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Ecumenism and Mission

· Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at centenary of 1910 Edinburgh Conference ·

The following is a shortened version of the intervention delivered by Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, at “Edinburgh 2010”,  the centenary of the World Missionary Conference of 1910, held in Edinburgh, Scotland, from 2-6 June on the theme: “Witnessing to Christ Today”.

As Catholics we live by memory. We strongly feel the continuity of mission since its very origins. In the Catholic tradition, mission is co-natural with being Christian: “The pilgrim Church is missionary by its very nature” (Vatican ii, Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church [Ad Gentes] , 2). Responding to the “great commission”, which Catholics usually refer to as “the missionary mandate”, missionaries in every age have striven to bring the Gospel message to the four corners of the world. Beginning from Jerusalem, on through Samaria and to the ends of the earth, the apostles, in the words of St Augustine, “preached the message of truth and gave birth to churches”. Down the centuries countless heroic and faith-filled women and men have witnessed to Christ, preaching the word and making disciples; the religious congregations and missionary societies carried the message to every land as it was discovered, and they continue to do so in that “mission territory” that still today includes three quarters of the world's population. Currently lay people and lay ecclesial movements are at the forefront in Catholic mission in all its aspects.

In the hundred years since Edinburgh 1910 many things have happened: two world wars, the end of colonization and the birth of independent states, the rise of communism as a world power and its unexpected collapse, the ascendancy of technology and the impact of the ecological question, the emergence of globalization and the budding reaction to it in forms of new attachment to local cultural and even ethnic identities. Despite the potential inherent in modernity, the human family still makes its way in a confused, hit-and-run sort of way, struggling with but not succeeding in removing enduring imbalances and injustices, violence, war, and the violation of even the most basic human rights.

The search for meaning, particularly in the West, has become more arduous, perhaps also because for many people it is often no longer the holistic panorama that accompanies religious experience, but the fragmented vista that goes with consumerism, social status, and political affiliation that defines personal self-awareness. The anthropological question – what does it mean to be human? – lies at the heart of our unease.

Mission has been deeply affected by these developments and, as we all know, it is in a phase of complex transformation. Clearly, in and through the ecumenical movement we need a profound rethinking of the way the churches can and should “do mission” today. The so-called “foreign missions” are at our doorstep and within our communities.

A century ago, the Second Commission of Edinburgh 1910 developed the theme of relations between the Home Church and the Church in the Mission Field with an understanding that affirmed the ascendancy of the Western churches over the younger churches. Today that Western dominance has ended, and the Asian and African churches, which are the fruit of mission, are now playing a vital role in the life of the churches. This change has deep consequences, not just for the way mission is organized, but for the underlying christological, soteriological, and ecclesiological formulations of the Christian message. These issues are crucial and they will have an enormous impact in the coming years, not least on ecumenical relations between the churches.

But above all, it is our outlook on “the other” that has changed. The worth and dignity of every human being, the importance of human rights, including religious freedom and freedom of opinion, are becoming a shared consciousness. Mission must take into account that the Gospel cannot be imposed on anyone, and that it is only by persuasively and respectfully announcing the message of salvation that the world will come to believe. In this sense, after a hundred years of the ecumenical movement there should be no room for “targeting other Christians” for missionary activity, not recognizing them as “valid” Christians. Likewise, for interreligious relations, the Code of Conduct on Conversion being drafted in collaboration by the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church, with the participation of the Evangelical World Alliance deserves keen attention. The principle being that “while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, [this right] should not be exercised by violating other's rights and religious sensibilities”.

Two thousand years on, mission continues within the flow of human history. But it clearly stands in need of a fresh theological justification and a renewed spiritual impulse, if it is to meet the challenge issued in Luke's gospel (18:8): “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the face of the earth?”.

Some aspects of Catholic thinking

As you will know, many Catholic documents of reference have appeared in recent decades on the theme of mission. A certain pride of place belongs to Pope Paul VI's On Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi) , and to the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes) from the Second Vatican Council. Equally substantive is Pope John Paul II's Mission of the Redeemer (Redemptoris Missio) , with its examination of the today's new areopaghi . Pope Benedict XVI recently took up this idea, calling on missionaries to give attention to “the nerve centres of society in the third millennium”.

Recent debates in Catholic circles have focused on a number of issues related to mission. Fundamental is the discussion about the core question, the universal salvific character of Jesus Christ, the one mediator: “No one comes to the Father except by me” (Jn 14:6). It is precisely this uniqueness of Christ which gives him an absolute and universal significance; he is history's centre and goal: “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13). But is He the only one to have the words of eternal life? That debate was at the heart of Dominus Jesus , which caused much discussion on various issues, but whose principal purpose was to uphold the very ground of the missionary mandate itself.

Secondly, Catholic missiology today is deeply involved in reflection on the precise relationship between evangelization and inculturation of the Gospel, on the impact of the Gospel on justice, peace and the safeguarding of creation, and on the need for a New Evangelization. In the Catholic view, the transformation of the world is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel; in other words, humanity's liberation from every oppressive situation is an indispensable part of the Church's missionary activity. It has been the proclamation of Christ together with the promotion of the human person through works of charity, justice and peace that has brought the power of the Gospel into the heart of human cultures and societies.

Regarding human development, perhaps Edinburgh 2010 needs to remind us of two things. First, the primacy of the gratuitous efficacy of the universal salvific action of the Risen Christ. Jesus himself said: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32). Human development does not derive primarily from money, material assistance or technological means alone, but rather from the formation of consciences and the gradual maturing of ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour. The Church forms consciences by revealing to peoples the God whom they seek and do not yet know, the grandeur of the human person created in God's image and loved by him, the equality of all men and women as God's children, with all the consequences of such a vision.

Likewise, Edinburgh 2010 needs to remind us that the contribution of the Church to the development of peoples is not only a struggle against underdevelopment in the South of the world, but should also be directed to the specific poverty of the North. An excess of affluence is as harmful as excessive poverty. A soulless development based on the idea that increasing wealth and the promotion of economic and technical growth is enough cannot satisfy human beings. And now this Northern development model is powerfully spreading to the South, where a wave of consumerism may replace important cultural and religious values with the emptiness and lack of transcendence already being felt in our Western cities. Pope Benedict XVI has spoken about the missionary map of today not just as geographical and territorial, but also anthropological, made up of vast sectors of Western society which have drifted away from the Gospel.

Another important debate concerns how to proclaim the Gospel in the light of Christ's call to the unity of his disciples. Edinburgh 1910 initiated a journey of discovery of all that the churches had in common. It is true that a hundred years later churches are experiencing a re-assertion of difference, not just between them but also within themselves. Still, so much has been achieved and so much has changed! In his remarkable Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint (1995) John Paul II, after surveying the progress of the search for unity among Christians, concludes that the most significant ecumenical achievement has been “brotherhood rediscovered”. The source of that brotherhood is not our subjective goodwill, but the objective bond of our common baptism. We have not yet become one with the oneness that Jesus prayed for, but we know that our divisions are a scandal and damage that most sacred cause, the convincing proclamation of the Gospel. The spirit of this centenary celebration must serve to remind us that mission requires that the churches seriously undertake to eradicate all forms of rivalry and competition in missionary engagement.

A pneumatological perspective

As the study process leading to and emanating from this Conference clearly shows, the situation at the beginning of the third millennium calls for a renewed missionary engagement and an adaptation of certain forms of action. It shows that already the churches are tentatively feeling their way towards such a fresh missionary methodology. What will our future missionary outreach look like? A first simple but pregnant thought comes to mind. Near and far, our world is broken in infinite ways. And yet, Christians are bearers of the reconciling and healing power of the Spirit. We should retrieve and lift up the work and message of the World Mission Conference in Athens in 2005 as a key to understanding mission today. The theme of that Conference, Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile , opens up a vast horizon of guidance, motivation and practical proposals which we would do well to nurture. Throughout the Christian family there is a growing awareness that while mission centres on Jesus Christ, it is the Holy Spirit – bound up with and not separated from Jesus Christ – who sustains the Church in carrying out God's mission. As an example, chapter three of Pope John Paul's Encyclical on Mission ( Redemptoris Missio) is entitled “The Holy Spirit, Principal Agent of Mission”. The Spirit gives the parresia , the boldness with which we confess and proclaim our faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Heb 3:6; 4:16; 10:19-22).

Our young people in particular are demanding that we witness to Christ today with substance and in harmony. There are endless possibilities for common witness, if only we are bold enough to really seek God's truth together, and be converted to the One who still calls us his friends. If we become friends ourselves and walk the ecumenical miles of hope together, the Spirit of Christ will bring life to his people and mission will thrive and blossom, until “all things are restored in Christ and in Him humankind can compose one family and one people” ( Ad Gentes, 1).




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 22, 2019