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Global Integration of Catholic Missions in the United States Today.

Mission is the work of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit assumes and seeks human collaboration. Therefore mission always comes about and develops in a particular socioreligious context. Catholic missions in and from the United States of America are no exception.

The American Setting

The United States is a leader in many ways:

* in racial integration, welcoming immigrants of every extraction and giving them citizenship;

* in the exercise of personal and group freedom, including that of religion;

* in the economy, producing wealth and work, spreading worldwide;

* in scientific and technological progress, attracting the greatest experts in the world and finding new ways of doing things;

* in modern social communications, exporting its film productions and its various news networks and giving rise to a globalized culture.

For many of these reasons American society appears as a precursor of the emerging world that is globalized and pluralistic. Many of these manifestations can be considered not only as human achievements but also as God's gifts.

The religious impact of the United States in the world is a recent and important fact. The Christian churches of evangelical and charismatic tradition have a widespread and dynamic impact both within the country and worldwide. They have a clear missionary thrust for spreading the Gospel. The attention given by these churches to immigrants of whatever origin has always borne fruit in conversions and in the establishment of Christian communities. American political and cultural presence in other countries, especially in Latin America, has helped their missionary activity. The military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s supported their growth as part of a policy of diminishing the impact of the Catholic Church. In different countries many people looked, and still look, at the Unites States as a country formed of Protestant communities that were able to give rise to the socioeconomic progress of society. Aided by these attitudes, the Protestant evangelical missionary movement found expression in a variety of humanit arian programs that were normally accompanied by evangelical and ecclesial proposals. Among the characteristics of Protestant missionary efforts have been involvement of the laity in short- and long-term projects, communication between the receiving community and the benefactor, and various forms of partnership. One notes this dynamic approach also in the development and teaching of missiology in the seminaries and in the sending of missionaries for various periods of time.

The Catholic Church in the United States is generous in its financial contribution to the missions. Many American men and women have served with great generosity as missionaries in many countries. In general, however, the missionary impact of American Catholics is less visible, both abroad and within the country among new immigrants. The reasons are ambiguous. It is difficult to discern whether this lessened impact comes from attitudes that are more cautious, or from a certain fear or inferiority complex, or from a concentration on the needs of its own community.

The history of American Catholics, who came from the four winds and who have had to insert themselves into a markedly Protestant society, perhaps explains a tendency to retreat into themselves. The church had to take care of its own communities and help them become part of the country; its first priority was not missionary expansion. The time has now come, however, for the Catholic Church to be more committed to the mission ad gentes and to have a missionary approach in all her activities within the country and elsewhere. There are many signs that the church is moving in this direction.

To Whom Is Mission Directed?

The Second Vatican Council described Christ's church as missionary "by its very nature" (Ad gentes [AG], no. 2), but that does not mean that her every activity is equally missionary and that every situation has the same urgency and missionary value. John Paul II, in Redemptoris missio (RM), his missionary encyclical, indicates three distinct situations with regard to faith and evangelization. There are communities of believers toward which the church continues her pastoral care; there are groups that have lost the faith and all vital contact with the Christian community, toward which the church must undertake a new evangelization or reevangelization; and there are peoples and groups that have never received the Gospel (RM, no. 33). In regard to the third category, the pope says, "There is the situation which the Church's missionary activity addresses: peoples, groups and socio-cultural contexts in which Christ and his Gospel are not known, or which lack Christian communities sufficiently mature to be able to incarnate the faith in their own environment and proclaim it to other groups. This is mission ad gentes in the proper sense of the term" (RM, no. 33). He is talking about non-Christian peoples and groups that can be found in the different continents and countries.

Let us recall the world situation in that regard. The world population is more than six billion. Christians of all kinds make up two billion. Two-thirds of humanity are non-Christians; they do not know or accept Christ. To them is directed the mission ad gentes, entrusted by Christ to the church as her first duty. Christians all together make up over 30 percent of the population, with Catholics accounting for 17.2 percent, but they are not equally distributed. In Africa they are 14.91 percent, in the United States 26.9 percent, in Europe 41.39 percent, in Oceania 27.54 percent, and in Asia only 2.96 percent. That is why the pope invites us to be more concerned with the evangelization of Asia. Through the modern migration of peoples there are non-Christian groups established in countries that are traditionally Christian, for example Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in Europe and in North America.

In the postsynodal exhortation Ecclesia in America (EA), the pope recognizes that there are such groups in the American continent in need of a first evangelization:

Jesus Christ entrusted to his Church the mission of evangelizing all nations... Evangelization is most urgent among those on this continent who do not yet know the name of Jesus, the only name given to men and women that they may be saved (cf. Acts 4:12). Unfortunately, the name of Jesus is unknown to a vast part of humanity and in many sectors of American society. It is enough to think of the indigenous peoples not yet Christianized or of the presence of non-Christian [immigrants]....

This obliges the Church in America to be involved in the mission ad gentes. The program of a new evangelization on the American continent, to which many pastoral projects are directed, cannot be restricted to revitalizing the faith of regular believers, but must strive as well to proclaim Christ where he is not known. (EA, no. 74)

Nonetheless, the churches in America cannot limit themselves to these non-Christians in the United States. The exhortation continues, underlining the universal mission:

Likewise, the particular Churches in America are called to extend their missionary efforts beyond the bounds of the continent. They cannot keep for themselves the immense riches of their Christian heritage. They must take this heritage to the whole world and share it with those who do not yet know it. Here it is a question of many millions of men and women who, without faith, suffer the most serious kind of poverty. Faced with this poverty, it would be a mistake not to encourage an evangelizing effort beyond the continent with the excuse that there is still much to do in America or to wait until the Church in America reaches the point, basically utopian, of full maturity.

With the hope that the American continent, in accordance with its Christian vitality, will play its part in the great task of the mission ad genies, I make my own the practical proposals presented by the Synod Fathers: "to maintain a greater cooperation between sister Churches; to send missionaries (priests, religious and lay faithful) within the continent and abroad; to strengthen or create missionary institutes; to encourage the missionary dimension of consecrated and contemplative life; to give greater impetus to mission promotion, training and organization." I am sure that the pastoral zeal of the Bishops and of the sons and daughters of the Church throughout America will devise concrete plans, also at the international level, to implement with great dynamism and creativity these missionary proposals. (EA, no. 74)

Paths of Mission ad Gentes

The mission ad gentes is carried out through special activities and attitudes: "Mission is a single but complex reality, and it develops in a variety of ways. Among these ways, some have particular importance in the present situation of the Church and the world" (RM, no. 41). Various elements are underlined by the missionary encyclical, such as witness, proclamation, formation of communities and churches, inculturation, dialogue, human promotion, prayer, and contemplation. Here I would like to focus on several characteristics of missionary activity.

Charity. All authentic missionary activity expresses something deeper. Mission outreach demands a quality of being. That which characterizes and animates all missionary activity is charity. The mission, in fact, is the extension of the love of God, who "loved the world so much that he sent his only Son." The mission of Jesus was that of making visible the love of the Father and introducing men and women into Trinitarian communion. We share in the love and the mission of God; we are cooperators with Christ and the Holy Spirit, who remain the principal agents. This divine love in us is incarnated in our respect for people, for their values and their way of salvation, and is expressed in concrete services and activities according to the needs of those to whom we are sent and the possibilities in the context.

Redemptoris missio concludes the chapter on paths of mission as follows: "it is in fact these 'works of charity' that reveal the soul of all missionary activity: love, which has been and remains the driving force of mission, and is also 'the sole criterion for judging what is to be done or not done, changed or not changed. It is the principle which must direct every action, and the end to which that action must be directed. When we act with a view to charity, or are inspired by charity, nothing is unseemly and everything is good"' (RM, no. 60). In my many contacts with missionaries I have often noticed that charity was at the heart of their commitments, making them creative, persevering, and joyful.

Proclamation. The greatest act of charity is to make known Jesus Christ, to introduce men and women "into the mystery of the love of God, who invites them to enter into a personal relationship with himself in Christ" (RM, no.44). I remember the reaction of persons or groups who, after accepting the evangelical proclamation, asked simply: "But why is it only now that you have spoken to us about Christ?"

Proclamation is not always something official; it can be a personal conversation, a friendly witnessing and invitation. It is done in the ordinary contacts with neighbors and friends, more so than in churches or in organized gatherings. Conversions in Korea, for example, are the fruits of these ordinary contacts with convinced lay Catholics.

Proclamation is the first duty of the church: "All forms of missionary activity are directed to this proclamation, which reveals and gives access to the mystery hidden for ages and made known in Christ" (RM, no. 44). It is the greatest gift that we can give. Every person has the right to know it, so that he or she can make a choice. In the last few decades there has been a rediscovery of the importance of evangelization for the mission and life of the church. Paul VI gave the most incisive formulation of this point in his exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (EN). Evangelization is a process, intended not only to change the person but to influence the culture itself, its values and patterns (EN, nos. 18- 19).

Dialogue. Today another activity that is becoming more and more necessary is that of dialogue. It is neither a fashion nor a simple tactic. It is an expression of charity. It can be conceived as a method and as a specific activity. As a method it means an approach that is respectful and gradual, and it should be practiced with everyone. As an activity it is directed toward non-Christians. It has as its aim the task of growing together toward the kingdom of God, which is its goal. It has many expressions at an ecclesial and a personal level: it is a collaboration at the service of the human person and society, it is mutual knowledge, it is a sharing of the gifts possessed, it is a traveling together toward the final end (see RM, nos. 19-20,55-77).

Dialogue does not bring about the loss of one's own religious identity but strengthens it in mutual witness. It does not exclude proclamation but makes it understandable and more easily accepted. Thanks to dialogue, especially in Asia, the closing in of the communities on themselves has been halted, so that they can thus become visible and witness their own faith and their own religious experience. The first challenge in today's mission is to harmonize proclamation and dialogue.

The recent document Dominus Iesus wishes to clarify Christian identity and to put evangelization as well as dialogue in the right perspective.

Social transformation. By its nature the Gospel renews all aspects of human life, both personal and social. Thus, to work for social transformation, human promotion, and commitment for justice is an integral part of mission and an expression of charity. Concrete forms can vary depending on the possibilities offered, the capacity of involvement, and existing social structures. I will give two examples. First, the impact of the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta on Indian culture surpassed the various forms of educational and social commitment that existed and had a greater influence than the promotion of justice. Her care of the abandoned ones of society helped people to see that every human person is important and worthy of respect. Second, a great need exists today for reconciliation among groups, which is a form of evangelization that includes the transformation of human values. This need is urgent not only among ethnic rivalries as in Africa or among certain castes in India but also among different peoples in the United States (natives and whites, whites and blacks, established Americans and new immigrants, etc.).

Presence. Mission that follows the model of Christ, who made himself one with us, is not fulfilled at a distance. One must be present. Presence with the people being evangelized is a characteristic of mission. Charity is mere abstraction if one remains cut off and distant from the persons and peoples to be evangelized. Presence is a condition for becoming visible, to witness our identity, to dialogue with the other, to cooperate in social transformation, to proclaim the Good News. The presence of missionaries brings its fruits.

Libya was once closed and hostile. In the 1980s Colonel Qaddafi asked the Vatican for sisters to work in the state hospitals. With effort, more than 200 religious sisters were found. Their presence in the hospitals has changed the image of the church in the minds of the people; it is now represented and seen through these religious sisters. Thanks to this development the church was also able to ensure a sufficient number of priests. In many Asian cities (e.g., in Thailand) urban immigration has helped to make the Christians known, for until their move they had been living in rural isolation.

Presence can lead to extreme consequences, and indeed many have paid with their lives. It is one of the ways of martyrdom, as is evident in many countries in Africa that are tormented by internal wars.

Adaptability and inculturation. When we are motivated by charity in the midst of a given situation, we discover the needs and possibilities of mission. The church's response should be holistic and integral. We should always keep an integral vision and do our best to implement it. But everything is not always possible in all circumstances; there are situations where proclamation, conversion, and even religious practice are practically impossible, as in many Muslim countries. Yet even there the mission must not cease. It can find valid expression in such ways as dialogue, human promotion, prayer, or simple witnessing presence (see RM, no. 57). Even if it is necessary to promote the human rights of religious freedom and of reciprocity, the church must always carry out what is possible; it can in this way collaborate in the work of salvation.

Inculturation is essential for effective evangelization that transforms persons and groups. But we are still making the first steps, because inculturation is a long process involving all aspects of life and flowing from a deep Christian' experience. Inculturation is a challenge, not only for the new young churches, but for all, since culture is changing everywhere and the church should be a sign that is understood by all groups. It starts with the learning of the language and with certain attention to some important events. In a country like the United States, the difficulty is how to respect the particular cultural elements of the different groups as well as how to help them become integrated into the national culture. The success of the Youth World Day is linked to a certain inculturation with the language and culture of young people.

Contemplation. Missionary activity is nourished by prayer; in fact, this is one of the dimensions of mission. Contemplation, and indeed monastic life, is essential in the territories of mission and is encouraged by the magisterium (see RM, no. 69). In certain religious contexts, especially in Asia, the validity of Christianity is judged by the practice of prayer and contemplation by its members. John Paul II recognizes this in his encyclical (see RM, no. 91). Contact with the spiritual experience of the members of other religions can revive the practice of prayer in Christians themselves. It is what I experienced in my missionary life in Laos.

The need for contemplation comes from the fact that Christ, through his Spirit, remains the principal agent of mission. In order to obtain the fruits proper to missionary activity, it is necessary to remain in harmony with the Lord and be united to him. In this way the true missionary is a saint (see RM, no. 90). The church is dynamic and fruitful in proportion to the holiness of its members (see RM, no. 87). Prayer and charity embrace the vast range of missionary activities, making them authentic and fruitful.

Mission: Model of Every Ecclesial Activity

The mission ad genies should be the model of all church activity (see RM, no. 34). The pastoral care of practicing Christians, as well as the new evangelization of those who have become distant from the church, should be stimulated by the radicality and fervor proper to missionary activity. Pastoral care and new evangelization should be concretized by giving priority to what characterizes missionary activities such as presence, proclamation, dialogue, and human promotion, all springing from charity and from a relationship with God in prayer.

All pastoral activities (pastoral care and new evangelization) should not forget the missionary commitments with non-Christian groups at home as well as abroad. Such missionary commitments are not something extraordinary, a giving of surplus or leftovers after having served the Christian communities. They are the responsibility of each particular church and of each Christian community like a parish or a Catholic group or movement.

In his missionary encyclical John Paul H underlines this priority: "I wish to invite the Church to renew her missionary commitment. . . . For missionary activity renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others! It is in commitment to the Church's universal mission that the new evangelization of Christian peoples will find inspiration and support" (RM, no. 2).

"On the other hand, the boundaries between pastoral care of the faithful, new evangelization and specific missionary activity are not clearly definable, and it is unthinkable to create barriers between them or to put them into watertight compartments. Nevertheless, there must be no lessening of the impetus to preach the Gospel and to establish new churches among peoples or communities where they do not yet exist, for this is the first task of the Church, which has been sent forth to all peoples and to the very ends of the earth. Without the mission ad genies, the Church's very missionary dimension would be deprived of its essential meaning and of the very activity that exemplifies it" (RM, no.34).

This appeal of the pope is an echo of the great commandment: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations ... and know that I am with you always, yes, to the end of time" (Matt. 28:18-20; RM, no. 22). The Lord left us a double commandment: that of charity (John 15:17) and that of mission. Each complements the other, because mission has its origin in Trinitarian love (AG, nos. 1-4) and extends divine love to all people (AG, no. 13).

Everyone for Mission

Mission concerns everyone. It does not pertain to only a few people. All Christians are invested with this duty: "Every member of the faithful is called to holiness and to mission" (RM, no. 90). The Lord grants a variety of charisms so that missionary activity may be carried on in its different forms. No one is called to do everything, but together we can do what is needed.

Each can do it in a direct way in his or her own environment, witnessing to the Good News and working for the evangelical transformation of social structures at the local, national, and international levels (see RM, no. 82, EA, no. 74). The special role of the laity in the social and political spheres must be highlighted. Social transformation in Africa and elsewhere is a must.

One can always do it through cooperation, such as supporting missionary work through prayer and material aid, and especially through a Christian quality of life: "Through holiness of life every Christian can become a fruitful part of the church's mission" (RM, no. 77).

One can also collaborate in a total dedication of self to the mission. The Lord still needs women and men who are available full-time for continuing the mission in the world. Therefore it is necessary to have people who are willing to consecrate their life to the mission (see RM, nos. 79-80). It is a marvelous vocation that fulfills the person called and that gives hope and confidence to many people who are awaiting the civilization of love and universal brotherhood. Today it is possible to give a period of one's life for the mission, which can become a useful contribution to the mission, as well as a personal human and Christian enrichment.


We are living in a world that is becoming ever more united and globalized, where people want nevertheless to preserve their cultural identities. It is a world where postmodern culture is less sure of itself and where pluralism facilitates religious choice and relativism, but also one where the power of theocratic political systems, such as Islam, grows alongside those that are more and more secularized.

In such a context mission is possible and urgent and must involve all Christians. To fulfill it, each particular church must respond to these challenges:

* harmonize the courage of proclamation and the path of dialogue;

* be committed to mission at home and universally;

* promote social justice and reconciliation between peoples;

* work toward inculturation and preserve a universal spirit;

* promote vocations of special consecration and the commitment of laity, especially in social and political life; and

* intensify ecclesial communion and respect the different charisms with their own identity.

The challenges of mission in the future are numerous, but the signs of hope are also plentiful. The objectives of mission are clearer: to introduce the mystery of Christ and promote his kingdom, which is the church, but which also extends beyond the confines of the church. In the world there is a growing interest in evangelical values (justice, peace, fraternity, solidarity) and in the workings of the church itself. Emerging generations are attracted by the person of Christ and are attentive to his message when it is presented in ways appropriate to their sensitivities.

Christians feel themselves to be the church and could be more involved in missionary efforts. In most countries there are local churches that, even though in the minority, can give witness in a more inculturated way. Modern means of communication can reach even persons and peoples who are turned in on themselves in an isolation that is often self-imposed. Forms of missionary commitment are more diversified and more easily realized.

Missionaries come from the different churches and go in all directions. But above all there is the assurance that the Spirit accompanies his church and remains the principal agent of mission. It is he who opens the hearts of those receiving, just as he opens the hearts of Christians to the needs of humanity and of the mission. It is he who calls the workers and suggests the ways of mission to them. It is he who guides the mission. We can be confident and full of hope, as long as we are in tune with him. And it is the Spirit that we call upon for the church in America and for the people of this great country, as well as for the whole of humanity.

Archbishop Marcello Zago, O.M.I., Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples at the Vatican, was a missionary in Laos for sixteen years, secretary of the Secretariat for Non-Christians (now the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue), and Superior General of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (1986-1998). This essay was first presented as the keynote address at Mission Congress 2000, held September 28 to October 1, 2000, in Chicago. Archbishop Zago is author of The Church and Other Religions, Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Missions (1984).
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Author:Zago, Marcello
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Previous Article:Catholic--adj. all-embracing; universal.
Next Article:Response to Marcello Zago, O.M.I.

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