· Vatican City ·

Interview with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on the Pope’s message to the PMS

Francis is asking us to rediscover mission in ordinary Christian life

Cardinal Tagle with Pope Francis during his visit to the Philippines in January 2015
06 June 2020

Cardinal Tagle, Francis' message to the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS) was widely recognized far beyond the horizon of those to whom it was addressed. Once again the Pope underlined how much the mission is at the heart of the life and identity of the Church. What particularly impressed you with this message?

There are many things that fascinated me about Pope Francis' message to the Pontifical Mission Societies. Let me name a few. First, the Holy Father had accepted the invitation to address the National Directors of the PMS during their general assembly that should have  taken place the month of May of this year. Due to the pandemic, the assembly was called off. But instead of welcoming the cancellation of an audience as an opportunity to rest, the Pope still decided to write and send a message. For me, this message contains not only the Pope's words and insights but also his passion for mission and solicitude for PMS. While reading the document, we should listen to his soul, his excitement, his hopes and his preoccupations. Secondly, I believe that while the message is specifically addressed to the National Directors of the PMS, the Pope wants the whole Church, the whole People of God, to read, study and meditate on it. It will serve as a guide for the National Directors. But it also serves as a tool for the examination of conscience of the whole Church in the area of missionary spirit and engagement.

The Pope emphasized strongly that the mission is a free gift of the Holy Spirit, not the outcome of strategies that imitate "models of worldly efficiency". What do you think should be done to avoid this risk of functionalism, of efficiency in the new projects of PMS?

It is important to say that Pope Francis is not against efficiency and methods that could make our mission fruitful and transparent. But he is warning us about the danger of “measuring” Church mission using only the standards and outcomes pre-determined by models or schools of management, no matter how good and useful these may be. The tools of efficiency can help but should never substitute for Church mission. The most efficiently run Church organization may end up being the least missionary. By emphasizing that mission is a gift of the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis is leading us back to some fundamental truths like: faith in God is a gift from God Himself; the Kingdom of God is inaugurated and fulfilled by God; the Church is God's creation; the Church awakens to her mission, proclaims the Gospel and goes to the ends of the earth because the Risen Lord sends the Holy Spirit from the Father. At the root of the Church and mission is a gift of God, not a human plan. Jesus comes to meet us as the Love of the Father. But we have a role to play – to pray, to discern the divine gift, receive it in faith and act on it as the Giver desires. Separated from this root of grace, the actions of the Church, not just the projects of PMS, are reduced to mere functions and fixed plans of action. God's surprises and “disturbances” are considered destructive of our prepared projects.  For me, to avoid the risk of functionalism, we need to return to the spring of the Church’s life and mission: God’s gift in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Apart from that vivifying source, our hard work would cause tiredness, boredom, anxiety, competition, insecurity and despair. Firmly rooted in the gift of the Holy Spirit, we could face our mission and its pains, with joy and hope.

With a very strong image, Francis urged the PMS to “break every mirror in the house”. The temptations of narcissism and self-sufficiency are "maladies" that worry the Holy Father. How is it possible to get “vaccinated” against this virus that sickens the Church?

Narcissism is a result of a purely pragmatic or functional view of mission. Mission slowly becomes more about me, my name, my success, my achievement, my fame and my followers and less about the Good News of God’s mercy, of Jesus’ compassion, of the Holy Spirit’s surprising movements. And when good results come, narcissism or self-focus leads to self-sufficiency. My achievements prove that I can rely on my own capacities. To need God and other people is an insult to my unlimited capabilities. Self-sufficiency deepens narcissism. This cycle traps a person or an institution within the narrow world of self-isolation, which is the opposite of mission. This is the mirror that Pope Francis wants to us to break – self-absorption. I propose that we use a transparent glass that will enable us to see beyond ourselves, not a mirror where I look only at my face and the immediate environment surrounding me. Or better still, as the Pope suggests, let us open the windows and doors, look out, step out to God's creation, to neighbors, to street corners, to the suffering, to the confused, to the youth, to the wounded. Looking at them, we hope to see ourselves too. We see God. They are the real mirrors we should be looking at. The vaccine against narcissism and self-sufficiency is to get out of ourselves. The vaccine is called “the Church that goes forth” (La chiesa in uscita). Only then will we find ourselves. It is about changing mirrors, I think.

The Pope also asks that we think of the poorest rather than self-promotion. He asks to reach people "where they are and and just how they are in the midst of their lives" and to trust the sensus fidei of the People of God. Are the PMS ready to challenge themselves for a new impetus in their fundamental mission at the service of the Church?

By bringing mission back to the action of the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis reminds us of the Church, Temple of the Holy Spirit, the People of God, the active agent of mission. PMS and other mission-oriented groups are reminded that mission is not their exclusive domain, nor are they the sole promoters of mission. The Church as a living edifice of the Holy Spirit has already been missionary from her historical beginnings. The Pope rightly recalls the origins of the PMS in the concern, prayer and acts of charity of simple people. PMS was born thanks to women and men who lived holiness in their daily ordinary life, a holiness that moved them to share the gift of Jesus to those who need Him. They used the means given to them by the Holy Spirit: prayer and acts of charity. The Holy Father is encouraging PMS and the Church to bring the understanding and practice of mission back to the ordinariness of Christian life, to make mission a simple, non-complicated part of Christian life in families, in workplaces, in schools, on farms, in offices and in parishes. I think one big challenge is how to help our faithful see that faith is a great gift of God, not a burden. If we are happy and enriched by our experience of faith, then we will share that gift with others. Mission becomes sharing of a gift, rather than an obligation to fulfill. We walk together with brothers and sisters in the same journey called mission. Mission and synodality meet.

An important part of the Message is dedicated to donations. For the Pope it is necessary to overcome the temptation to go in search of large donors transforming the Pontifical Mission Societies into NGOs focused on raising funds. How will these exhortations of the Pope be implemented on a practical level?

In the coherent vision of Pope Francis, donations are seen as offerings of charity that accompany prayer for the mission. This perspective makes the donations or collections part of the gift of faith and mission. When the horizon of gift is replaced by that of efficiency in running an organization, then the donations become merely funds or resources to be used, rather than tangible signs of love, of prayer, of sharing the fruits of human labor. The danger is that money would be raised in the name of mission but without becoming an expression of missionary charity on the part of a donor. The goal might shift to simply reaching a desired amount of money rather than awakening missionary consciousness and joy. With eyes set on a monetary target, the temptation to rely on large donors becomes great. I suggest that we devote more time and energy to providing people with opportunities to encounter Jesus and His Gospel and to be missionaries in their daily lives. The faithful who become committed and joyful missionaries are our best resource, not money per se. It is also good to remind our faithful that even their small donations, when put together, become a tangible expression of the Holy Father’s universal missionary charity to churches in need. No gift is too small when given for the common good.    

There is no Church without mission, Francis repeats to us once again with this strong Message that recalls Evangelii Gaudium. What is your hope as Prefect of the Congregation that has the mission inscribed in its DNA?

The Message of Pope Francis to the PMS Directors echoes the main themes of Evangelii Gaudium. I believe that Evangelii Gaudium is Pope Francis’ unique way of articulating for our time the ecclesiological and missiological legacy of Vatican II. He also expresses the influence of St. Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi on his missionary vision. In the past six decades, we have heard the loud affirmation that the identity and reason for existence of the Church is mission. The mission of the Church is to share the Gift she has received. I am reminded of the first letter of St. John where he says, “This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have touched – we speak of the word of life… Indeed our purpose in writing you this is that our joy may be complete” (I John 1:1-4). I hope that we could return to this simple and joyful beginning of the Church and her apostolic mission.

How does an extraordinary moment like the one we are experiencing due to the pandemic affect all this?

The COVID 19 pandemic has brought much suffering and fear to the human family. We cannot and should not ignore its impact on the Church and mission. It might take us many more years to have a better grasp of this event in our lives. But we can declare even now that amidst the uncertainties, the lockdown, the unemployment, the loss of income, and many other effects of the pandemic, the Holy Spirit has vigorously poured the gifts of compassion, heroism, love of family, ardent prayer, rediscovery of the Word of God, hunger for the Eucharist, a return to simple lifestyle, caring for creation, to name a few. When the Church feels restricted in her usual activities, the Holy Spirit continues His mission without any limitations. The Church is called to look and to marvel at the astonishing works of the Holy Spirit. We appreciate the gift and we will narrate the stories of the Holy Spirit’s action during the pandemic in the many years ahead.   

by Alessandro Gisotti