Part 1: Cardinal Sepe on the Church's Missionary Work

Interview with Prefect of Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 23, 2002 (ZENIT.orgFides).- On the occasion of World Missions Sunday, the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples spoke about the Church’s work of spreading the Gospel.

Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe is responsible for mission territories.

Q: Your Eminence, World Missions Sunday this year coincides with two important recurrences: the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Oct. 11, 1962, and the beginning, Oct. 16, of the 25th year of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. What is the significance of these two events for the Church’s missionary work?

Cardinal Sepe: First of all, I would underline that these two events are closely connected. In fact, the then Bishop Wojtyla took an active part in the work of the Second Vatican Council making, despite his young age, a contribution which eyewitnesses describe as both qualified and substantial.

Therefore, the entire ministry of the Pope, a son of the council, has been marked by this powerful ecclesial experience. We could say that the life of Pope John Paul II, both in Poland and on the Chair of Peter, has been a faithful daily implementation of the council.

The importance that the Pontiff attributes to the council is evident from the repeated quotations made in homilies, audiences and speeches. How could we forget the special Synod for Bishops convoked in 1985, twenty years after the conclusion of the council, to reflect on this “gift of God to the Church and to the world”?

Moreover, preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, an event which oriented the pontificate, was, we might say, illuminated by the council. Already in “Tertio Millennio Adveniente,” the Pope wrote: “An examination of conscience must also consider the reception given to the council, this great gift of the Spirit to the Church at the end of the second millennium” [No. 36].

During an international study conference on the implementation of the council, in February 2000, the Pope recalled that the little seed [Vatican II] “has already produced many fruits in its 35 years of life, and it will produce many more in the years to come. A new season is dawning before our eyes: it is time for deep reflection on the council’s teaching, time to harvest all that the council Fathers sowed and the generation of recent years has tended and awaited.”

Also, the new millennium, just opened, has been set by the Pope in the light of that great event. At the end of his apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Inuente,” the Pope says: “Now that the Jubilee has ended, I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the 20th century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.”

It is difficult to express briefly the profound change brought about by the council in our understanding of missionary activity; it would require countless quotations — beginning with the constitution “Lumen Gentium” which underlined the missionary nature of the entire Church: “The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his ability.”

The decree specially devoted to the Church’s missionary activity, “Ad Gentes,” placed mission, which for some appeared to be almost completed, at the heart of the Church’s activity and of the commitment of every baptized Christian: the whole Church is missionary and the work of evangelization is a fundamental duty of the people of God. Concepts to which we are used to today, but which at the time resounded for the first time and in such a solemn context.

In the new page opened by the council in the history of missionary activity, first place is given to of the Word of God: “The specific purpose of missionary activity is evangelization and the planting of the Church among those peoples and groups where she had not yet taken root. The chief means of this implantation is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord sent forth his disciples into the whole world to preach the Gospel” [AG, No. 6].

It is this very message of salvation that John Paul II has carried in person, in these 24 years of pontificate, undertaking 98 apostolic journeys, going as a missionary to the peoples and nations of the whole world.

His pontificate has been a continual going out to the nations as the first in the Church to be responsible for her universal mission. A responsibility which the Pope feels as a duty which involves all the faithful, an urgency which challenges the entire ecclesial community.

However, John Paul II is a missionary Pope not only because he preaches the Gospel himself and urges everyone to do the same, in every human or social context, but also because the theme of missionary activity has been the subject of many significant pages of his teaching.

We think immediately of “Redemptoris Missio,” dated 1990, rightly referred to as the magna carta of mission. The necessity of inculturating the Gospel, to make it understood by so many different categories of people, dialogue in truth and charity without distinction of creed or culture, joyous proclamation that humanity is loved by God and wants every person to be saved, are aspects of the missionary activity of the Pope who presents the Church of the third millennium with a new approach to evangelization based on guidelines issued by the council.

Q: In his message for World Missions Sunday this year, John Paul II emphasizes the connection between announcing the Gospel, and forgiveness. Can evangelization contribute to building relations of brotherhood among peoples and build a culture of peace?

Cardinal Sepe: The Pope’s message for World Missions Sunday follows ideally his address for this year’s World Day of Peace, Jan. 1. The world appears to be moving ever closer to terror, fratricidal hatred, self-destruction.

But we must not let ourselves be influenced by fear and the desire for revenge, on the contrary we must strive even harder to build a culture of harmonious co-existence.

“Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice,” the Pope says in his message for peace and in his missionary message he says: “The evangelizing mission of the Church is essentially the announcement of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness revealed to mankind through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord” [Mission Sundays Message 2002].

The gift of the risen Christ is peace and ever timely is his command to spread his peace. “Through evangelization — the Pope writes — believers help people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and, as pilgrims on this earth, although on different paths, we are all on our way to the common Homeland which God, through ways known only to him, does not cease to indicate to us” [Message, No. 5].

Only the love God has for each and every person can dissipate division, conflict and disparity and unite the human family in a brotherhood of peace. It is this Love that the Church is called to proclaim, it is this Love, and this Love alone, that can build a society based on peace and reciprocal respect.

Q: Very often emphasis is given to the social work of missionaries, likened by many to the activity of aid agencies. It is true missionaries are among the first to care for the material needs of people, but what qualities are required for the missionary who sets out to proclaims the Word of Christ in this third millennium?

Cardinal Sepe: The first quality of the missionary of the third millennium is holiness of life. Not by chance in “Novo Millennio Ineunte” the Pope makes a call “to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness.”

Holiness of life means for each of us — and for missionaries in particular — knowing Jesus Christ, loving him, contemplating his face, following in his footsteps, imitating him in order to live, as the Apostle of the Gentiles
teaches, “a life hidden with Christ in God,” to become part of the intimacy of the most holy Trinity perfect communion of love.

This life of holiness will give strength to the words and signs of the missionary as he carries out his task to announce the Kingdom of God. Jesus was a tireless preacher of whom people said, “No one has ever spoken like this man!” “This is a new doctrine, taught with authority!” His preaching gushed forth from his intimacy with the Father: The Gospels tell that many times he withdrew to a solitary place to pray, and sometimes spent the whole night in prayer.

But mission, especially mission “ad gentes,” is made up of words and signs: preaching which is born of contemplation — “contemplata aliis tradere” — with words which are a reflection of life hidden with Christ in God. Preaching — like that of Jesus — made up of many signs which stir wonder in the crowds and at the same time draw them to see him, to listen to him, to let themselves be changed by him: The sick are cured, water is changed into wine, loaves are multiplied, the dead are brought back to life.

Among all these signs the one to which Jesus gives most importance is that of his love for the poor: The poor are evangelized, they become his disciples, they meet in his name in the community of believers. In this context we can understand the many efforts made by missionaries in the field of health care, education, human development, the transformation of the situations to which they are sent in the name of Christ.

In this perspective, missionaries’ efforts in social fields are of no little importance, indeed they are the signs of God’s love for mankind which accompany the announcement of the Kingdom of God.

The great temptation in recent decades, due also to the influence of certain ideologies, has been to neglect explicit proclamation of Christ and the spiritual dimension of mission “ad gentes.” This has led some missionaries to reduce their work to a sort of philanthropy void of spirit, a sort of social activity which, although useful, lacks that apostolic dimension which the Acts of the Apostles make resound in the Church of every era: “It is not good that we neglect the word of God to serve at table” [Acts 6:2]. Here we can apply the words of our Redeemer: “These things must be done without neglecting the others” [Luke 11:42].

[Part 2 of this interview will appear Thursday.]

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