Missio ad Gentes negli Atti degli Apostoli
di Fabrizio Meroni
In vista del mese Missionario Straordinario dell'Ottobre 2019, pubblichiamo la Prefazione al libro "MIssio ad Agentes in the Act of the Apostles", edito da p. Fabrizio Meroni, pubblicato dalla Urbaniana University Press
Since the outset of his magisterium, Pope Francis has repeatedly called our attention to the necessity to bring about a major missionary awakening based on the “evangelical approach to the Church’s mission in the world”. This calling is in keeping with Pope Benedict XV’s insight in the Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud, and on the revitalization of the missio ad gentes “as engine and horizon of the faith”. A renewed missionary engagement of all Christians is indeed necessary at a time when mission needs to regain its true significance, life force, and evangelizing drive, “so that the spirit of the missio ad gentes may animate the path of the Church” today and for the future. An evangelizer by nature, the Church should always begin by evangelizing herself: this is the only way to ensure that she is able to preserve her freshness and the Apostolic courage to be recreated and reformed with new modes of Christian presence and witness (Gaudete et Exsultate, 130-132), so as to continue to effectively respond to Jesus’ command “to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear” (Evangelii Gaudium, 23).
The Extraordinary Missionary Month October 2019, announced by the Holy Father to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Maximum Illud, is thus a “providential occasion” to revive in the faithful the missionary “boldness”, “courage”, and “zeal of those who first proclaimed the Gospel”. The chosen theme for this initiative, Baptized and Sent: The Church of Christ on Mission in the World, reveals “the missionary dimension of our Baptism”, as being sent on mission is a call that comes with Baptism and is for all the baptized. And the “regular book for prayer and meditation” of the Baptized and Sent of all times – Pope Francis highlights – cannot but be the Acts of the Apostles. The “community of missionary disciples”9 that began evangelization from “Jerusalem […] to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) is their main source of “inspiration” and guiding star in the mission of evangelization and faith witness they are called to execute as members of the Church.
To meet Pope Francis’ call to awake the missionary awareness, ardor, and engagement, the Pontifical Missionary Union (PUM) has promoted the creation of Missio ad Gentes in the Acts of the Apostles (Omnis Terra – PUM CIAM Publications), a collection of essay authored by a group of eminent New Testament scholars from all the continents. By examining the extraordinary events and deeds narrated in Luke’s writing, the chapters that make up this volume allow a thorough understanding of how mission represents not only the very nature of the Church (cf. Ad Gentes, 2), but also its origin, purpose, and life, contributing to the reflection on “how to render the work of the missio ad gentes more effective”.
In the first place, the essays bring out the Trinitarian, Christological, and pneumatological roots of the mission as defined in the Acts of the Apostles, which provide the theological context in which the Church should be understood: from the creation in Christ through the redemption accomplished in the Paschal Mystery until its eschatological fulfillment. Hence, the divine universal mandate to “go and make disciples of all nations” (ftt 28:19, Acts 1:6-8) that the Church has derived “from the mission of the Son and from the mission of the Holy Spirit […], in accordance with the decree of God the Father” (Ad Gentes, 2). Along these lines, the authors dispel any doubt about the fact that missio ad gentes, as received by the Apostolic Tradition and sealed by the Second Vatican Council, is the ever-valid foundational model and paradigm of the evangelizing mission of the Church throughout the whole history of salvation, until the coming of the Kingdom of God. There cannot be replacements for the missio ad gentes, which already encloses in the scope of its divine mandate any mode of dynamic presence of proclamation and conversion of nations, cultures, religions, and peoples who encounter and open themselves to the Gospel of Jesus and His Church.
Moreover, the authors make clear that mission does not respond to a human initiative: it is missio and actio Dei. The principal agent is the Holy Spirit: mission is His project (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 21).16 The Church is servant of the mission. It is not the Church that makes the mission, but the mission that makes the Church. Mission is not the instrument, but “the point of departure and the goal”, and Church’s mission is to proclaim the Gospel and to witness it among those who have not yet encountered Jesus Christ and the Christian faith is absent. In doing so, the Church opens the way to the divine action of the Holy Spirit in places where women and men still yearn for salvation from sin and death.
Missio ad Gentes in the Acts of the Apostles also highlights the need to rediscover the intrinsic link between mission and salvation, which is one of Luke’s recurring motifs (cf. Ad Gentes, 7), through another fundamental theological truth set out in the Acts of the Apostles: the sacramental logic of the event of Jesus Christ, of His Incarnation and Passover. Mission has the experiential and theological need to rediscover this logic, in order to determine the nature, life, and structures of the Church, as the “universal sacrament of salva- tion” (cf. Lumen Gentium, 1, 9, 48; Ad Gentes, 1; Gaudium et Spes, 45). Mission is the historical and sacramental participation in the missions that God the Father has assigned to the Son and the Holy Spirit in the world. Therefore, limiting mission to proclaiming and witnessing the values of the Kingdom means not only making a true reduction, but also depriving the Word of God and His Kingdom of the concrete historical-eschatological reality of the Incarnation, as well as of the saving and transforming effectiveness of the missionary work of the Church founded on the Passover of Jesus.
The Beatitudes, the precept of love, and the liberation of the poor are theologically concrete and pastorally effective only in the context of the sacramental foundation they all share. What was very clear to the Second Vatican Council – namely, the Church as the “universal sacrament of salvation” and its necessity rooted in the need for theological faith and Baptism for the salvation of all, baptized or not – seems faded in some contemporary missiological reflections. But, without the sacrament, love and mercy remain vague intuitions of fraternity and reconciliation to be shaped by worldly criteria and treated as welfare programs and non-governmental organizations, as often pointed out by Pope Francis. Only in the sacrament can one understand the true meaning of the world, of matter, and of the body which, sick in sin, yearns for the Paschal newness of life.
The Church is missionary in nature because it is born and founded in the Passover of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the starting point of the Acts of the Apostles. The cross, the historical and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, establish the Church in a permanent state of mission (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 25), and characterize its nature as the locus of salvation and the time of reconciliation with God within history and the world.
Missio ad Gentes in the Acts of the Apostles, springing from the insistence placed by Pope Francis upon mission and the living example of Peter, Stephen, Paul, and all the other figures portrayed by Luke, also reminds us that Jesus’ mission, the heart and motivation of the very Church’s mission, is a true communication of divine life, of eternal life, of the life of daughters and sons who have always been loved by God, our creator and Father in Christ. Giving the life of God the Father, offering the life of the Holy Spirit, and sacrificing oneself for life in Christ, represents the origin and purpose of mission, from its original form of the missio ad gentes led by the Apostles to its fulfillment in the Jerusalem of Heaven, the dwelling place of God among humanity (cf. Acts 21).
Nowadays, there are significant and creative Christian missionary communities in places that are predominantly indifferent or hostile to the faith, where the Christian witness of ecclesial movements, lay associations, missionary institutes, and new ecclesial forms of community life, experience the tragedy of the martyrdom of blood on a daily basis. These communities can refer to the living example of the Apostles to properly understand the missio ad gentes in a paradigmatic reconfiguration of the entire mission of the Church sent into the world for its salvation and transformation.
May this kerygmatic approach to the faith, which animated the Apostolic tradition and continue to be so familiar among the young Churches today, also find space among the Churches of ancient tradition in need for a new evangelization. Missio ad Gentes in the Acts of the Apostles is also addressed to them.