Academic journal article Theological Studies

Revisiting Mission at Vatican II: Theology and Practice for Today's Missionary Church

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Revisiting Mission at Vatican II: Theology and Practice for Today's Missionary Church

Article excerpt

AT FIRST GLANCE, IT MIGHT SEEM that the theme of the church's mission, particularly as developed in the Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, Ad gentes (AG), was not seen as a major issue at the Second Vatican council, nor as a major factor in its subsequent hermeneutic. As Italian missiologist Gianni Colzani reflects, "the usual reading of Vatican II does not consider it [AG] as one of the criteria that has influenced its [the council's] course; the biblical, liturgical, patristic, and ecumenical movements are the ones cited as influential at the council while the missionary movement is set rather to the side." (1) An indication of this might be the fact that, in the judgment of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, called precisely to assess the council after 20 years, "the ecclesiology of communion is the central and fundamental idea of the council's documents." (2) The Final Report of the synod did indeed speak of the importance of the church's mission in the world, and even quotes AG no. 2's lapidary phrase regarding the church's essential missionary nature. Nevertheless, mission seems not to have been regarded as fundamental for the council's interpretation. Although John O'Malley, in his monumental work on what happened at Vatican II, certainly speaks about the evangelical spirit of the council, he devotes only about three pages to the development of the mission document itself. Unfortunately, he points out, the debate on the council floor on mission was held in three-and-a-half sessions, a "meager allotment of time given that about one-third of the bishops came from mission territories and were facing unprecedented difficulties in the new political, economic, and cultural situations in most of their countries." (3) Colzani's observations are justified as well by the fact that in their important recent work, Richard Gaillardetz and Catherine Clifford do not cite any passage from A G as one of the "keys" to the council. (4) They do, to be sure, include a chapter on the church's mission in the world, and they do mention AG no. 2 in that chapter, but mission is understood more along the lines of living out the rich tradition of the church's social teaching. (5) Perhaps along with the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium (SC), the mission decree and the theme of mission might be classified as the "impoverished cousin of the council's hermeneutic." (6)

Nevertheless, a closer reading of the council and the council documents reveals that mission was very much at its heart. One might even say that in its deepest intuitions, Vatican II was a "missionary council." (7) My contention here is that the theme of mission at the council in general, and in the council's document on mission in particular, needs to be revisited. This is especially true in our time of the shift in the center of gravity of Christianity to the Global South, the vast migrations of peoples, particularly toward what were formerly "mission sending countries" of the Global North, (8) and growing secularism and unbelief in the Global South as well. This latter reality prompted Pope John Paul II to speak of a "New Evangelization," and Benedict XVI to create the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and convoke the 2012 Synod of Bishops to deliberate on that topic, (9) but this article will suggest that "New Evangelization" or a "renewed evangelization" might be apt terms for any efforts of evangelization in what has become today a missionary church. Perhaps it is time to reaffirm the council's missionary intentions and methods, particularly in the face of this new world situation in which we find ourselves today.

REVISITING MISSION AT THE COUNCIL

Colzani is correct in his judgment that other movements were the "drivers" of the council's major themes of the church as community and communion, episcopal collegiality, liturgical reform, and a renewed understanding of baptism and lay identity. Underneath, however, there ran a strong missionary current evident in some of the very first aims of the council articulated by Pope John XXIII and expressed in many documents and in several ways. …

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