Maximum Illud and the missionary month; we do actually need to believe in the salvation of souls.

Pope Benedict XV  (LOC)

October 2019 is designated as an Extraordinary Month of Mission. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops for the Amazon has distracted our attention from this other extraordinary celebration, but we should never forget the missions. This was impressed on me effectively during my childhood when we were asked to pray for the missions and to give some of our pocket money to support them. I remember the APF missions box in our hall; it carried a quotation from Pope Pius XII, "For there are none so poor as those who lack the knowledge and the grace of God." That really impressed me with the importance of helping the missions.

Pope Francis asked us to observe this month as an Extraordinary Month of Mission in celebration of the centenary of the Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud (1919) of Pope Benedict XV "On the Propagation of the Faith Throughout the World." Pope Benedict XV was in some respects a tragic character. During the first World War he worked heart and soul to bring about a peaceful settlement. Sadly, along with Blessed Charles, the Austro-Hungarian emperor, he was unsuccessful.

It is all the more impressive therefore, that the same pope should have instituted an important reform in missionary activity just after the end of that terrible war. It behoves us to consider some of the principles of Pope Benedict’s letter and to learn from them.

Some principal concerns of Pope Benedict in Maximum Illud

Pope Benedict impressed on superiors the importance of expanding their missions and making way for new Vicariates and Prefectures. (n.11) It seems that some superiors must have been treating their mission in a proprietorial way, not concerned to go and catechise unbelievers. (n.12) He warned the missionaries not to be more zealous for a particular nation than for the Kingdom of God, because "the true missionary is always aware that he is not working as an agent of his country, but as an ambassador of Christ." (n.20)

Here as so often in official documents, reading between the lines rather indicates that there seem to have been serious problems. Some superiors were evidently content to have a comfortable life without any zeal for expansion, and some missionaries seem to have been acting as the spiritual arm of their country's colonial service.

The Holy Father also wanted the superiors to take proper care of their priests. (n.10) Indeed on the question of local clergy, Pope Benedict was particularly demanding. He said that it was absolutely necessary that they should be well trained and well prepared, and not have just the minimum for ordination. (n.15) The Holy Father was scathing about the failure of some missions to produce indigenous clergy of sufficient standing:
“It is a deplorable fact that, even after the Popes have insisted upon it, there still remain sections of the world that have heard the Faith preached for several centuries, and still have a local clergy that is of inferior quality.” (n.17)

Fundamental belief in mission

The problems of colonial and national preferences are presumably not the problems of the missions today, and missionaries have for a long time placed the learning of local languages and the study of the local culture as of indispensable importance for any missionary work.

What is perhaps less familiar today is the focussed zeal of Pope Benedict XV, a zeal based squarely upon a firm and unambiguous belief in the importance of salvation and indeed the danger of not being saved. When he described what was undertaken by Bartholomew de Las Casas, the Dominican Friar who was one of the first European Settlers in the Americas, the Holy Father identified:
“… the twin tasks of protecting the unfortunate indigenous people from human oppression and wresting them from their grinding subjection to the powers of darkness.” (n.4)
He also expressed shock at the multitudes of people who remained “in darkness and in the shadow of death” and said that “The misfortune of this vast number of souls is for Us a source of great sorrow.” Speaking to the missionaries themselves, he said:
You have been called to carry light to men who lie in the shadow of death and to open the way to heaven for souls that are hurtling to destruction. (n.18)
Las Casas and other great missionaries of the time certainly carried out admirable humanitarian work, and fought against slavery and other forms of oppression of the indigenous peoples. Las Casas himself is credited with being a pioneer of a universalist approach to human dignity against the background of colonial expansion. Nevertheless, the first priority of Las Casas and others like him was the salvation of the people to whom they brought the gospel and this priority was based on the words of Jesus Christ: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned." (Matt 16:16)

Importance of sanctity in the missionary 

The Pope saw it as “very significant” that many of the missionaries, while working for the salvation of their brethren, themselves achieved the heights of sanctity. (n.5) Similarly, in offering inspiration to the missionary by encouraging him to model himself on Christ, the Holy Father tells the missionaries not to be harsh, not to be disheartened by the immorality of those to whom me goes. He tells them to use Christian kindness to draw them into the arms of the Good Shepherd. He praises the man who will cheerfully endure adversity. As he says:
“Toil, scorn, want, hunger, even a dreadful death – he will gladly accept them all, as long as there remains a slight chance that he can free even one soul from the jaws of hell.” (n.28)
Again we see the absolute priority of the missionary imperative. The missionary must be holy to the extent of offering his life for Christ, precisely because that is how he will help souls to get to heaven.

What is mission now?

It would be possible to add further purple passages from Maximum Illud to continue to illustrate the urgent concern of Pope Benedict for the salvation of souls, and that concern as being at the heart of his zeal for mission.

Now, at a time when so much is said and written about “missionary discipleship”, it is actually far less clear what the missionary is supposed to be “going out” to do, what his mission is. When all is said and done, when the works of charity are set up, when the empathy is poured forth, when we have avoided all possible offence, will we be opening the way to heaven for souls that are hurtling to destruction? Will we be wresting anyone from “grinding subjection to the powers of darkness”?

Or will the aim in practice be to ignore the foundational concern of Pope Benedict XV in Maximum Illud to bring souls to eternal salvation, and settle with congratulating ourselves that we are avoiding colonialism and being in sympathy with the cultural concerns of our brothers and sisters?

If we seriously want to celebrate the centenary of Maximum Illud, we do need to be of one mind with Pope Benedict XV that the souls who have not heard of Christ may be lost. We can put it more positively if desired, by being motivated by the idea that those who believe in Christ and are baptised will be saved.

But we can only do this if we actually believe that Christ is the one saviour of mankind. If we were able to sort out that question and give a clear answer in the affirmative, the idea of a missionary month would surely make a lot more sense?

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