Understanding the mission
Christianity as a way of life!
In order to understand the meaning of Mission, we have to start from God’s project for our world. In the Old Testament, Israel gradually became aware that God, being Unique, was the God of all peoples and of all nations. It is above all from the time of the exile that Israel became fully aware that there was only one God, and that there could be no other, and that beyond God, there are only idols. Then what about the nations? If God made a Covenant with Israel, what about the other nations? Can God have a link, a dealing with the nations? Are they automatically excluded from God’s saving design?
The story of creation is a first answer. God is the Creator of all things and every human being is created in his image, the divine breath that gives life dwells in him. The rainbow symbolises this Covenant of God for all the earth. It is all humankind and not only Israel that has entered directly in relationship with God, as the agent of his promise. “God said to Noah: This is the sign that I set between me and all the living beings who are with you, for all the coming generations. I put this rainbow in the sky as a sign of the Covenant between me and the earth, a perpetual alliance between God and every living being upon the earth”. This universal Covenant was confirmed in the promise made to Abraham: “In you I will bless all the nations of the earth”
The missionary practice of Israel was manifold. We can identify three forms of Universalism in the Old Testament (we can trace them in the missionary practices of the Church throughout the centuries).
- A universalism of domination shown through its effort to conquer pagan nations, especially at the time of the conquest of the world. This universalism often became a factor of destruction. During a certain time of its history, Israel thought that the extermination of the nations might be pleasing to God such as the anathema: to destroy all that belongs to the conquered nations. Therefore, a universalism of domination through which the nations were seen as submitted to the God of the Armies (Yawh Sabaoth), and thus submitted to the people of Israel. Without entering into too many details, in the history of the Church, there has also been a centralising tendency concerning the universalism of salvation as a sort of domination or imperialism of Christianity towards the nations. I simply refer to the text of the Ecumenical Council of Florence (1442): “The Holy Roman Catholic Church firmly believes and professes, preaches that all those who remain outside the Catholic Church, not only the pagans, but also the Jews, the Heretics, the Schismatics, will not have a share in the eternal life and they will all go to the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devils and his angels. Unless, before the end of their lives on this earth, they had been received in the Church”. (In 1952, the Holy Office has excommunicated a Harvard University chaplain for having affirmed the damnation of all men outside the visible Catholic Church!). This conception of the universalism has known its peak in inquisitions of all sorts.
- Universalism is a centripetal force: Israel saw all the nations on their way toward Jerusalem: “Look all around you and see, the wealth of the nations will come to you” (Is 60,1) This universalism saw the nations being absorbed by Israel. And it is in that way that all the nations could be saved. They could not fit into God’s plan unless they were absorbed by Sion. All the nations marching toward Sion. The Church has known (it may be only in the past) also this missionary practice: Mission is the absorption of all pagans into the fold of the Catholic Church. It is a conquering mission. This kind of behaviour is still alive. Look at the importance of the statistics about the number of baptisms performed, etc.…
- Finally, there is a decentralised form of universalism: this universalism is based on the universalism of God’s love for all mankind. The primary intention of God toward humankind goes beyond the intention of the Creator and its providence. Not only does he want the existence of man but also his salvation, that is to say, the complete fulfilment of his being. Salvation is not the proper being of the creature as such, but it’s perfect being to come. It consists in its participation in God’s being. Humankind is destined to such an alliance as the original will of God, the purpose and the foundation of his creative will. This universalism is already present in the Old Testament, as it is also in the life of Jesus in the Gospels. There is a clear affirmation all through the Bible, and more strongly in the New Testament that God is the God of all human beings, that he loves all mankind without exception. Even if Jesus had to limit his activity to Israel, the Gospels contain an extremely clear teaching on the attitudes toward the pagans. What is the teaching of Jesus concerning the nations? He promises them a full participation in the salvation, even in an unconscious way. In Mt 25, many are puzzled to see that they will be admitted at the banquet in the Kingdom, although they may have never heard about it (When have we seen you, Lord…) (“Come to me you who have been blessed by my Father, take hold of the Kingdom that God has promised you since the foundation of the world”) The guests who knew about the wedding feast were the Jews, they knew that God had invited them. Jesus shows clearly that the nations, the pagans, those coming from the East and the West, the North and the South (the whole world) had been invited to participate in the feast. There are even some pagans whom Jesus gives as an example in the Gospel: the widow from Sarepta, Naaman the Syrian. Speaking about the centurion, Jesus says: “I have never found such a faith in Israel”. Jesus has taught very clearly that all the nations who have lived, live now and will live, who are not officially the people of God, have a full share in the final opening up of the Kingdom of God. They will be incorporated into the Kingdom of God at the end of times. This idea of Mission brings also a missionary practice, the one revitalised by the Vatican Council II: Evangeli Precones and Redemptio Missio. In the lines of Vatican II, Father K. Rahner reminds us that God is in principle accessible to each and every one, to every people. Thus, are recognised the religious values of the world religions. It is not only sufficient to respect or tolerate these religions because they are a way through which God can communicate himself, but also to recognise their salvific value. It is the missionary practice towards which our Society has focussed since our chapter of 1967. This new era of the mission instills a vision as wide as the one of Jesus, a deepening of our own faith, a widened sensitivity toward the work of God in our world and his project to save all humankind in his own way. I would like to explain this practice starting from a text of Saint Paul Col 1,15-20. In this text, Paul shows clearly first that Christ is the perfect image of God, He himself makes God visible. Then, he develops the idea that if the community praises Christ has the one who was, before everything, a creature, for whom and from whom everything exists and in which everything lives, the Christian community knows that outside Christ nothing exists, in other words: everything is in Christ. Through this text of Paul, the Christian community expresses its full openness to the world. The world is from Christ and goes back to Christ. The text from Col 1,15… is fundamental to elaborate a theology on Mission. The Christian proclamation of the salvation consist in making known that Christ is at the beginning and at the end of every human adventure. He is the one who makes visible the love of God, he is the one who manifests that God has loved the world from the beginning. This love admits no discrimination. The ways that God uses to introduce men in his love is part of the mystery of God’s love for us. In this astonishing text that we ought to meditate, Saint Paul says that God is at the same time Head of the Universe as well as the Head of the Body the Church. The question, for us as missionaries, is to enter in this double relationship between Christ and the Church.
In the light of Mt 25, each time someone opens up to God and others, each time that true love takes place, and moves beyond selfishness, Christ becomes present in the life of this person. Whenever someone seeks justice, solidarity, fraternity, when he puts love, forgiveness at the heart of his life, there is, a certain form of Christianism, that is to say, it is a Christ like structure that is taking shape and therefore the fulfilment of the plan of God. Christianism is not a vision of the world more perfect than any other, or a form of religion more sublime, even less an ideology. It is a way of life, in the logic of a Christ like structure, what Jesus of Nazareth lived in a total opening to the others, and the great Other, a love without any recrimination, an unshakable fidelity to the voice of conscience and whatever enslaves man to his own selfishness.  Where Christ is, there is the Church” wrote Moltmann in a very nice book on the Church. To confirm my orthodoxy let me quote this amazing text of Ratzinger: “It is not the partisan of one confession who is a real Christian but the one, who by his life, has become truly human. He is not visibly a Christian the one who follows in a servile way a system of norms, only concerned with himself, but the one who has become free and available through simple and human goodness”.  He belongs to Christ the one who lives and realises through his life, although in an imperfect way, approximately (as long as we are pilgrims) what Christ has himself realised. God is present among the nations, doing his own work, being nothing less than the salvation of all humankind. The Mission is first and foremost God’s action at the heart of our world and that since the beginning until the end of times. If God is present and active in our world, then God is saving all human beings and we have to ask this question: What is our missionary task? Should we stop bothering the people, should we go back home since God is at work among the nations?