ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
65. In mission lands it is found that some of the peoples already make use of initiation rites. Elements from these, when capable of being adapted to Christian ritual, may be admitted along with those already found in Christian tradition, according to the norm laid down in Art. 37-40, of this Constitution.
Paragraph 65 appears in the sequence of Conciliar reforms treating of the Sacrament of Baptism. It is probably obscure to most Catholics, but like many of the Council writings, it did not receive much press in the avalanche of other statements such as the option to celebrate the Mass in the vernacular. But Sacrosanctum Concilium is a living document, offering the Church opportunities to renew itself by continually raising the difficult questions we must face to better understand the nature of parish ministry.
Para. 65 uses the term “mission lands.” How do we define a “mission land?” In the earliest days of the Church Christians identified themselves as Jews and primitive missionary work involved convincing fellow Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. After St. Paul convinced the brethren that Jesus’ salvation was universal, i.e., inclusive of Gentiles as well as Jews, the term “mission” would have applied to any region where the Gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ had not yet been preached. Thus, the idea of making converts became geographic. With remarkable foresight the early Church understood that for effective outreach it must place itself at the center of things, and since “all roads lead to Rome,” as the saying went, this is where the Church established itself. As the Roman Empire encompassed much of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the missionaries would have a monumental task ahead of them, multiplied by forays into lands as diverse as Ireland and India.
The discovery of the Americas, and the still unexplored Orient, expanded the definition of “mission lands.” In the post-Reformation era the term was applied to all countries and territories where the Church was not yet developed to provide the basic norms of structure and sacramental life, where seminaries and an indigenous clergy could not meet the minimal needs of the territory without outside support. Such lands fell under the supervision of the Vatican Congregation of Propaganda. The United States was considered missionary territory until 1908, and except for a twenty-year span between 1940 and 1960, depended upon foreign born clergy for most of its sacramental services—though most American Catholics probably were not aware of this at the time. Though seminaries were full in 1960, only a very small percentage of American-born seminarians completed the course of studies through ordination; my class ordained perhaps 5% of those who entered in 1962.
I suspect that, using 1908 definitions and metrics, the United States has returned to missionary status in fact, if not by proclamation. It was common in my childhood and early adulthood to hear sermons or classroom presentations on “the missions” as the term morphed into geographic regions of poverty and underdevelopment as well as areas where the Church was not established. My sources of missionary image would have come from (1) missionary priests visiting our parish, emphasizing the poverty of their sites and soliciting funds; (2) Catholic classroom teaching about ransoming pagan babies, the ongoing campaign for Catholic school children to contribute loose change into $5 amounts to send to missionaries. These missionaries, in turn, would rescue pagan babies and essentially take custody newborns and baptize them. We were taught that the Communist Chinese put infant girl babies on a hillside to die of exposure after birth, so I was proud of saving lives and making converts. Not so long ago my mother found my certificates deep in our household detritus. If this whole business sounds a little bizarre, check the colorful recollections of a Catholic sister on this practice here, and look at the sometimes-irreverent responses of the former student readers to the post, too.
The third leg of missionary catechesis (3) was the general curriculum of Catholic school education. As we studied world geography, it was expected of us that we know which missionary brought the Catholic Faith to each country, and how he suffered for the effort. As a New York State resident, I became immersed in the work of the Jesuit St. Isaac Jogues and the first North American Martyrs. A shrine to their work among the Great Lakes nations of Native Americans is a popular devotional site near the New York State Thruway. In reading of the Jesuits’ work as an adult, the extent of their sacrifices never ceases to amaze me, the human suffering being much more horrid than anything we head in elementary school.
As time progressed into the age of Vatican II, the concept of “mission” became more complex. Modern historians questioned the motives of Catholic missionaries who accompanied colonial explorers, notably in North and South America. Were they abetting the cruel submission of indigenous peoples by propagating the religion of the invaders? The works of Franciscan Junipero Serra and other religious missionaries in what is now California, for example, are now coming under thorough scrutiny. Stanford University, where several streets and buildings are named after Serra for his role in California, has renamed some but let others continue to bear his name. I have not had an opportunity to study the question carefully, but I am aware that Spanish missionaries often criticized the conquistadores and attempted to mitigate the rough treatment of fallen natives. Missionaries to the East, such as the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, went to their missions unencumbered by colonializing armies and lived for many years in the Orient engaging in scholarly understanding and cultural exchange, often winning respect if not outright acceptance of Christianity.
Beyond historical cases, what is the nature of missionary work today? In 1943 a controversial work appeared overseas, France: Mission Country? [Unavailable in English and rare today.] The irony of such a title would not have been lost in France, certainly, which for centuries carried the national title of “Daughter of the Church,” probably from the days of Charlemagne of the ninth century. However, in the catastrophe of World War II, the French Church began to lose allegiance of the working class, who regarded the French Church as a bourgeois or upper crust institution; blue collar workers turned in increasing numbers to socialist movements. The 1943 work posed the question of whether “Catholic countries” can regress to a point where wholesale “re-missioning” is necessary; in today’s jargon we might think of this in terms of evangelization, though in a stronger sense than American Catholics use the term.
In response to the reality of losing the working class in the Church, several French bishops blessed the idea of priests being released from parish duties to live and work shoulder to shoulder with blue collar laborers as a sign of the Church’s solidarity with their plight. The experiment lasted less than a decade, and only 100 priests served in this innovative ministry. A number of the priests became involved politically with socialist movements, a circumstance which put the movement in bad light with the Vatican, and in the years between 1954 and 1957 the movement was gradually suppressed. That said, this audacious idea sowed interest beyond its time and numbers. Before he was elected pope, the future John Paul II expressed considerable interest in this form of missionary endeavor; he himself was a blue-collar deacon under Communist rule in Poland and knew much about the hard lives of day laborers. The present-day Pope Francis has counseled priests against lives of “bling,” encouraging them to “smell like the sheep” they shepherd.
It would seem to me that Para. 65 opens the door to discussion about “mission lands” that takes us to the invaluable question of missionary effort today. Can it be said that the Catholic Church in our own country suffers from much of the same malaise as post-War France, and do our thoughts of evangelization and catechesis demand a reexamination of the missionary process, an embrace of the Good News of Jesus as if for the first time? St. Patrick braved the seas to bring the Gospel to Ireland, not exactly the same thing as just treading water year after year.