The missionary nature, which forms a constitutive element of the Church, has remained unchanged in the course of her history. Christ intended His Church to be a means to evangelize and to save the people of God.
At the Second Vatican Council, the Fathers defined in clear terms this missionary element in the Church: ''. . . the Church, in obedience to the command of her founder . . . and because it is demanded by her own essential universality, strives to preach the Gospel to all men. The apostles, on whom the Church was founded, following the footsteps of Christ, 'preached the word of truth and begot churches.' It is the duty of their successors to carry on this work so that 'the word of God may run and be glorified' . . . and the kingdom of God proclaimed and renewed throughout the whole world'' (Ad Gentes Divinitus, No. 1).
The Church has a duty to preach the Gospel, establishing the truth and by so doing spreading the institutionalized Church. The institutionalized Church here has reference to the physical Church, the growth in the number of believers and the fact that she must extend to the ends of the universe. In the time of the apostles, the Church responded to these tasks, and she continues to do so through the successors of the apostles and their collaborators in the mission; and through the testimony of the faithful. This explains why the consciousness of a Church on mission is prominent in the mission parts of the world -- Africa, Asia and Latin America, etc.
The Second Vatican Council to defined the scope and the limit of the mission. According to the Fathers: ''The special undertakings in which preachers of the Gospel, sent by the Church, and going into the whole world, carry out the work of preaching the Gospel and implanting the Church among the people who do not yet believe in Christ, are generally called 'missions''' (Ad Gentes Divinitus, No. 6). However, the realities evident in the world now caution that the mission of the Church might not be justifiably limited in scope and relevance. The description of the Last Council on what the mission signifies and its implications might not exhaust the present need of the mission.
Nevertheless, the Council cannot be said to be lacking in its definition because it proposed that the kingdom of God must be proclaimed and be renewed throughout the whole world. Perhaps it is required now to give attention to the renewal as much as the implanting. Here lies the main concern of this article.
Viewed from another perspective, the concept of the mission employed by the Second Vatican Council, expresses that some parts of the world were rather fortunate to have had earlier contact with the Christian faith. In other words, the Church is so well established in these parts that it has become a tradition.
In addition, the missionary drive at present seems to find relevance within the situations created by the economic and political underdevelopment of the places so designated as the mission. Even if it were not intended, it would be a mistake to hold on to this obsolete understanding of the mission; for the mission of the Church to be properly channeled it should find a more interior basis of relevance.
The Apostle Paul showed that there are two phases of the mission: the ''mission'' and the ''second mission'' (Acts 14). Paul chose to be the apostle to the Gentiles; he had enthusiasm to announce the Gospel in places where Christ had never been heard nor known. His desire to do more in furthering the mission of Jesus than others might explain the unique interest in Apostle Paul. Paul and his companions walked from one end of the Gentile world to the other preaching the Gospel. The interest for this reference is to see the importance of the second missionary journey undertaken by Paul and his companions. Why they had to revisit these places they had earlier preached the Gospel? Apart from his constant communications to the Churches he founded, it is noticed in the Acts of the Apostles that these missionaries returned through the same route they had evangelized to encourage the Churches, appointing elders and commending anew the believers to the care of God they had come to believe (Acts 14:21-26).
It is reasonable, therefore, to agitate for a similar 'second phase' in the mission activity of the Church in the places that have had long contact with Christianity, especially at this time when materialism is depriving the developed world of its spiritual identity. The Church of the present age has the same reason as Paul to rededicate to God the people who have long heard the Gospel, and to re-root the relevance of the Church among them. The situation in these places presents a more stringent challenge in the missionary undertaking of the Church than in the known mission territories.
The situation for the Church in her missionary activity is to bring the true knowledge of God to those who already have the notion of the Almighty in their own vision of reality as it was in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A similar case was in Athens, where Paul addressed the council of the Areopagus about the Unknown God that the people served despite the lack of any knowledge of Him. If not for the mention of the resurrection, which was then an incredible reality, Paul's success in Athens would have been unprecedented (Acts 17). Even in the present era, it is still easier preaching the true concept of God to people who already had the idea of God than bringing back the true notion of God to those who deny Him. The present mission of the Church in the developed world requires a more decisive strategy and urgency. Definitely, it would not be a minor task to show His relevance when many think that God is better left out; the developed world is more content to deny the existence of God.
We can talk of a new understanding of the concept of the mission. The whole world now has the need for mission. Missionary activity goes on in the places yet to be evangelized. But reconsolidation is necessary in the older Christian world. Christians here could use a more resolute and a more forthright approach to get themselves readied for the challenges that their societies pose to their faith. To bring God to the civilized worlds and to return the civilized worlds to God arrive at the same purpose; that is, reinstating the relevance of the Christian Faith. It implies a return to an appreciation of Christian values regarding life, respect for the Sacred (i.e., the sacraments, the sacramentals, and the sacred ministers), the love of truth, and the humble acceptance of human limitation.
The Council Fathers examined the situation in their deliberation on the missionary activity of the Church. According to them, ''This task [i.e., the mission, which must be carried out by the order of bishops, under the leadership of Peter's successor and with the prayers and cooperation of the whole Church, is one and the same everywhere and in all situations, although, because of circumstances, it may not always be exercised in the same way'' (Ad Gentes Divinitus, No. 6). The Council acknowledged the fact that there should be various stages in the mission of the Church, ''. . .first there is the beginning or planting and then a time of freshness and youthfulness. Nor does the Church's missionary activity cease once this point has been passed. . .'' (ibid). In the opinion of the same Council, there is no end in the mission of the Church since the period of the mission spans ''between the first and the second coming of the Lord'' in which everything must be done to make sure that all peoples in all places are a ready harvest for the Lord, ''when the Church will be gathered from the four winds into the kingdom of God'' (Ad Gentes Divinitus, No. 9). Expressing this in the same terms used by the Second Vatican Council, ''If the Church is to be in a position to offer all men the mystery of salvation and the life brought by God, then it must implant itself among all these groups in the same way that Christ by his incarnation committed himself to the particular social and cultural circumstances of the men among who he lived'' (Ad Gentes Divinitus, No. 10).
It is beautiful to note how the last Vatican Council had examined the situation of the world as regards the mission of the Church. The situation makes exigent the need for a continued mission with the same vigor and urgency in all parts of the world. The principles of the Church on the mission are always relevant and applicable to the various situations the world now presents as the mission. The important thing is that those who are charged with the task of the mission need to have a new understanding of the mission. The Church's mission is not limited the elimination of poverty. The focus is neither charity nor mere awareness; rather the end goal of the mission of the Church, according to the mind of her founder, is salvation ensured by true charity and awareness of the truth of the Gospel. The churches in the developed world may not derive the utmost satisfaction in the aiding to build the churches in the developing world. There is a need to reaffirm the magnitude of God and strive to eradicate the suffocating atmosphere created by consumerism and secularism. The fact just mentioned should be of concern for the Church in her renewed missionary journey as she retraces the path in which the Christian faith has grown. This means that the Church must be more than an historical fact, but the Body of Christ on mission. TP
Father Joseph, a native of Nigeria, is a student at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome.