By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), evangelization and the promotion of social justice have sometimes been treated within Catholicism, at least de facto, as two separate enterprises – driven by separate logics, and often carried out by distinct groups of people. This division of labor can be found even in the Vatican, where the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples is responsible for missionary activity, while the Council for Justice and Peace focuses on the church’s social teaching.
Pope Benedict XVI appears to be trying to bring these sometimes-divided worlds back together.
The Vatican today released the pope’s message for the annual World Day for Missions, to be celebrated on October 19. In it, Benedict returns to a recurrent motif in his approach to evangelization, by now familiar from his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, as well as his book Jesus of Nazareth: Preaching the gospel is not a distraction from working for justice, it is working for justice, because ultimately the world cannot be just without Him who is Just.
In his 1,700-word message for the World Day for Missions, Benedict reviews a number of worrying trends in today’s world, the sort of thing one would expect to find in a treatise on social justice:
•t“Violence, in not a few cases, marks the relationships among individuals and peoples;”
•t“Poverty oppresses millions of people;”
•t“Discrimination and at times even persecution, for racial, cultural and religious reasons, drives many people to flee from their countries in order to seek refuge and protection elsewhere”;
•t“Technological progress, when it’s directed neither to the dignity and well-being of humanity nor to a form of development rooted in solidarity, loses its potential as a source of hope and risks instead making already existing inequalities and injustices more acute”;
•t“There’s a constant threat regarding the relationship between humanity and the environment related to the indiscriminate use of resources, with repercussions for the physical and mental health of the human person;”
•t“The future of humanity is also placed at risk by attacks against human life, attacks which take various forms and expressions.”
Among other things, Benedict XVI once again lists the environment among his deepest concerns, a further expression of the “greening” of his magisterium.
The heart of Benedict’s argument is that these seemingly secular concerns cannot be adequately addressed without laying the proper spiritual foundations in the heart of the human person. Building a better world, in other words, means bringing people to Christ.
Preaching the gospel, the pope argues, is what creates “the spiritual energy capable of nourishing within the human family the harmony, justice, and communion among persons, races and peoples for which everyone longs.”
“Only from this source,” the pope writes, referring to Christ, “can the necessary attention, tenderness, compassion, welcome, openness, and commitment to solving people’s problems be generated, as well as those other virtues needed by messengers of the gospel in order to let everything else go and to dedicate themselves completely and unconditionally to spreading the sweet perfume of the love of Christ throughout the world.”
For that reason, Benedict insists, “no reason can justify a slow-down or stagnation” in missionary efforts, including concerns such as “the scarcity of clergy or the absence of vocations.” Quoting Pope Paul VI in his 1975 encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi, Benedict calls evangelization “the life and essential mission of the church.”
Benedict closes the message by calling upon various groups in the church to redouble their missionary efforts, including bishops, priests, and women and men religious.
The pope also has a message for laity: “A complex and multiform areopagus of evangelization is open before you – the world. Testify with your lives that Christians belong to a new society, towards which they’re on the way, and which is already anticipated in their pilgrimage,” the pope writes, quoting his own encyclical Spe Salvi.
October will mark the 82nd World Day for Missions, an observance created by Pope Pius XI in 1926. In that year, Pius XI issued his encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae, calling for the reconstruction of missions interrupted or destroyed by the First World War.