100 years after ‘Maximum Illud’: Mission in the Catholic Magisterium

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Bryan Lobo, SJ

 Bryan Lobo, SJ / Church Life / 28 January 2020


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To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the apostolic letter Maximum Illud, Pope Francis declared October 2019 as an Extraordinary Month of Mission. This gives us cause to review the missiological journey that the Catholic Church has made from the promulgation of Maximum Illud in 1919 to the promulgation of Evangelii Gaudium in 2013, an apostolic exhortation on the missionary activity of the Church in our times.

The methodology used in this paper is to present briefly the contents of the documents chosen,[1] bearing in mind the context in which they were written, discovering the changes, and thereby the development of the reflections of the Magisterium on Catholic mission.

Maximum Illud

With the apostolic letter Maximum Illud,[2] which carries the date of November 30, 1919, specifying in the subtitle that it focuses on “ the activities undertaken by missionaries in the world,” Pope Benedict XV touched upon themes that were not dealt with before by previous popes and which laid guiding principles for subsequent missionary documents.[3] This document was rightly called the Magna Carta of modern missions. After the First World War and aware of the destruction that conflict had brought, Pope Benedict XV’s apostolic letter appears as an enthusiastic contribution within the then contemporary worldview and theology.

Great missionaries in the past had given their lives to convert various regions to Christ and the Christian Faith, yet, according to the pope, great multitudes of people “dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Clearly, for Pope Benedict XV, the whole world had to be “Christianized” to be saved. The pope, in this sense, keeps to the missionary viewpoint of his time. In particular, he sees the non-believers as people “who live in ignorance of God, and consequently, bound by the chains of their blind and violent desires, are enslaved in the most hideous of all the forms of slavery, the service of Satan.” Yet, as soon as the pope deals with methods to be practiced by those in charge and the others doing the actual mission work, his creative realism becomes evident.

Those who oversee the missions must be the “soul of their mission. They should interest themselves deeply in the work of their priests, and in the work, too, of all others who assist them in the fulfilment of their duty. They should use every means they have – speech, action, writing – to encourage and stimulate these aides of theirs to ever higher achievements.” A spirit of ecclesial communion is important, and there should be collaboration between religious orders and between missionaries from different countries. All mission activity must be done in cooperation and not in isolation.

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