04/28/2014, 00.00
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The two Popes Saints united in mission to all peoples

by Piero Gheddo
Already in the inaugural Mass of his pontificate, Pope John , who as a young man wanted to enter PIME, said that the Pope's most important quality is his apostolic zeal towards those sheep who are not in Christ’s fold. And John Paul II wrote, "My travels in Latin America, Asia and Africa have a eminently missionary purpose".

Milan (AsiaNews) - I felt great joy for the two new Saints of the Church, John XXIII and John Paul II. As Vicars of Christ in the Church universal their actions were wide-ranging, encompassing all areas of Christian life and relations with the world around them. As a missionary I see them united by a continuity in having promoted the Churches' missionary outreach to the ends of the earth; and not just in the initial proclamation of Christ to the peoples, but in their focus on urging us to go beyond Christ's flock to evangelize non-Christians and non-believers which fostered in today's Church the spirit of the early Christian communities who were animated by the fire of Holy Spirit, the principal agent of all mission.

Cardinal Roncalli and PIME

I knew the two new saints well. On 3 March 1958, the then Patriarch of Venice Card. Angelo Roncalli came to Milan to bring to PIME the remains of our founder (in 1850) , the Servant of God Msgr. Angelo Ramazzotti, his predecessor in Venice, today buried in the church of St. Francis Xavier. Roncalli said that having studied the lives of the Patriarchs of Venice : "I am profoundly and sincerely convinced that the title Saint at the Altar of the Saints truly befits Msgr. Ramazzoti". He urged PIME to open his cause for beatification, which our institution, being not religious but secular clergy of the Lombardy diocese, had never thought of doing. There is a curious episode relating to those days spent by Card. Roncalli in Milan. He had arrived in Milan, March 2 at noon. That afternoon, he visited the PIME and Theological Seminary, he later called Father Mauro Mezzadonna and I to his office (next to his bedroom ) and told us: "You are young priests and journalists, I read your articles in "The Catholic Missions" and "Italy" magazines. Read this speech that I will give tomorrow in the presence of all the bishops of Lombardy, tell me what you think". And we read the speech, I advised him to "use shorter sentences which are in use today". Then he asked about the PIME magazine, his simplicity was moving. The next day, before leaving for Venice, he handed me a letter in a sealed envelope, in which he praised the magazine PIME "which I read as a young man and still read with great pleasure".

On March 18, 1963 , three months before his death (June 3, 1963) , he gifted the house he was born in in Sotto il Monte to PIME and blessed, at the Vatican, the first stone of the new seminary ( I had brought to Rome wrapped in a pre-war Mickey Mouse comic, there were no highways and the car went at a maximum of 70 km per hour!), which was later built next to his birthplace, now conserved in its original state and the destination of many pilgrimages. An intimate ceremony between the Pope and a handful of PIME missionaries. John XXIII spoke in Bergamasc dialect and said, "If you build fast, I will come to inaugurate the seminary". And then he added that in the Bergamo seminary they used to read the missionary magazines, several clerics had entered PIME and came to speak to us about the missions. "I myself - he added - was in love with the missions and I asked my bishop to be allowed enter your institution. He told me to continue my theological studies at the seminary to be ordained a diocesan priest, then I could go on the missionaries. Yet, when I was ordained, he appointed me his private secretary and I followed the holy obedience of God's will".

And then , in the 1920's, as director of the Pontifical Missions, he had a close working relationship with Blessed Father Paolo Manna, whom he described as "the Christopher Columbus of missions". A further sign of his closeness to the missions and PIME is when, in September 1962 , he named me one of the Council "experts" for the Decree Ad Gentes and the director of L'Osservatore Romano, Raimondo Manzini, called me as editor of section dedicated to the "Council", with the task of following the theme of missions and interviewing the bishops from the mission territories.

The "Princeps Pastorum" dedicated to the mission of the laity

In the homily for his coronation as Roman Pontiff (4 November 1958), Pope John XXIII stated that the Pope 's most important quality is his apostolic zeal towards the sheep not yet in the fold of Christ. He added : "This is the missionary problem in all its vastness and beauty. This is the concern of the Roman Pontificate, the first, if not the only one". There were many texts of this nature at the beginning of his pontificate. In fact, one of his first encyclicals was "Princeps Pastorum" (28 November 1959) , published a year after he was elected Pope and on the 40th anniversary of "Maximum Illud " (1919).

This very important text was the first almost exclusively dedicated to the clergy and laity of the local missions. Western aid and missionaries were still needed , but the Pope emphasized the vitality of the responsibility of the young Churches, to give new vigor to the first proclamation of Christ to virgin peoples and cultures. Pius XII with the "Fidei Donum" (1957) spoke of the "lay missionary", but was referring to the lay volunteers from the West who went to help the missionaries. Instead, only two years later, Pope John XXIII spoke of the spiritual and missionary formation, first of the local clergy and then, especially the local laity. He stated that the formation of the baptized must respond "to the needs of the time and put them in a position to accept the responsibility they will face for the welfare and development of the local church". In other words , John XXIII , after describing the historical development of positive mission to the peoples, says the young local Churches are now mature enough to take full responsibility for the missionary work towards their own people: the initial proclamation of Christ and works charity, education, culture and the various activities of evangelization and Christian formation.

The previous missionary encyclicals were Papal appeals to the Catholic world in favor of the non-Christian world. Pope John, while not concealing this aspect, turned his attention to young Christians, making them the protagonists of  mission to the peoples in their countries. A critical step because it gave utmost importance to the catechists, Catholic Action and other associations of lay formation (such as the "Legion of Mary" which was very active in missions at the time) .

"The Council will be a Pentecost for the Church"

The basic novelty of the Pope from Sotto il Monte, for the evangelization of all peoples and all men, was the convening of the Second Vatican Council January 15, 1959, three months after he became Pontiff of the Universal Church. Calling the Council, John XXIII proposed the same three goals:

  • 1 ) the internal renewal of the Church ("update")
  • 2 ) the gathering of all Christians through the Holy Spirit and ecumenical initiatives,
  • 3) The manifestation to the non-Christian world of a credible Church that proclaims the "Good News" of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Savior of all men.

Nel volume "Missione senza se e senza ma" (Emi 2013, pagg. 255) spiego le difficoltà incontrate dall'Ad Gentes, dovute  alla diversa visione che avevano della missione ai non cristiani i vescovi che venivano dalle missioni e dall'America Latina (circa 800 su 2500) e gli altri; non c'è stato il tempo necessario per maturare bene l'Ad Gentes, che è un buon Decreto, ma incompleto e questo spiega perché Giovanni Paolo II, nel XXV anniversario dell'Ad Gentes (1990), ha voluto pubblicare l'enciclica "Redemptoris Missio", appunto per "aggiornare" e "contestualizzare" l'Ad Gentes ai tempi nuovi del mondo non cristiano.

In the book " Missione senza se e senza ma" [Mission without ifs and buts] ( EMI , 2013, p. 255) I explain the difficulties encountered by the mission Ad Gentes , due to the different vision that, the bishops who came from the missions and Latin America (approximately 800 out of 2500 ), and others had of the mission to non-Christians; there was not enough time to mature the Ad Gentes, which is a good, but incomplete Decree, and this explains why Pope John Paul II, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ad Gentes (1990), wanted to publish the Encyclical "Redemptoris Missio", precisely to "update" and "contextualize" Ad Gentes to the new times of the non-Christian world.

The Council was a wonderful experience of faith and the universal mission of the Church, it raised great hopes in all believers, but especially in the missionary world. The Pope from Sotto il Monte had said: The Council will be a new Pentecost for the Church, It seemed as if the whole world were ready to receive the proclamation of Jesus Christ , and I was often reminded of the slogan with which the beginning of the 1900 had ended the first World Congress of Protestant Churches and missionary societies: "Convert the world to Christ by the year 2000".  It seemed a plausible goal to  me, given the transparent and welcoming face of the Catholic Church. With the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII and Paul VI had made the whole Church is missionary.

The earthquake of "Sixties" and the crisis of faith in the West

History, of course, then went in a very different direction. When the Vatican Council ended (7 December 1965) , with the Motu Proprio "Ecclesiae Sanctae" (6 August 1966), Paul VI published the rules for applying Council's decisions to the daily life of the faithful and of dioceses, parishes, religious institutes. But it had already given birth to theological conferences, journals (eg "Concilium" ) and a Church journalism that started the "flight forward" (or backward? ) not commenting, explaining and inviting readers to apply the documents of the Council, but assuming what they believed the Council Fathers really wanted to say. It was written that "the spirit of the Council" went well beyond the conciliar texts, often viewed as overly timid and incomplete. This is turn gave rise to "prophets" who divided the Christian people talking about the " Vatican III " that would complete Vatican II, assuming new forms of Christian and priestly life.

Communities of believers were founded, with their priests, who lived "in the spirit of the Council" but did not obey the bishop and were a source of division and scandal, amplified by the media. The post-conciliar period met with the upheavals of 1968 an became a time of great confusion, doubts, uncertainties, the period of crisis of faith and Christian life began of which we are still grieving witnesses: Diminished religious practice, many priests who abandon the priesthood to experience a "new way of being a priest". A certain theology disembodied from reality undermined the foundations of the missionary ideal, as intended by Vatican II.

The crisis of the missionary ideal of the Christian West, rooted in the crisis of faith that wracked the entire Church, took everyone by surprise and has deeply divided the missionary forces (missionary institutes, lay missionaries, magazines, missionary animation, etc. . ). One significant example (I remember many!): In the summer of 1968 as I have mentioned several times before, I participated in the missionary Study Week in Leuven ( "Liberté des Jeunes Eglises"), organized by my unforgettable Jesuit friend Father Joseph Masson, Professor of Missiology at the Gregorian University. Many voices not from missionaries on the ground, but scholars, theologians, missiologists hurt me, because they expressed strong doubts as whether to send European missionaries to other continents; it would be much better , they said, to let the young churches reach their maturity and organize themselves according to their own ideas and cultures. I thought: how is it possible to support this thesis, only three years ago when all of the bishops of the missions expressed a radically opposite view, asking for new missionaries? I had read all of the interventions by the missionary bishops. No one had said anything like that, indeed, with the independence of their countries, they felt the need for stronger links with the See of Peter and the oldest Catholic Churches.


Paul VI is the twentieth century's martyred Pope

This is just one example of the mentality that infiltrated and spread in the post-conciliar Church. The crisis of the "missio ad gentes" was manifested in the closure of the three "weeks of missionary studies" that had been held in Milan from 1960 (closed in 1969) , Burgos ( 1970) and Leuven (1975). The latest editions of these high level religious-cultural meetings had evidenced the discomfort and many contrasts in the field of missions​​, echoed in the secular press of each nation to the point that it was seen fit not to continue in order to avoid deepening the divisions.

Paul VI had brought forward and closed the Council, an extraordinary event that opened new horizons to the Church; an educated man, meek and humble, he understood the modern times and communicated in an way that was understandable to all (please read his documents!).  His first encyclical "Ecclesiae Sanctae" (1964) indicated dialogue with the world (giving and receiving) as a method of proclamation of the Gospel in modern times. Yet, in the early seventies, after the violent and derogatory protests (by Catholics ) following the publication of "Humanae Vitae" (1968), which deeply affected him , he felt intimidated by the chaos of the times and lacked the strength to react and bring the flock of Christ to live according to the guidelines of Vatican II. I got to know him well and up close as Archbishop of Milan and later at the Council and on some of his Papal trips (especially India and Africa) . In the seventies, he was truly a Man ​​on the Cross, I always say that he was "the twentieth century's martyred Pope", especially since not a few intellectuals and theologians, associations and church groups, followed the overwhelming cultural wave that led to secularism, relativism, a "scientific" reading of society (ie Marxism) . No one dared to say out loud and clear that a "new world " is possible, but only starting from Christ. Paul VI said it, he repeated it, but his voice was heard only by ordinary believers and those who were called "papists" in a negative sense.

"John Paul II, the forward attack for the missions"

This is what an elderly Tuscan Dominican missionary Fr. Schiavone, who in 1982 was in Pakistan for the last forty years, told me. I met him in Faisalabad and he told me about the Pope's visit the previous year in Karachi, then capital of Pakistan, and the enthusiasm that had aroused in the city stadium full of young Muslims who applauded him. He said: "We have been missionaries in this country for decades, we are tolerated and sometimes persecuted, but we'd never have even imagined being able to witness a similar scene: a crowd of Muslims cheering our Pope! We cried with joy" . He concluded by saying: "We have found our missionary forward attack".

Nell'ottobre 1978 entra in scena il secondo Santo Pontefice, Giovanni Paolo II, che veniva dalla Polonia, una Chiesa del tutto diversa da quelle dell'Europa occidentale, Il Sessantotto l'aveva vissuto col popolo polacco come uno stimolo per la liberazione dal comunismo, l'opposto da quanto avveniva in Italia, dove esistevano addirittura  i "Cristiani per il Socialismo". Infatti, fin dall'inizio, grazie anche alla carica vitale dei suoi 58 anni, dimostra una forza e un coraggio che spiazza tutti.

In October 1978 the second of the two Pope Saints entered the world stage, John Paul II, who was from Poland, a Church entirely different from those of Western Europe. He experienced the sixties with  Polish people as a stimulus for the liberation from communism, the opposite to what was happening in Italy, where there were even "Christians for Socialism". In fact, from the outset, thanks to the vitality of  his 58 years, he revealed a strength and courage that bowled everyone over.

The most striking example is what I witnessed in Puebla, Mexico in January 1978 , when he opened the Celam Assembly (of the Latin American bishops ). The preparation of the document was set on the theme "See , Judge , Act ", which brought attention to economic, political and social issues: see the situation of the peoples of Latin America, judge who is at fault , then act to liberate people from oppression. The Pope, in his speech said that the initial preparation of the program should be changed: " To liberate the peoples of Latin America, we must start again from Christ".

He clearly reaffirmed that the mission of the Church is religious in nature, bringing salvation in Christ, first freeing man from personal sin and then changing the oppressive society through the action and witness of believers in Christ. It was a strong criticism of the first "Liberation Theology" that politicized the social action of the Church and had divided the churches and believers in Latin America. But the Polish Pope did not at all deny the positive aspect of this theological movement; God's Word is an instrument of liberation of man from all evil, personal and social sin. It was the basic approach of many trips to non- Christian nations: "My travels in Latin America, Asia and Africa - he wrote in his message for World Mission Sunday 1981 - they have an eminently missionary purpose. I wanted to announce the Gospel myself, becoming a type of  itinerant catechist and encourage all those who are at his service". John Paul II was deeply in love with Jesus Christ.  He spoke of Christ as a living person he had encountered and fallen in love with. He said :"You are truly human to the extent that you allow the love of Christ to penetrate, engage, enlighten and change you".

U.S. President Jimmy Carter, receiving him at the White House in 1979, said to him: "You forced us to re-examine ourselves. You have reminded us of the value of human life and the spiritual force that is the most vital resource of people and nations" . He added : " The taking care of others makes us stronger and gives us courage, while the blind race for selfish ends - to have more rather than being more - leaves us empty, pessimistic, lonely, fearful". The "New York Times" wrote: " This man has a charismatic power unknown to all other world leaders . It is like Christ has come among us". This is the most beautiful eulogy one can give to the successor of Peter.

John Paul II traveled to give a message, as well as of faith and conversion to Christ, of brotherhood and solidarity at a universal level; to bring all the people and all the sufferings and injustices of the world to the fore. This is real attention to humanity: not just a comforting word or protest, but the strength and charisma to take on all the problems of mankind, giving them universal resonance. When the Pope was in the "favelados" of Rio de Janeiro, with the lepers of Marituba in the Amazon, the Indians of Oaxaca in Mexico or the fishermen of Baguio in the Philippines; when he strongly condemned all violations of human rights in front of dictators like Marcos (Philippines), Pinochet (Chile), Stroessner (Paraguay), Mobutu (Zaire), Fidel Castro (Cuba), the Sandinistas (in Nicaragua) ; when he spoke of the value of African culture (in Benin) and of "development with a human face " (Gabon), he made lasting impressions on the consciences of the people, well beyond those who were listening to him at that time. On many occasions a suffering and humiliated people (I think of Equatorial Guinea just out of the dreadful dictatorship of Macias Nguema ) received from the Pope's visit the providential incentive to take up the path of reconciliation and reconstruction with courage.

In Mexico, John Paul II solemnly took the defenses of the Indians. In Oaxaca, an Indian said, "Your Holiness, we live worse than cows and pigs. We have lost our land, we who were free, now we are slaves". John Paul II held his head in his hands and responded saying: "The Pope is with these masses of Indians and poor farmers, abandoned to a level unworthy of life, sometimes harshly exploited. Again we cry: Respect man! He is the image of God! Evangelize so that this becomes a reality, so that the Lord may transform hearts and humanize the political and economic systems , starting from a responsible commitment man". The most important Mexican newspaper, "Excelsior", an exponent of Mexican Masonry, which had opposed the Pope's visit, commented: "After five centuries of oppression of our Indians and peasants, it had to be the Pope from Rome to tell us these things. He made us feel ashamed to belong to the ruling classes in Mexico".

The adventure of the missionary encyclical

In September 1989 , while I was at the World and Mission editorial office in Milan, the phone rings : "I am the Pope's secretary.  Can you look at your diary and tell me if you are free, October 3?". "Yes, I'm free, why?'. "The Pope has invited you to a meeting with him and lunch, to discuss the new encyclical on the missions that he has planned".

The phone call seemed improbable, I thought it was a joke. Instead, once I checked, it was true. Thus my collaboration in "Redemptoris Missio" as an editor came about. I lived in the general house of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI ) with the superior general Father Marcello Zago . I had received several outlines of the encyclical and notes prepared by a commission that had asked the Episcopal Conferences, theological faculties, missionary institutes, other relevant agencies and personalities of the missions; and a few pages of John Paul II on what he meant to say.

Thus, from October 3 to 7 December 1989, I worked 12-13 hours a day at the typewriter.  I did not even read the newspapers or look at the news in order not be distracted. An exciting job though tiring a race against time, interrupted only by prayer and a walk in the evening after dinner in the vast park with Father Zago . When I finished writing a chapter, Zago read it,  suggested some corrections or additions and then took them to the Secretary of State and the Pope; a few days after I received the comments of the Pope, written in pencil or with ballpoint pen: I would like to add this here, explain this better, quote this passage of the Gospel ...

Twice he wrote: "It reads well, so go ahead": And again: "Bravo, it is really well written". I put so much passion and commitment into it that I did not feel fatigued by the work at all, in fact the direct service to the Pope and to the Churches missionary outreach excited me: I had never been able to go on a mission as a journalist and finally obedience to superiors rewarded me. The work was so much, that after ten days we also summoned father Domenico Colombo, a PIME missionary, theology specialist and expert in ecumenism and dialogue with non-Christian religions: he made ​​a significant contribution, even inventing some new settings for themes.

Once the first draft of the encyclical was given to the Pope on December 7, 1989 , I was recalled to Rome a month later for the second draft (March 1990) and twenty days later for the third (July 1990) : the first and second text, in fact, were sent to people and organizations to be consulted. Each sent their remarks, the Pope then gave directives to proceed to the second and third draft of the document. Redemptoris Missio is dated December 7, 1990, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the conciliar decree Ad Gentes , but was presented on 22 January 1991 after the time required for translation and printing in the various languages.

Redemptoris Missio was considered the most representative encyclical of Pope John Paul II, several have praised the simple and straightforward style. Card. Godfried Danneels of Brussels wrote that it is "the program of action for the next millennium". The efforts of Cardinal Joseph Tomko, prefect of Propaganda Fide , to obtain an encyclical to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ad Gentes should be mentioned.  Ad Gentes was the only one of the 16 Vatican II documents commemorated and updated by John Paul II with an encyclical. The recurring idea at the time, even in the upper echelons of the Roman Curia, was that an encyclical on the missions was too much: it is not the time to emphasize the specific value of the mission ad genetes, since the whole Church is missionary and all peoples need mission ...

The fact that the Pope wanted a specific encyclical on the initial proclamation of the Gospel to non-Christians, has an important significance which must be remembered! Indeed the encyclical says, " My direct contact with peoples who do not know Christ has convinced me even more of the urgency of missionary activity" (No. 1) ; and adds several times with various expressions of these concepts : "We want to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church " (No. 14); "The missionary activity ... is one of the Church's fundamental activities: it is essential and never-ending" (No. 31) ; "Missionary activity is still the greatest challenge for the Church 's mission ad gentes ... is still in its infancy " (n. 40).

Card. Tomko, at a dinner with Fr. Colombo and I, said that John Paul II had chosen to write the encyclical "to clarify the theological confusion built around the mission ad gentes, to dialogue with non-Christian religions and the relationship between the proclamation of Christ and the development of individuals and peoples". In fact, Redemptoris Missio develops these and other points , bringing the its primary value to mission, proclaiming salvation in Christ to all people, with all the positive consequences for humans and human history that follow. Unable to synthesize the encyclical, a booklet of 82 pages, in a few words, I will just say that I was admiring the further work and study  that Redemptoris Missio still generates today, years later. The encyclical is the work of the Pope because he decides, he says what he wants to say and how to say it. But it passes through the mediation, counsel and writing of many who read the various outlines and drafts. In the first, but also in the second and third draft of the document, I have examined the material that arrived as a response to the Pope's questions and to already prepared texts. Rich and interesting material, that John Paul II read, evaluated and judged worthy or not to include in the encyclical. It is a remarkable fact, of which few are aware. It points to the incredibly careful and precise preparation that goes into the pontifical documents of the Holy See, through the work of the Secretariat of State and the Nunciatures.



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