the bishops, the protests came, some of them quite vehement, such as that of Card. Frings of Cologne, who sent letters to the German bishops and others, urging them to protest, "But how is this possible! It is claimed that the missionary effort is essential to the Church, and now it is to be reduced to a few pages? Incomprehensible, impossible, unacceptable."

Given this situation, a group of bishops demanded that the document on missions be abolished and instead the material incorporated into the constitution "Lumen Gentium" (on the Church), while others, more numerous and aggressive (some of them came from missions in the forest, once glance at them was enough to know it was impossible to say no to them), they personally contacted all of the Council Fathers, one by one, gaining followers. The battle was brought to the Council hall and had a happy ending: only 311 council fathers were in favor of reducing the document on the missions to 13 proposals, 1601 demanded the decree on missions be saved in its entirety. The Council did not end with the III session, but extended into a IV, the longest of all: 14 September to 8 December 1965 (End of Part Two - to be continued).

 

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