Bishop Gerald Kicanas comments on Vatican II’s call to mission in the Church.
Fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council issued Ad Gentes Divinitus (Divinely Sent to the Nations). This “Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity” remains relevant today. In it the Council Fathers made clear that are all “missionaries.”
When most of us think of “missionaries,” we picture priests, sisters and brothers going to far off lands to convert others to Christ. Most of us don’t look in the mirror and see a missionary, but we should.
The council decree aimed to “rally the forces of all the faithful.” Missionaries plant “the Church among peoples or groups who do not yet believe in Christ.” Given this reality, how can the rest of us, who do not go “forth into the whole world,” be missionaries? The decree stresses the answer is simple because missionary activity always occurs through personal example and acts of love that foster charity, justice and peace.
“For all Christians, wherever they live, are bound to show forth, by the example of their lives…that new man put on at baptism…. Thus other men, observing their good works, can glorify the Father…,” the decree said.
In the wake of Vatican II the church saw an explosion in the “lay apostolate.” Parishes established social ministry committees to engage all parishioners in service to those in need at home and abroad; individual Catholics got involved in civil rights, anti-poverty and peace movements. This apostolate received additional impetus from this sense of “mission” highlighted by the Council. That energy and engagement continues today and finds an outlet in charity that is motivated by unconditional love of everyone.
“Christian charity truly extends to all, without distinction of race, creed, or social condition: it looks for neither gain nor gratitude,” the decree states. “For as God loved us with an unselfish love, so also the faithful should in their charity care for the human person…with the same affection with which God sought out man.”
This love in action extends to “the poor and the afflicted” in a special way, and not just in charity, the Fathers said. Love impels us to promote peace and justice, the Council Fathers stressed as they proclaimed: “Let Christians labor and collaborate with others in rightly regulating the affairs of social and economic life.” “[L]et them take part in the strivings of those peoples who, waging war on famine, ignorance, and disease, are struggling to better their way of life and to secure peace in the world. In this activity, the faithful should be eager to offer prudent aid to projects sponsored by public and private organizations, by governments, by various Christian communities, and even by non-Christian religions.”
In this regard, the church in the United States can be particularly proud of the work of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). CRS provides humanitarian and development assistance to the poorest communities in about 100 countries.
CRS stands as a tangible expression of the “evangelizing mission” of the Church, not in the sense of converting people, but in the sense of helping people — all people — based on need, not creed.
Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation, On Evangelization in the Modern World, amplified this aspect of the “Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church.” Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI reinforced this call for a “new evangelization” in which all Catholics have a role.
“Between evangelization and human advancement — development and liberation — there are in fact profound links,” Pope Paul said. Working to protect human life and dignity, especially of the poorest people, is part of the “new evangelization” that the whole Church embraces.