An advertisement featured recently on local radio begs support for a Roman Catholic missionary congregation that has earned justifiable renown over the last century. This religious congregation of priests and sisters had brought the Gospel message, amid much suffering and persecution, to what today is often called the Third World. They have a noble record.
This latest advertisement, however, promotes the work of this religious congregation solely on humanitarian grounds. The name of Jesus Christ and their history as a Catholic congregation are never mentioned. While it is certainly true that these priests and sisters and lay volunteers have fed the hungry and clothed the naked and consoled the sick and instructed the ignorant, their principal goal, at least until recently, was the proclamation of the Kingdom of God mediated through Christ and his church.
To be blunt, their objective was to win converts to Catholicism. Political correctness or, in this case, religious correctness has softened the thrust of their ministry and possibly the depth of their convictions. The statement of another missionary sister regarding the native people whom she served comes sadly to mind: “They taught me more than I taught them.” Perhaps sister did come to admire the family bonding of these indigenous people or their respect for their natural environment or their helpful responses to life’s crises. But sister’s failure to recognize that the gift of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” which she was commissioned to share with them prevailed over any natural or humanistic lesson they might have offered to her. The Kingdom of God as mediated through the Catholic Church has fallen on hard times as secular priorities more and more capture the minds and hearts of church professionals.
The solemnity of Epiphany celebrates the catholicity of the Kingdom of God and the universality of salvation. The foreign kings who entered the house to worship the newborn king of the Jews were a slap in the face to the narrowminded Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. The new kingdom that arrived in the person of Jesus was and is a kingdom destined to embrace persons of every climate and nationality and culture. To reduce the work of the church to the mere improvement of living conditions is a distressing misreading of the Gospel message. It is certainly true that the world has been enriched throughout history by the work of Catholic monks and missionaries and mentors. But secular improvement was always a byproduct of “the stewardship of God’s grace that was … revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” The Scriptures and the creeds and the sacraments and the commandments and the prayers were the tools of this stewardship. And reconciliation with God and eternal salvation in his kingdom were its intent. But time has sadly eclipsed eternity in the focus of many church professionals.
Vatican offices are reported to be aware of these challenges in the work of evangelization. They recognize that there is “a growing confusion” about the church’s missionary mandate. They warn that some think “that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom,” suggesting that it is enough to invite people “to act according to their consciences,” or to “become more human or more faithful to their own religion,” or “to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity,” without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. Others have argued that conversion to Christ should not be promoted because it is possible for people to be saved without explicit faith in Christ or formal incorporation in the church. Recalling the words of Pope John Paul II that every person in the world has a “right” to hear the good news of God who reveals himself in Christ, church leaders conclude that therefore there is a corresponding “duty” to evangelize leading to conversion in the traditional sense. Ruling out coercion or improper enticement that fails to respect the dignity and religious freedom of each person, Vatican officials also quote Pope Benedict: “The proclamation of and witness to the Gospel are the first service that Christians can render to every person and the entire human race, called as they are to communicate to all God’s love, which was fully manifested in Jesus Christ, the one Redeemer of the world.”
Epiphany is the ideal feast to recall the universal mission of the church and its worldwide mandate.