by Filippo Morlacchi
“Missionary activity is only beginning” (Redemptoris Missio 30) is the prophetic certainty of faith that guided John Paul II as he wrote his missionary encyclical in 1990: thirteen years after his election, fifteen years before his death. At the heart of his pontificate, which reached out to cross the threshold of the third millennium of Christianity, the pope clearly perceived that the Church is still young, that her universal mission can and must develop further and that there are new places and unprecedented frontiers that either wait to hear the faith for the first time or seek it’s deepening. We are not talking so much about undiscovered lands or geographic locations that the faith has not yet reached, so much as new worlds and new social phenomenon (for example conurbations: “In the modern age, missionary activity has been carried out especially in isolated regions… Today the image of mission ad gentes is perhaps changing: efforts should be concentrated on the big cities, where new customs and styles of living arise together with new forms of culture and communication” RM 37), or the “modern Areopagus” (“…The first Areopagus of the modern age is the world of communications” ivi).
From this perspective it is clear that any alleged opposition between inter-religious dialogue and missionary zeal is meaningless. In meeting and speaking with every man, the Christian – every Christian – is called first to share the “hidden treasure” and the “precious pearl” that is Christ (Mt 13:44-46). For this reason the Christian mission cannot simply be reduced to “send money to third world children,” nor to the imposition of certain ideologies or doctrines. It arises rather from the commitment to proclaim the beauty and truth of the Gospel and the desire to create authentic Christian communities, sharing the knowledge that genuine faith also brings the gift of charity, from which arises the care of the poor and those which are suffering. “It is not right to give an incomplete picture of missionary activity, as if it consisted principally in helping the poor, contributing to the liberation of the oppressed, promoting development or defending human rights. The missionary Church is certainly involved on these fronts but her primary task lies elsewhere: the poor are hungry for God, not just for bread and freedom. Missionary activity must first of all bear witness to and proclaim salvation in Christ, and establish local churches which then become means of liberation in every sense.” (RM 83).
And what of us? We who are not setting out on missionary journeys, who maybe do not have the tools to delve into the modern Areopagus, we who perhaps admire missionaries but to not feel ourselves ready to follow them on their impassable roads? Are we somehow outside this missionary mandate? Clearly not. There are many and varied ways by which we can collaborate in missionary activity that are open to everyone. John Paul II reminds us that “Among the forms of sharing, first place goes to spiritual cooperation through prayer, sacrifice and the witness of Christian life… Prayer needs to be accompanied by sacrifice… The sacrifice of missionaries should be shared and accompanied by the sacrifices of all the faithful.” (RM 78). The missionary way is open to everyone, each according to his state of life because “the true missionary is the saint” (RM 90).
“The human and cultural groups not yet reached by the Gospel, or for whom the Church is scarcely present, are so widespread… We must increase our apostolic zeal to pass on to others the light and joy of the faith, and to this high ideal the whole People of God must be educated. We cannot be content when we consider the millions of our brothers and sisters, who like us, have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but who live in ignorance of the love of God.” (RM 86). This enormous task, certainly beyond the limits of man alone, should not leave us without hope: God will sustain us when we persevere in asking for the gift of his Spirit.