Cardinal Tomko on Missionary Activity

«I Have Seen the Church Take Root and Grow»

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VATICAN CITY, APR. 11, 2001 ( Cardinal Jozef Tomko, until recently the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, is upbeat as he looks back on his 16 years as head of the Church´s mission territories.

Born on March 11, 1924, in Udavske, Slovakia, Jozef Tomko carried out important tasks in the Vatican, following his ordination to the priesthood. In July 1979 he was appointed secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops by John Paul II.

Six years later the Pope named him prefect of «Propaganda Fide,» the original name of this Vatican congregation, and the one by which it continues to be known familiarly in Rome.

Cardinal Tomko spoke with the «Fides» agency, which is under the congregation now headed by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe.

–Q: Your Eminence, what are your feelings as you leave Propaganda Fide?

–Cardinal Tomko: After 16 years of service at the missionary congregation, I leave carrying mission in my heart. In these years I have learned a great deal: Propaganda Fide is a sort of observatory on missionary activity among the peoples of the world. It has in its care peoples of Asia, Africa, Oceania and also those still to be evangelized in the forests of Latin America, in the frozen lands of North America, and in the Balkan mountains, here in Europe.

To this variety of peoples, cultures, tongues, religions God in his love sent his Son: the historical and mysterious event of the Incarnation, commemorated during the Great Jubilee. All my years here have been part of the Incarnation event, a great gift from God. I have received much more than I was able to give. I have shared the «passion» of mission, with its joys and with pains.

–Q: What signs justify your judgment?

–Cardinal Tomko: I have lived the adventure of the Spirit at work among the peoples. I have seen the Church take root and grow in a travail of poverty and hunger, amid persecution and oppression, the heroism of missionaries and new Christians, amid human weakness and the slow opening of fossilized cultures. I made more than 50 journeys to peoples in Africa and elsewhere. From them I learned to «celebrate God» in spirit and in dance.

In my hands I held the planting and growing of new churches: the mystical Christ born among the nations; his body moving in new communities and ecclesiastical circumscriptions, something like the joy St. Paul´s mentions in his letters.

Almost every time I went to the Pope in audience I carried a request for recognition of a new diocese or apostolic prefecture, feeling like a godfather, for a «newborn» church. The number of these churches has grown, from 877 in 1985 to no less than 1,059 in 2001. Thirty-seven percent of the Catholic Church has almost doubled in recent years, not to mention to growth in vocations. …

–Q: How does Propaganda Fide work?

–Cardinal Tomko: In my years as prefect I have always sought above all to improve the quality of formation at all levels: special courses for bishops and for formation staff; pastoral and apostolic visits; missionary congresses; preparation of bishops´ appointments — today, for the greater part, local men; missionary animation at all Church levels.

The increase in vocations demands also an increase in funds to build new seminaries, form the future leaders of the young Churches, to build new «houses of God» — 467 churches in one year! –which become places and means of evangelization and other activities, pastoral, social, educational, humanitarian. At present, we assist 29,000 major seminarians and 52,000 minor seminarians. In a word, a fascinating task, which starts anew every morning.

–Q: Your Eminence, when you came to Propaganda in the 1980s, Marxist-style liberation theology was very much in fashion and so was the temptation to limit the Christian message to social commitment.

–Cardinal Tomko: Faced with the threat of mission being reduced to social commitment — Marxist — or sociological dialogue in which the person of Jesus Christ disappeared completely — «missionaries without Christ» — we worked to give once again central place to proclaiming of Christ, who by his death and resurrection frees us from slavery and is the answer to all genuine religious longing for the one true God.

This is one of the challenges put forward by John Paul II for the third millennium: to rediscover Jesus Christ and focus on dialogue as a «dialogue of salvation.» This work continues.

–Q: We are also faced with globalization of the economy, ever-speedier communication between the continents.

–Cardinal Tomko: To globalization of markets, the fact that the world has become smaller we answer with «globalization» of mission. I have made every effort to encourage the young churches to contribute personnel and means to the universal mission.

Mission is not longer from the West to other countries; it travels in all directions. Africa, too, is beginning to send missionaries to Africa and abroad. One of the most significant proposals have been the COMLA, the Latin American Missionary Congresses which in 1999 embraced also North America and became American Missionary Congresses, CAM.

In this way we supported the sending of missionaries to Africa, Asia and Oceania from countries such as Peru, Colombia, Mexico: poor countries, with problems, but able to give from their poverty, revealing a mature missionary spirit. The Church in America is called to make a great contribution in human and economic resources for mission in the future.

One of the fruits of globalization is the Internet, immediately put to use by Fides, the international news agency that depends on the Pontifical Mission Societies. Fides was among the first of the Vatican offices to use the Web to connect Rome and the world. Today, Fides´ Web site is visited by more than 100,000 browsers, including people in Vietnam and China.

–Q: In the 1990s the Asian tigers emerged with their impact on the world economy and politics.

–Cardinal Tomko: Asia, seen by everyone as world´s most attractive market, is for us the continent where mission is most urgent, where the Church is still a small minority. In his Redemptoris Missio encyclical, Pope John Paul II said that mission is still only beginning and that Asia is the challenge for evangelization in the third millennium, as he said in Manila in 1995 and repeated again at Delhi in 1999.

–Q: And China, this illustrious and populous land, with a Church under cruel control?

–Cardinal Tomko: For China, Asia´s great tiger, we ask, always and only, full religious freedom and respect freedom for the Catholic Church to appoint bishops and respect for her identity and unity. We rely on the help of China´s martyrs, to whom all her Catholics, official and unofficial, are deeply devoted.

–Q: Africa has been abandoned with its poor economy, interethnic wars, widespread poverty.

–Cardinal Tomko: In Africa we accompanied the emerging of a fully African hierarchy. I myself ordained two of the continent´s great bishops. The first is the martyr archbishop of Bukavu [in what was formerly Zaire], Christophe Munzihirwa, killed in 1996; the other, Bishop Augustin Misago, who stood trial for genocide and was acquitted, completely cleared of the charge.

Africa is searching for a path which will guarantee it equal dignity with other peoples while preserving the best in its cultures — the family, religious sentiment etc.

These bishops are leaders for the African people, in their ability to dialogue with the rest of the world while maintaining their dignity of their culture. With the Great Jubilee the African hierarchy became the most authoritative and precise voice in proclaiming Christ and denouncing violation of human rights. A great communion has grown among the African churches, lived as «family of God.»

–Q: What to say about the Islamization of Africa and its conf

–Cardinal Tomko: In many African countries for centuries, a tolerant Islam has existed, and this facilitates peaceful coexistence. Fundamentalism is a limited slice of religions often exploited for political ends.

At the world level, Propaganda [Fide] works hard to defend the rights of Christians, and also religious freedom for all believers, calling for reciprocity. We stood to defend Catholics in East Timor, and we worked to restore peace in Indonesia among Christians and Muslims, Madurese and Dayak; for peace and reconciliation in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

–Q: What prospects do you see for the third millennium?

–Cardinal Tomko: Very positive. There is a new fervor around the person of Jesus Christ, not as a sacred hero of the past, but as a living person. I will never forget the impressive gathering of 2 million young people in Rome for the Youth Jubilee, many of whom came from our young churches.

The Pope asked them, «What have you come for, who are you looking for?» Rome and the universal mission must rediscover the living person of Jesus Christ and a clear Christian identity.

In his letter «Novo Millennio Ineunte,» the Holy Father stressed that the third millennium will be marked by dialogue and proclamation «interreligious dialogue cannot replace proclamation, it must be directed toward proclamation» [No. 56].

Mission is today younger than ever. The Good News never leads to religious conflict; indeed it brings religions together against all that which conspires against the absolute dignity of human life and religious freedom.

In his Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II said, «Mission renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive» [No. 2]. Mission is a medicine for the West, dispirited and overfed.

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