The mission ad gentes, necessary for the Church and the world
by Bernardo Cervellera

Pope Francis' Message for the 2019 World Mission Day highlights the announcement of the Gospel to non-Christian peoples to the ends of the world. A correction to negligence and reductionism in the ecclesial world and to the manipulations and relativism of contemporary society. Mission is not just "dialogue" and "friendship". "The spreading secularism ... prevents any genuine universal fraternity".

Rome (AsiaNews) The mission ad gentes, to non-Christian peoples, is necessary for the Church and the world. This almost obvious statement is reported as a fundamental emphasis in Pope Francis' message for the October 2019 World Mission Day, published yesterday.

The statement is obvious because it is part of the mandate that Jesus left to his disciples: "Go out into all the world ..." (Mark 16:15-20; see also Matthew 28,18-20). Yet never before as today is this truth of faith neglected, reduced, misrepresented in the Church and manipulated and relativized in contemporary society.

This lack of memory and reductionism in ecclesial environments is easily observed: bishops, priests and faithful immediately reply to those who remind them of a missionary commitment on the edge of the world, that "the mission (by now) is here".

Frightened by declining mass attendence and by the lack of young people in churches, it is thought that by closely following the remianig flock ("spoiling", Pope Francis would say), the situation  can be saved. In reality, if the "Catholic" (total and universal) dimension of the missionary horizon ("to the ends of the earth") is lost, it means that the greatness of the gift received from Jesus, is reduced to some moral rule, to leaps of etiquette, to small acts of charity.

The "meaning of mission", says Pope Francis in the Message, is " divine life is not a product for sale – we do not practise proselytism – but a treasure to be given, communicated and proclaimed". The mission ad gentes is an overabundance of love received, of proven joy that overflows, beyond any boundary, to reach out to all cultures.

Another typical ecclesial reduction of the mission ad gentes is when one speaks of the mission only as "dialogue" and "friendship". Of course, both these dimensions are the daily life of a missionary, but love for the people to whom one is sent increases the desire that these peoples can encounter and know the strength and life of the dead and risen, in baptism and in the Eucharist.

In fact, in some parts of the missionary world there is a “stand in” mass without the sacraments, to the point of excluding them from the path of faith, as overly "identifying" elements, in preferance of a more generic and lukewarm communal religious atmosphere.

The Message instead decisively emphasizes: "Baptism gives us rebirth in God’s own image and likeness, and makes us members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church. In this sense, baptism is truly necessary for salvation for it ensures that we are always and everywhere sons and daughters in the house of the Father, and never orphans, strangers or slaves. What in the Christian is a sacramental reality – whose fulfillment is found in the Eucharist – remains the vocation and destiny of every man and woman in search of conversion and salvation".

The Message immediately removes the idea that the mission is a kind of political and colonizing conquest of other cultures and religions. The centenary of the Maximum illud, to which the extraordinary missionary month of October 2019 is dedicated, and from which the document of Francis moves, reiterates that "the universal destination of salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ" demands "an end to all forms of nationalism and ethnocentrism, or the merging of the preaching of the Gospel with the economic and military interests of the colonial powers". But this does not mean excluding a "transfiguration" of the cultures and religions of the world, "so that no culture remains closed in itself and no people is isolated but open to the universal communion of faith".

As an example, the Message quotes what Benedict XVI told the Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, and what Francis makes it his own: " Yet what did the acceptance of the Christian faith mean for the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean? For them, it meant knowing and welcoming Christ, the unknown God whom their ancestors were seeking, without realizing it, in their rich religious traditions. Christ is the Saviour for whom they were silently longing. It also meant that they received, in the waters of Baptism, the divine life that made them children of God by adoption; moreover, they received the Holy Spirit who came to make their cultures fruitful, purifying them and developing the numerous seeds that the incarnate Word had planted in them, thereby guiding them along the paths of the Gospel… The Word of God, in becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, also became history and culture. The utopia of going back to breathe life into the pre-Columbian religions, separating them from Christ and from the universal Church, would not be a step forward: indeed, it would be a step back. In reality, it would be a retreat towards a stage in history anchored in the past".

At this point it is also clear why the mission ad gentes is necessary for the world. It warns against covering up missionary interests with "nationalist" and "ethnocentric" interests, from "colonial power", as the Maximum illud already required. But at the same time, it warns against excluding the religious dimension and the Gospel from the life of peoples. The Message sheds light on the dangers of secularization, which produces indifference and enmity: " Today’s rampant secularism, when it becomes an aggressive cultural rejection of God’s active fatherhood in our history, is an obstacle to authentic human fraternity, which finds expression in reciprocal respect for the life of each person. Without the God of Jesus Christ, every difference is reduced to a baneful threat, making impossible any real fraternal acceptance and fruitful unity within the human race”.

We witness this every day: in Asia, many conflicts that are passed off as "religious", are actually produced by an atheistic short circuit towards local religions, and by economic interests - arms sales, resource stripping, exploitation of human beings - hidden as a religious problem.

Precisely for this reason, the ad gentes missionaries are the instruments not of a religious war, but of a pacification of the world in truth. The Pope's Message states: "Faith in the Easter event of Jesus; the ecclesial mission received in baptism; the geographic and cultural detachment from oneself and one’s own home; the need for salvation from sin and liberation from personal and social evil: all these demand the mission that reaches to the very ends of the earth".