Mission and Missiology in the Pontificate of John Paul II

By Burrows, William R. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Mission and Missiology in the Pontificate of John Paul II


Burrows, William R., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


The death of Pope John Paul II on April 2, 2005, brought to an end one of the longest pontificates in Roman Catholic history, one that began with the election of Karol Wojtyla on October 16, 1978. What follows is an attempt to bring into relief the key elements of John Paul's missiology and theology and, in a final section, to question whether his church is able to carry on its mission under the terms he set for that task.

John Paul's Missiology in Its Catholic Context

Three things need to be stressed if Pope John Paul's missiology is to be seen in its proper context. The first is that his formal statement on mission in his encyclical Redemptoris missio (RM, "On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate," December 7, 1990) is not the first or most important place to go to understand his treatment of mission. Rather, the full range of his teaching must be taken into consideration. Above all, reduction of mission to verbal proclamation (taking as its key the so-called missionary mandate in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15) and / or action for sociopolitical liberation (taking as its key the "social mandate" in Luke 4:18-19 [citing Isaiah 61:1-2] or Matthew 25:31-46) will lead one astray. His vision includes both but is not limited to them.

Second, there is ambiguity in a question like, "What is the teaching of Pope John Paul II on mission?" The entire point of papal or conciliar teaching is (1) not to be new and creative but to preserve and explicate apostolic teaching that comes to us in the testimony of the apostles, as recorded in Scripture and carried on in living tradition; (2) to apply that teaching to new situations; and (3) to help the church discern when new teaching and practices are not consonant with apostolic faith. (1)

Third, we need to consider the authority of papal teaching in the context of the struggle since Vatican Council II between theologians and the papacy over the council's legacy. Its roots lie in the council's four autumn sessions from 1962 to 1965, when scholars (known as periti, "experts" in English) were the principal advisers of the council fathers. Two issues are still at stake. The first is, Who makes decisions regarding church order, doctrine, practice, and structure? As Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, says in his autobiography, "The role that theologians had assumed at the Council was creating ever more clearly a new confidence among scholars, who now understood themselves to be the truly knowledgeable experts in the faith and therefore no longer subordinate to the shepherds. For, how could the bishops in the exercise of their teaching office preside over theologians when they, the bishops, received their insights only from specialists and thus were dependent on the guidance of scholars?" (2)

The second issue, from a world mission perspective, is that most of the insights that gave periti their authority rested on a century and a half of a particular kind of European theology that was trying to come to grips with new insights from historical research into the life and times of Jesus and the development of the church. During much of that period Catholic scholars were driven underground by papal antimodernist efforts. When their research emerged as theologie nouvelle before and after World War II, its leading representatives (men like Karl Rahner and Yves Congar) found themselves under a cloud of suspicion as Vatican theologians judged that they were espousing Protestant or modernist conclusions on matters like the evolution of the church and whether present-day Catholic doctrine and practice regarding office in the church and its structure were binding. While the Second Vatican Council sought to renew the church's missionary stance, in my judgment the kind of theology that council fathers were drawing upon was inadequate. From today's world-church perspective, it was severely limited by its Western roots and by its lack of in-depth understanding of how things change when a world Christian perspective is adopted. …

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