National Catholic Reporter ®

December 7, 2001 
Vol. 1, No. 15

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Sparks fly when new overseer
of mission work meets the troops

Fueled by a vision of Catholicism in dialogue with the world, missionaries today tend to believe that building up the church is a secondary aim. To be faithful followers of Jesus, their primary work must be building the reign Jesus came to announce — peace, justice, and solidarity among peoples. This does not make religious conversion irrelevant, but it must be a fruit of a deeper sense of purpose.

One of the rising stars of the curia, 58-year-old Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, had a debut of sorts Dec. 4. Appointed in February as the “red pope,” head of the Vatican agency that oversees missionary work, Sepe visited his troops for the first time on that Tuesday morning at SEDOS, the principal umbrella group for Catholic missionary orders.

     When his monologue at the missionaries turned into a dialogue with them, some very interesting sparks began to fly.

     First, some background. A sweeping re-definition of what “mission” means has taken place in the years since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In the November 2001 issue of the SEDOS Bulletin, Fr. Peter C. Phan of the Catholic University of America explains. 

     Before Vatican II, Phan writes, Catholic missionary theology put its values in this order:

  • Church
  • Proclamation
  • Mission
  • Reign of God
     The top priority was the physical extension of Catholicism, “implanting the church,” by making converts, founding parishes, organizing dioceses and appointing bishops. 

     After Vatican II, Catholic missionaries still hold the same values, but the order of importance has flip-flopped:

  • Reign of God
  • Mission
  • Proclamation
  • Church
     Fueled by a vision of Catholicism in dialogue with the world, missionaries today tend to believe that building up the church is a secondary aim. To be faithful followers of Jesus, their primary work must be building the reign Jesus came to announce — peace, justice, and solidarity among peoples. This does not make religious conversion irrelevant, but it must be a fruit of a deeper sense of purpose.

     “It would be theologically wrong,” as Phan puts the point, “to subordinate the Reign of God to the Church.”

     Most of the missionaries I know — members of orders with proud missionary traditions, such as Divine Word Missionaries, the Combonis, the Xaverians, Missionaries of Africa — identify with this new perspective. They don’t see themselves any longer as mini-saviors swooping down with a bundle of truths, but as servants who learn as much as they teach.

     I have a missionary friend, for example, who spent 20 years in Taiwan, and is proud of the fact that he never preached a sermon. He simply listened, and in his broken Chinese, occasionally tried to offer some small comfort or encouragement. The people came to love him, and while he didn’t baptize many, he forever changed their view of Christianity. 

     Ironically, Catholic missionaries today tend to be some of the least church-centered people you’ll ever meet. This became clear to me in mid-October when a missionary peace and justice network, improbably enough, cosponsored a conference on Africa with the Legionaries of Christ. The event brought a number of members of missionary orders, with decades of experience in far-flung spots in Africa and Asia, to the Legionaries’ Regina Apostolorum campus for the first time. 

     Watching these missionaries, in scruffy civilian attire and full of skepticism about ecclesiastical power, mingle with the uniformly crew-cut, black-suited, Roman-collared Legionaries was a hoot. It was also a reminder of how much diversity Catholicism embraces. When James Joyce defined the church as “here comes everybody,” he wasn’t kidding.

     The modern redefinition of mission isn’t uniformly popular, of course, least of all inside the Vatican office on missionary work: the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, although everyone knows it by its earlier name, Propaganda Fidei. The former head of that office, Slovakian Cardinal Jozef Tomko, was notoriously hostile to the new vision. 

     Aware of this tension, around 100 members of missionary orders flocked to the traditional SEDOS gathering place, the Christian Brothers headquarters on Via Aurelia, to hear Sepe Dec. 4.

     They had invited Sepe to come precisely because they realize how large a gap sometimes separates their self-understanding from the official Vatican line, and they wanted to open a dialogue.

     Sepe’s debut was all the more significant because he has no track record as a missionary. He was born in 1943 in a small southern Italian town near Naples, and has spent most of his career climbing the curial ladder: secretary of the Congregation for Clergy, chief organizer of the Jubilee Year, and now prefect of Propaganda Fidei. Missionaries were understandably curious for some indication of what his thinking might be.

     His speech, alas, will not be remembered among his shining moments. It read like a piece of boilerplate copy Tomko had left in the office computer, full of dense theological references to Christ as the unique savior of the world and the need to proclaim this truth rather than to relativize it or water it down.

     (For those given to grasping at straws, the fact that Sepe managed to say all this without once citing Dominus Iesus might be food for thought.)

     When he finished speaking, I asked an Irish nun, who had spent the better part of two decades in New Guinea and who happened to be sitting next to me, what she got out of it. 

     “Precious little,” she replied. “My proclamation is my life, the way I live.”

     To his credit, Sepe then agreed to take questions. The tenor of the audience can be glimpsed from the first four, which were put to him in rapid-fire succession before he said anything.

     Question 1: “I come from Japan, where Catholics are 0.3 percent of the population. Asian bishops have been talking since 1975 about our way of being church as a living dialogue with cultures and religions. This is our way of evangelizing — offering our brothers and sisters an experience of God’s justice, God’s peace, even if they’re not baptized. Can you clarify where that stands?”

     Question 2: “You seem to imply that the only motive for dialogue is to invite people to conversion. Couldn’t there be other reasons, such as evangelizing the culture or promoting religious tolerance? The plain truth is, many people are not likely to accept an invitation to conversion.”

     Question 3: “If we say that Christ is the only truth, where is the space to enter into dialogue with other religions?”

     Question 4: “In recent years the church has seemed like a nervous mother, always scolding her wayward children. I’d say we have a much greater need of encouragement. Why so much fear?”

     Sepe did not have much illuminating to say in response, although he did make a distinction critical for many missionaries. He said that if announcing Christ as the lone savior of the world is impossible in a given set of circumstances, missionaries must at least maintain an “interior disposition” consonant with the teaching. That loophole is vital for those who believe, like my Irish nun neighbor, in proclamation by lifestyle rather than by speech.

     Then the second wave of questions hit. The highlight was an African sister who asked if the Vatican is willing to invest as much in the formation of women as it always has for men.

     Sepe, perhaps not fully understanding the question through the translation, said there was “no problem,” earning the most audible round of muffled groans during the morning. 

     But more eloquent than what Sepe said was his style, which remained open and friendly, even in the face of challenges. He told an organizer afterwards he had enjoyed the exchange, and seemed to mean it.

     His concluding note was his best, and it seemed to reflect awareness that he had to say something reconciling: “We exist for the lone purpose of helping you. We are with you and for you. Help us to help you, through your experience, your testimony, your wisdom,” he said.

     Sepe said he wanted the dialogue to continue. Let’s hope he’s sincere, not merely because the subject is interesting, but because it’s vitally important.

* * *

Two footnotes.

     SEDOS (Servizio di Documentazione e Studi) is made up of some 100 men and women’s missionary orders. The executive secretary is a kind and keenly intelligent Dominican named Fr. Bernard East, who once served as a secretary to the legendary Dominican Master General Damien Byrne. Much of the content from the SEDOS Bulletin can be found on the web at

     For readers wanting to explore the new understanding of mission I’ve sketched here, I recommend Mission in the Third Millennium (Orbis Books), edited by Fr. Robert Schreiter. It’s based on a SEDOS conference in April 2000.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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