'Mission without ifs and buts,' Fr Gheddo's last work
Rome (AsiaNews) - On the eve of the last conclave, the Argentine cardinal who became Pope warned, "there are two images of the Church: the Church that evangelises and comes out of itself, [. . .] and the worldly Church, living within itself, of itself, for itself." The sad tale of the Catholic Church in recent decades is all these words. The missionary Church, which seemed to be at the zenith of its outward thrust at the start of the Second Vatican Council, now saw a sudden collapse, largely giving way to a Church that is and was more "open", but so open to the world that the latter could be saved without knowing or accepting Christ; a Church that need not proclaim the Gospel, or seek conversion and baptism; in short, a Church without a mission.
Father Piero Gheddo was an extraordinary witness of this fall. A missionary for sixty years, he saw things from the front row, every phase, which he recounts and analyses, revealing things to which only his notebook was privy. He is especially knowledgeable about the background to two crucial documents, to which he contributed a great deal, namely a council decree on missions and the encyclical with which John Paul a quarter of a century ago tried to revive in the Church the missionary awareness that seemed on the verge of being lost.
When the Council opened, Fr Gheddo was immediately summoned as an expert witness. Soon, he realised though that "the mission to the nations was viewed as the last or next to last wheel on ecclesiastic wagon." What in the end became the Ad Gentes decree went through seven drafts. Half way through the work, the whole thing was scrapped with strict orders to cut it down to a short list of "proposals".
However, the unflagging action of persuasion by the most involved Council Fathers revived the document's fortunes. Among them were "missionaries who had come out of the forest, and just by looking at them, one could not say no," Fr Gheddo said. Yet, "there was a sense of apprehension in the commission, almost one of despair among some members." The miracle came towards the end of the Council. After more, exhausting drafts, the decree was approved in the last public meeting with 2,394 votes in favour and 5 against, the closest we ever got to unanimity.
Right after the council, the dream of a new missionary Pentecost gave way to the opposite as evangelisation came to be seen as mere social activism. But the Father did not send his Son to earth to dig wells; the Church too cannot be seen as just a first aid agency. To counter this trend, Paul VI summoned a synod on evangelisation in 1974. The following year, he issued an apostolic exhortation, Evangelii nuntiandi, in which he strongly reaffirmed that "even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run [. . .] if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed."
In the end, "No one heeded Paul VI's words," Father Gheddo writes. His successor, John Paul II, met with a wall of incomprehension as well when in 1990, he issued his encyclical Redemptoris Missio. Even before its final version was written, opposition went into action. 'Useless,' some argued, 'since the Council had said all that needed to be said,' even though Karol Wojtyla wanted to go much further than what the Ad Gentes decree had dared to say, Fr Gheddo noted.
When John Paul II had Fr Gheddo come to Rome to work on the encyclical, months of riveting work involving "Writing, praying, eating and sleeping, and nothing else," began for the missionary. "When one chapter was done, it was sent to the pope, who a few days later sent it back with comments scribbled on the margins in pencil or pen, saying: 'Add this, explain that better, cite this passage from the Gospel.' Once the first draft was done; a second and a third followed; each sent in secret to a number of people for their comments. The Secretariat of State coordinated the whole thing, adding its own input, toning down certain things and erasing others deemed "unsuitable for a pope." Yet, Fr Gheddo's journalistic style survived, just as Pope John Paul II had wanted. Of his pontificate's 14 encyclicals, Redemptoris Missio is the best written.
Then Benedict XVI came. As pope, he too was very sensitive to the task of evangelisation, and he too was largely misunderstood. On 3 December 2007, the feast day of the foremost missionary, Francis Xavier, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a 'Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization,' in which it diagnosed with a great deal of realism the missionary anaemia experienced by today's Church. In the note, "they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion, it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without" it. Once again, even this document seems to have fallen on deaf ears, "almost ignored by the Catholic and missionary press," Fr Gheddo writes.
Yet, despite everything, the book ends on a positive note of. The collapse of missionary vocations in the old world has found its match in the vitality of young Churches, which are also undertaking a missionary task outside of their own countries. In Africa and Asia, Catholicism is expanding faster than ever. However, the leaders of these young Churches are convinced that the role played by Italian, European, and North American missionaries should not be relegated to the past. Citing a Cameroonian bishop, Fr Gheddo said, "We certainly have a lively faith and we thank the Lord for that, but it is an emotional, superficial faith that has not yet penetrated deeply. If we do not get more foreign missionaries, I am convinced that in 20 or 30 years, we would go back to the trees and make sacrifices to the spirits. Missionaries brought us the breath of the universal Church, which has a history and a tradition that we do not have. "
Now, under Pope Francis, the challenge continues. In this book, Fr Gheddo tells it as no one else did before.
GHEDDO P., Missione senza se e senza ma (Mission without ifs and buts), Emi, Bologna 2013, p 256, €13,00