Michael McCabe, SMA
Towards a New Vision: Mission as Exploration and Transformation
(29 September 1999)


The Churchís proclamation and service of Godís reign includes three essential, inter-related dimensions: human liberation, inculturation and inter-religious dialogue.

2. Godís Missionary Agenda: The Reign of God.

The inter-relationship of these three dimensions of the Churchís mission of service to the Kingdom is succinctly expressed in the Final Documents of the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus as follows:

No service of faith without
promotion of justice
entry into cultures
openness to other religious experiences.

No promotion of justice without
communicating faith
transforming cultures
collaboration with other traditions.

No inculturation without
communicating faith with others
dialogue with other traditions
commitment to justice.

No dialogue without
sharing faith with others
evaluating cultures
concern for justice (Art. 19).

However, serving Godís Reign does not mean ignoring the growth of the Church. While the Church must not identify itself with Godís reign, it is nevertheless called to be a sign of that Reign, and a sign, to be useful at all, must be seen. Hence, the Church must strive "to build up communities of witnesses everywhere in the world, in every culture, among every people and in all geographical regions". The mission of the early Church was clearly concerned with the creation of Christian communities, communities that would reflect the values of Godís coming reign.

The communities that Paul and his companions established found themselves in a world divided on many fronts: cultural (Greeks v. barbarians), religious (Jews v. Gentiles), economic (rich v. poor) and social (free v. slave). In the teeth of such divisions Paul insists upon the unity of the Christian community (the body of Christ). They have been given a new identity in Christ, an identity which supersedes the identities of race, culture, class or sex. Hence, there can be no separation between Jew and Gentile, between slave and free, between male and female, between Greek and barbarian; all are now "one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:27-28). Any form of segregation in the community, ethnic, racial or social, is, for Paul, a denial of the Gospel. Mission, then, is about creating communities marked by a radical and subversive unity flowing from their new identity in Christ.

However, Church growth is not primarily a question of expanding Church membership, but of becoming a more authentic sign of Godís Reign and rendering more effective witness to Godís transformation action in the world. The Church exists, not for its own sake, but for the sake of Godís reign which is breaking into our world in many ways and many places, far beyond the boundaries of the institutional Church.

Focusing mission on Godís Reign provides a whole new direction to mission as it enters the coming millennium. It liberates missionaries from the intolerable burden of responsibility for the worldís salvation and yet provides them with strong motives for mission. Christís vision of a world transformed by the Reign of God remains the most noble and exciting vision the world has ever known. Having the Reign of God as the goal of mission significantly broadens the scope of missionary work beyond the traditional activities of teaching, catechising, baptising and building up Church Structures. Service of Godís reign provides missionaries with a theological framework which makes commitment to the justice, peace, reconciliation, and interreligious dialogue an essential and integral dimension of the Churchís mission, rather than preliminary or secondary elements.

3. The Whole Church: Agent of Mission

Up to recent times, as we saw, mission was seen as an extraordinary ministry to be undertaken by particular missionary societies and congregations under the direction of the Congregation for the evangelization of Peoples. The ecclesiology of Vatican II is thoroughly missionary. The Decree on the Churchís Missionary Activity states that the pilgrim Church "is missionary by its very nature" (Ad gentes, n. 9). This statement means that mission is rooted in the inner nature or being of the Church. Mission is something the Church is before it is something the Church does. In doing mission, in fact, the Church is manifesting and realising its inner nature. As Emil Brunner aptly puts it: "The Church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning" (The Word and the World, p. 108). Mission is not so much the work of the Church as simply the Church at work. Since God is a missionary God, Godís people must be a missionary people. The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity states clearly that lay people have the "right and duty to be apostles" (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 3).

Despite this development, the involvement of laity in the mission of the Church, especially in leadership roles is still slight and has a long way to go. This is particularly evident in the case of women. In recent decades women themselves have begun to reverse this long history of discrimination and domination within the Church. The present Pope has officially apologised to women for the injustices and hurts the Church has inflicted on them over the centuries. However, while calling women to become more involved in the life and mission of the Church, he insists that the door to Priesthood is not open to them.

Speaking at a symposium on "Women in the Church and in Society" held in the Gregorian University, Rome, last October, Michael Paul Gallagher stated that while a new sensibility on womenís issues is emerging in the English-speaking world, there is little evidence that the Vatican is open to this important development. What was needed, he said, was a conversion of consciousness in the Church, and such conversion is always a long and difficult process, because we resist that which would make us whole.

The way forward for both men and women in the service of the Churchís mission has to be the way of collaboration on an equal footing. If we believe that the Spirit is at work among both men and women, then it is not only possible but necessary for women to be actively involved in policy and decision making at local, diocesan and national levels. Many of the traditional works undertaken by women are valuable, but too limited. Women of necessity are assuming new roles in mission, but there needs to be a further recognition by the official Church of this evolution. True collaboration does not mean that one person sets the goals and the other undertakes the task. Collaboration is putting into practice the philosophy that whatever can be done together is done together.

The great problems of our time are problems that deeply concern women as much if not more than men: the movement of refugees, the greatest ever known in the history of the world; unemployment and the loss of dignity involved; the world-wide drugs problem; the demands of consumerism and its effects on the environment in rich countries; famine and malnourishment in poor countries; AIDS and its social consequences; the abuse of women and children; the domination of the lives of millions by multi-national corporations ó the list seems endless. If the Church is to respond effectively to these problems, it must involve women much more in its life and ministry.

The Re-discovery of Local Church

One of the most important ecclesiological developments of recent times has been the rediscovery of the local Church, and the recognition that each and every local Church is required to express the missionary nature of the whole Church. In insisting that the universal Church finds its true existence in local churches (Lumen gentium, n. 26), Vatican II was returning to the New Testament understanding of Church. Recently Pope John Paul II has insisted that all local Churches are in a state of mission. It is in the light of this new reality that the Church has abolished the "ius commissionis". Foreign missionary orders and societies may no longer dictate the pattern of missionary work in third world countries. The distinction between sending and receiving Churches is replaced by the concept of the interdependence of Churches. The Churches everywhere need one another.

The Role of Missionary Societies and Congregations

If the whole Church is missionary and all its members are called to involvement in its mission, is there still a role for the traditional agents of mission: the members of Missionary Societies and Congregations? The simple answer to that question is Ďyesí. As Redemptoris missio underlines, these Congregations are both relevant and necessary because they provide the Church with a clear and forceful model of missionary commitment. We might say that just as the Church needs the radical witness of Contemplative Orders like the Cistercians and Carmelites precisely to realise the contemplative dimension of all Christian discipleship, so the Church also needs the radical witness of the Missionary Congregations to realise the missionary calling of the whole people of God. That said, however, the continuing relevance of these Congregations will depend on their ability to read the signs of the times, to undertake "new and bold endeavours" at the frontiers of the Churchís mission, and to enter into those new worlds of mission mentioned in Redemptoris missio, n. 37. What is required of them is nothing less than profound revision of their missionary goals and methods and a radical overhaul of their structures.


Mission in the coming millennium will have overcome the activism of the modern missionary movement and combine prayer and contemplation. It used to be said, perhaps jokingly, that missionaries asked the contemplatives to do the praying for them while they got on with the task of preaching the Gospel and establishing the Church. But prayer is an intrinsic, not an extrinsic dimension of mission. It is only in prayerful contemplation that missionaries are able to attune themselves to Godís missionary agenda.

Perhaps the most urgent challenge for mission in the next millennium will be to retrieve something of that unity of contemplation and apostolic action that marked the monastic missionary movement of the middle ages. In the judgement of Bosch, "it was because of monasticism that so much authentic Christianity evolved in the course of Europeís dark ages and beyond.... In the midst of a world ruled by the love of self, the monastic communities were a visible sign and preliminary realisation of a world ruled by the love of God". Apart from prayer, there is a grave risk that missionaries become propagators of a Gospel that is not of Christ and builders of a Kingdom that has nothing to do with the Reign of God. Godís missionary agenda can only be gleaned from a profound listening to the Spirit who has plumbed the depth of God and knows Godís ways.

A contemporary Japanese missiologist, Kosuke Koyoma, has criticised Western missionaries for distorting the Gospel of Christ with their "crusading mind" and their "teacher complex" and he urges missionaries to develop what he calls a "crucified mind". But what is a "crucified mind"? It is, for Koyoma, "a mind of self-denial based on Christís self-denial.... It is that mind that does not seek profit for itself. It is the mind happy in becoming (the) refuse of humanity since it will bring increase to others". I would agree with Koyoma and add that without a profound life of prayer we can never hope to develop the crucified mind of Christ.

The greatest occupational hazard for missionaries, especially those from the West, is that of becoming embroiled in structures and their efficient organization. Commitment to structures, to their maintenance and development, tends to make the missionaries into rather preoccupied and pushy activists with little time for people and even less time for prayer. Such commitment, too, can block rather than facilitate the action of Godís Spirit in the lives of the missionaries themselves as well as in the lives of those they serve. A more contemplative style of missionary presence, issuing in patience, endurance, self-limitation, and even withdrawal, at times, is needed today more than ever. Such an approach will create the time and the space to allow the seed of Godís Word to grow in its own soil, obeying its own embryonic urges, and shaping its own blades of new life.

Ref.: PETIT ECHO, n. 894, August 1998.