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The Missionary Position Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Not that long ago, when you talked about the death of missionaries, it meant that they had met some sad end in a far-flung corner of the world. More recently, it means that no one much feels the need to “preach the Gospel to all nations” anymore – and that missionary work is essentially disappearing. Our modern Gospel is much simpler: We’re all basically good people already, aren’t we? So why can’t we respect and affirm one another’s lifestyles, and all just try and get along.

That seems to be the default setting now, even for many Christians. It’s difficult for us to conceive that actual adherence to the Church would add anything of value to our lives, more than what we already think, quite independent of any institution. Much flows from this stance. All the talk about sharing Christian joy and love, and promoting the New Evangelization is really empty if you don’t believe there’s a specific reason for joy or that the New Evangelization, like the Old, is a matter of real, life-and-death urgency – and eternal consequences.

So it’s no great surprise that the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missionaries (PIME) in Italy just announced that it will be suspending publication of Ad Gentes, its magazine on missions “To the Nations.” Subscriptions have fallen off drastically, but even more important, the whole spirit of missionary work is drying up. Long gone are the days when Catholic children fasted during Lent and sent in their mite boxes for the missions – a sign that the adults aren’t that serious about missions either. Fr. Piero Gheddo, the deacon of PIME in Milan explained in a recent article that this is primarily the result of two mistakes within the Church.

First, there’s been a diffusion of missionary responsibility proper. “With the publication of Fidei donum (1957) and then with Vatican II (1962-65), it began to be said that the whole Church is missionary, and that the missionary institutes no longer made sense.” It’s an old but true maxim that what’s everybody’s responsibility is nobody’s. How does “the whole Church” reach out to distant peoples without proper institutions and an attitude that it must? The results, beyond all question, confirm that it can’t.

Second, says the padre, there was a politicization of missionary work. For us, the idea of holiness is hard to agree on – or even just to grasp. But concrete secular projects could be undertaken in common. And many presumed that, in the atmosphere of common action and good feeling, vocations would result. They didn’t:

today, tell me: who shows enthusiasm for the missionary vocation and where did the call for missionary vocation ad gentes end up? Today, our missionaries engage in national campaigns about foreign debt, against arms production, against counterfeited medications, and for public water access: today, one no longer speaks of missions to the nations, but of worldliness and of social or ecological efforts. Can you tell me how many young men or women get enthusiastic or become missionaries after a demonstration protesting arms production? None. In fact, missionary institutes have almost no Italian vocations. Don’t lament the closing of Ad Gentes. Within the framework of everything I have described, it makes logical sense.

Jesuit school in the (then) Belgian Congo, 1930

Coming from a man like Father Gheddo who has devoted his life to missions, this analysis is worthy of attention, and it’s unfortunate that his whole article has not been translated into several languages and widely distributed. Especially so since, as he also mentions, rapidly growing Catholic communities in the developing world continue to need missionaries as much now as ever.

Subtle spirits are always at work in the world and it isn’t easy to discern what is true from what only seems so. Still, whatever excuses might be made, the Church bears much responsibility for secularizing itself over the past half-century. Whether it was out of an ill-judged desire be more “effective” or a much more serious dereliction is no longer very important. The question is how to fix things – fast.

As in many other areas of life, recognizing the truth is the first requirement. We’re now living in a culture that has doubly shut itself off from religious influence. The secular used to mean a place of authentic pluralism, where all voices – religious and not – could contribute and get a hearing. Now it means that each of us must be insulated from the indignity of having to actually encounter, in public, others of a different belief.

Paradoxically, this situation stemmed from the very desire to protect religious liberty. Religious liberty is not only a good thing; it’s a necessity of human nature. But we have subtly shifted the meaning of religious liberty from no interference in the free conscience of another, to stripping the public square of all religious reference. Each of us is “free” to hold whatever we like, but even to propose it, however gingerly, to others is seeking to “impose our values,” and “offensive.”

Of course, this is a giant shell game. Because under the guise of merely asserting basic human rights, we’re also having a secularist morality imposed on many of us who are thereby offended. A national and international clerisy has emerged that is quite adept at making abortion into “reproductive health,” sodomy into “marriage equality,” euthanasia and suicide into a “right to die.”

Human beings exist in a world unavoidably structured along moral lines. Because it’s in our nature to make judgments about good and bad, whether we acknowledge it or not. And if it isn’t one set of morals, it will be another. Our whole culture is now like an old-time WASP dinner party at which it’s forbidden to speak of the most important things: God, sin, redemption, eternity. And under the guise of diversity, we’re increasingly subject to tyranny.

We’ve lost the missionary stance not just because we’ve become indifferent. We’ve rendered ourselves speechless.


Robert Royal
 is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is 
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.

 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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written by Gian, June 25, 2014
The situation resulted from an error in political theory, going back to Hobbes and Locke. This is the error of trying to derive State or the City from individuals. Once the Aristotelean insight that the City, the Family and the Individual are three irreducible levels of human organization, is forgotten, the result is deformation in the State leading to both anarchy and despotism. As Dostoevsky wrote in the Possessed-"from perfect liberty, I derive despotism".
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written by Manfred, June 25, 2014
"....the Church bears much responsibility for secularizing itself over the past half century." Thank you for this excellent piece, Robert. I was 19 in 1958, the year Pius XII died, so I have witnessed the Church go from its apogee to its nadir. In my opinion as someone who paid strict attention during this period the cause of this destruction can be laid to one fact: The disobedience of John XXIII in not releasing the Third Secret of Fatima by 1960 as the Blessed Mother asked. The Church, and the world, has been suffering a Divine punishment ever since. The message of Fatima, with its emphasis on repentance and prayer, the vision of Hell which was shown to CHILDREN, the threat of what we call World War II if people did not reform their lives in sufficient numbers, all this has been lost.
I do take great encouragement in the fact that the internet has been found by serious Catholic lay people, who, with excellent young priests and some bishops, are teaching and reconverting the Catholic lay remnant who realize they have been conned by, with some exceptions, the popes and the hierarchy over the last fifty years. Serious readers of this site should seek out these small communities.
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written by Beth, June 25, 2014
Thank you for this article. Are you familiar with FOCUS? The Fellowship of Catholic University Students trains and sends fresh college grads to colleges and universities across the country to support, solidify and build up Catholic students. They go at the behest of the overseeing bishop and go in teams of two to four, male and female. Over the past 15 years FOCUS has grown to over 80 campuses throughout the US. Look for Project-Illuminate, an initiative in very early stages: FOCUS missionaries who want to bring a similar model to parishes to help heal the broken family. They will need supporters if anyone is willing. There IS much hope!
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written by Bill Beckman, June 25, 2014
Let's be clear, missionary religious orders have suffered great decline, but the missio ad gentes has not disappeared. The number of lay people and families engaged in missionary work all over the world has increased, chiefly through ecclesial movements and charisms. Some national episcopal conferences (including the USCCB) and missionary religious orders have not grasped this fact and have been reluctant to engage constructively with new ecclesial realities. They've been busy defending mindsets and structures which must change. But it's not just episcopal conferences and religious orders who are trapped in the cycle of blindness, denial and paralysis. Authors of several recent books on discipleship and a more evangelical Church ignore or understate the impact and importance of new movements and ecclesial charisms. Thanks be to God recent popes have not failed to hail the extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit in these new realities. It's time for American Catholic opinion-shapers and pastors to wake up and heed the popes. A good start is the address of Saint John Paul II to an enormous gathering of new ecclesial communities in Rome, June 1998.
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written by william manley, June 25, 2014
Your point that our culture is like an old time WASP dinner party is brilliant. Thanks for the wit. It made my morning.
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written by Jame, June 25, 2014
All of the article and the comments are well taken. But one should not forget the international atmosphere of the ecclesiastical universities in Rome. I personally taught introductory New Testament Greek to about 1,500 students from 85 countries in 36 years of teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. Just yesterday I received an e-mail from one of my former students, a teaching sister in Nigeria with a doctorate from the Biblicum. She regularly teaches Old Testament to seminarians, laymen and women (Catholics and non-Catholics) at a state university, and her sisters in her community. And taking advantage of such contacts with former students I have taught and ministered in dozens of countries on six continents. I am not alone, for there are a number of ecclesiastical universities in Rome, and many professors there (priests, sisters, laymen and women) such as I.
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written by ron a., June 25, 2014
Two major changes that have contributed to this state of affairs (often encouraged both within and without the church) are the theological concept of Universalism and the "advanced" notion that to fear God demeans God and is inappropriate. In short, essential motivations have entirely changed.

In my opinion, in all honesty, rationalization aside, it betrays a loss of Faith. In many circles a new faith is being formed. It is, at once, materialistic and, at once, free from any risk or meaningful life changing choice. No need to be "born again"---outside of mere language.
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written by Howard Kainz, June 25, 2014
When I graduated from college in '58, I joined the Lay Mission Helpers of the Los Angeles diocese, which still sends unpaid volunteers all over the world. I ended up in Nigeria working with the Kiltegan Fathers from Ireland, a wonderful band of missionaries, teaching Latin, English and Scripture in a boy's junior college. It seems to me that many young adults would welcome an opportunity like this. While teaching courses like Ethics or Philosophy of Peace for 35 years at Marquette, I offered students the option, for 10% of their grade, of doing various kinds of volunteer work in the inner city, and writing a final essay relating it to their course, and most students chose that option. Some students nearing graduation join the Jesuit Associates for temporary service in poorer parts of the country. It's important that such opportunities be advertised to youth in their late teens and early twenties. Aggressive PR is needed. Some may decide to become life-long missionaries.
Secular counterparts, such as the Peace Corps, are also important for offering an outlet for youthful idealism. In Germany, up until 2011, young men had the option of either joining the military or performing socially useful volunteer work for 6 months; but probably this sort of conscription would be impossible in the U.S.
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written by Chris Manion , June 25, 2014
"Our whole culture is now like an old-time WASP dinner party at which it’s forbidden to speak of the most important things..."

Oh, I **always** talk about them;of course, I'm never invited Back....
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written by Romy, June 25, 2014
Thank you, Dr. Royal, for this bold and incisive assessment.
And thank you, also, to Bill Beckman. Yes, these evangelizing Catholic movements are like yeast. To be sure, nothing is wasted.

My family were Catholic WASPs. Both my mother's and my father's families would not discuss religion because it was considered impolite to do so. Part of the religion aversion may have come from the days of discriminating against Catholics so they just learned to keep it quiet. Unfortunately, the effects of that have been dismaying.
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written by Martha Rice Martini, June 25, 2014
Isn't it pretty simple, summed up in a loss of faith? "[T]he Church bears much responsibility for secularizing itself over the past half-century." Indeed. When you tell us that the Jews need not convert because their covenant with God is ongoing, that the Protestants need not convert because every Christian sect bears some part of the truth, when not one of the Vatican II documents even MENTIONS hell, when you soft-pedal truth in the name of religious liberty, wherein lay the urgency to evangelize?
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written by Beth too!, June 25, 2014
Beth, I tried to find out more about Focus Project - Illuminate. Can you give a link to it? TY
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written by Julie, June 26, 2014
I think the lack of missionary "spirit" is quite simple. Missionaries must risk their lives for something greater than life on earth, i.e. salvation in Christ. There are so few missionaries because there are so many cowards. How many of us will be judged on our sins of omission?
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, June 26, 2014
Don't underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit working on the hearts of Catholics who desire to bring Christ to others. When I was the director of my diocese's Catholic Charities, I began an initiative of organizing medical missions to a parish church in Guatemala. I was astonished with the response to these 15 missions I ran until my retirement. We began with a small group of 12 (note the number) and by the time of the last mission I organized, we brought 47 people with us (and could have brought more but I finally had to say "no more"). Missionaries on successive trips brought along their children, husbands, wives, friends, nieces, nephews - anyone they could find - to join them in this exciting venture. We billed it as a Catholic medical mission where we would pray the office twice daily, attend daily Mass and acknowledge that we came as Christ to the people we served and hoped to see Christ in them. The recurrent refrain from those attending was "I always wanted to go on a mission trip BUT NO ONE EVER ASKED ME." Believe me when I say, the missionary spirit is not dead; only in dormancy.
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written by bill bannon, June 26, 2014
A recent sermon by Pope Francis ( June 11) on "fear of the Lord" really downplayed any fear of the Lord while both his predecessor Popes stated that we could not be certain that Judas was in hell ( Augustine and Chrysostom were certain in sermons they gave...thanks to Christ saying only ominous and negative things about Judas ). There's part of the problem at the very top of the hierarchy. If Judas can't even get in hell, why worry about anyone in the world...he was the arch villain.
We are now picturing everyone in the world being saved by God secretly and/ or at the last second of their life.
Also the Japanese have about the lowest murder rate in the world and two nominally Catholic countries, Honduras and El Salvador, are the worst in the world as to murder...( and four other Catholic countries are no bargain). How can we convert Japan if criminal behaviour in the Catholic continent generally excepting Chile and Argentina is dangerous relative to world stats. East Asia has a murder rate of 1 per 100,000 while Central America is 31.1 per 100,000 after 500 years of baptisms....by UN stats of world crime.
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written by Kevin J. Bauer, June 26, 2014
While I agree with most of what Robert Royal says, the title is unfortunate given the obvious sexual reference and that Christopher Hitchens made it the title of his book on Mother Teresa. More importantly , however is his view that whodunit and why is irrelevant. As Ann Roche Muggeridge said, lay people can remain faithful, but without the episcopate they can't reform the Church. The Bishops are responsible for the mess, and until they are taken to the woodshed, 'fess up and give their mea culpa, singly and corporately, nothing is going to change.
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written by kelso, June 26, 2014
As Deacon Pietier noted, some Protestants and Jews are waiting to be asked to become Catholic. "No one asked me?' How tragic. Martha Rice Martini hit the problem head on. If one can be saved outside the Church, then the urgency of preaching the gospel is made void. Now who is to blame for that?
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written by TheInformer, June 27, 2014
the last time I heard any priest encourage missionary work was................NEVER.....I never hear about it. Oh sure, occasionally a priest from the 3rd World travels through telling us about work in another 3rd World country. It's heart-rending, but he's just collecting some cash before moving on.

The Catholic Church doesn't challenge people much anymore. Maybe sanctity is easy and Grace is cheap?
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written by Brother Andre Marie, M.I.C.M., June 27, 2014
"Our whole culture is now like an old-time WASP dinner party at which it’s forbidden to speak of the most important things: God, sin, redemption, eternity. And under the guise of diversity, we’re increasingly subject to tyranny." Here here!
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written by johnnyc, June 27, 2014
I didn't realize until recently the New Evangelization was about evangelizing Catholics. Apparently protestants are good to go. Ecumenism takes precedence over evangelization. We refer to protestants as our brothers and sisters to the point many Catholics don't think protestants need to be evangelized. You know who is going on mission trips? protestants.....those same protestants we refer to as our brothers and sisters are leading Catholics from the One True Church of Jesus Christ.

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