Celebrating 100 Years Of Church’s Mission Work

By Father James Jeanfreau, Guest Column

Pope Francis has designated October 2019 as the Extraordinary Missionary Month in honor of the 100th anniversary of Pope Benedict XV’s 1919 apostolic letter, “Maximum Illud (MI).” (The title, “Maximum Illud,” is derived from the opening words of the original Latin text, meaning “that momentous.”)

Pope Francis wants to call greater attention to our baptismal call to spread the Good News to the ends of the earth. Two years ago, he asked Cardinal Fernando Fioloni, prefect for the Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples, to commemorate the centennial.

As the archdiocesan director of the Pontifical Mission Societies, I’ve enjoyed reading the letters of Pope Francis and Cardinal Fioloni promoting the Extraordinary Missionary Month. The letters are printed in the book, “Baptized and Sent: The Church of Christ on Mission in the World,” available at Catholic bookstores or online. The book contains scriptural reflections for every day of October and 11 chapters on missiology (the theological study of the mission of the Church). Also, the pope’s message for World Mission Day can be read at w2.vatican.va. 

Initially, I wondered what made Pope Benedict XV’s apostolic letter so distinctive. That question was answered by reading the various letters.

The major issue facing the world and the church in 1919 was the devastation of WWI. Many European missionaries were called home to serve as chaplains in the armed forces. The war decimated the male population in Europe and thus reduced the number of priestly vocations. The European church needed to focus on rebuilding itself, which left a tremendous void in focusing on missionary outreach.

The great challenges facing the church in 1919 were nothing new. The church has faced persecutions and at times lost its bearings, but the Spirit has always gently moved it to renewal and rebirth. Pope Benedict XV made it clear in 1919 that old models of religious orders working without collaboration could not persist.

“If all Catholics, both the missionaries in the field and the faithful at home, meet the obligations of this task as they should, then we have good reason to hope that our mission will quickly recover from the severe wounds and losses inflicted by the war, and that they will in a short time again show their old strength and vigor,” he wrote.

In this three-part series I would like to reflect on the apostolic letter itself; the vision and theology of “Baptized and Sent”; and the history of the Pontifical Missionary Societies.

Part 1: The Apostolic Letter

“We had two purposes in mind: to encourage you, your clergy, and your people in these efforts, and secondly, to point out methods you can adopt to further the fulfillment of this momentous undertaking” (MI #7).

With the many challenges the church faced after the Great War, Pope Benedict XV began looking at missionary outreach with a very new perspective. Until this time, the church’s mission to the world embraced or worked within the norms of European colonialism. Shortly after Columbus’ famous voyage, European explorers began circling the globe and claiming new lands for their respective countries.

In 1496, Pope Alexander VI decreed that all lands east of a line drawn through South America belonged to Portugal, and all land west  belonged to Spain. I wonder if the effects of this decree helped lead to the Reformation in the northern European countries, which were essentially left out of claiming these new lands.

Predating Plymouth Rock

Latin America was colonized and developed long before North America ever came into European sight. Major churches, dioceses and mission lands began to form in the early 16th century. The first Catholic university in the New World was founded in Lima, Peru, in 1538 – nearly 80 years before the Mayflower pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

The missionary orders, which came with the conquistadors, were given jurisdiction over large areas. Many faithful priests and religious came with great zeal and love for the native peoples. The wondrous stories of the Jesuit missions in the Amazon regions are one such story of saintly mission. 

However, being so connected to the colonial model, many missionary orders simply saw the lands and people, for which they were given juridical power, as simply beneficiaries. Missionary orders tended to view other orders as competitors and not as collaborators. Also, in many cases, the natives were not respected and were expected to abandon all their cultural traditions. Native vocations not only were not encouraged, but often they were not considered and rejected.

I had the incredible experience of spending two months in the summer of 1988 with two Trinitarian missionary priests in Temascalapa, Mexico, and five other seminarians from Notre Dame Seminary. The Trinitarians had a seminary in nearby Mexico City. Most of their seminarians came from the state of Michoacán to the west, because the local bishop still refused to accept indigenous men.

Maximum Illud strongly addressed these barriers to true evangelization and also expanded the call to mission to diocesan priests.

Concerning the issue of tension among religious orders, Pope Benedict XV wrote: “The man entrusted with a Catholic mission, if he is working single-mindedly for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, goes out whenever it is necessary and searches, searches everywhere, for helpers in his holy ministry. He does not mind who they are; he does not mind if they belong to his order or to another, or whether they are of his nationality, ‘provided only that, in every way …  Christ is being proclaimed’ (Phil 1:18). He does not limit his welcome to men. He will bring in sisters to open schools, orphanages, hospitals, to found their hostels and establish other charitable institutions. He is happy to do this, because he realizes how remarkable works of this kind, with God’s help, contribute to the spread of the faith” (MI #12).

Indigenous vocations

Maximum Illud called for the church for the first time not only to evangelize but to truly form local churches that respected local culture and traditions. Above all, this vision meant calling forth local vocations to lead local churches. My experience in Bolivia, where most of the priests and bishops were from Europe, led me to see how often Benedict XV’s mandate was not followed.

I heard countless stories of how indigenous men and women were mocked in seminaries and houses of formation for their ignorant philosophies and spiritual perspectives. These philosophies and spiritual perspectives came from rich cultures and thousands of years of experience. However, serving in the Mission Office here in New Orleans, I have come to learn that almost all the bishops, priests and religious in Africa, India and Asia are native people.  So, Benedict XV’s mandate seems to have taken root there.

There are wonderful signs of this same growth in Latin America. I was blessed to serve under Cardinal Julio Terrazas in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. In the 500-year history of the church in Bolivia, he was the first Bolivian cardinal. In the 400-year history of the Archdiocese of Santa Cruz, he was only the second native bishop.

“He must make it his special concern to secure and train local candidates for the sacred ministry. In this policy lies the greatest hope of new churches. For the local priest, one with his people by birth, by nature, by his sympathies and his aspirations, is remarkably effective in appealing to their mentality and thus attracting them to the Faith. Far better than anyone else, he knows the kind of argument they will listen to, and as a result, he often has easy access to places where foreign priests would not be tolerated” (MI #14).

In calling for the sound and excellent formation of native priests on the same level as would be received in Europe and the vision that these men would not be looked upon simply to fulfill rudimentary functions, Pope Benedict XV laments: “From these facts it is obvious that in some places the system ordinarily used in training future missionaries has up to now been feeble and faulty” (MI #17).

Through the work of the Missionary Union of Priests and Religious, Pope Benedict XV challenges dioceses to foster missionary zeal among priests and seminarians.

“Take pains to foster any signs of missionary vocation that appear among your priests and seminarians. Do not let human reasoning deter you with the plea that what you send to foreign missions you will be subtracting from the resources of your diocese. To fill the place of each priest you send to the missions, God will give you many priests, and very able priests, for your work at home” (MI #34).

Part 2: In the Sept. 28 issue, Father Jeanfreau will reflect on the vision and theology of “Baptized and Sent.”