In his message for World Mission Sunday 2014, Pope Francis reiterates the close connection between evangelisation and joy. In his short message, he mentions the word, “joy” (or rejoice) at least 33 times. He wants Mission Sunday to be a celebration of grace and joy.
Evangelisation is a celebration of grace because it is the work of the Holy Spirit and he alone gives wisdom and strength to those who are open to his promptings. It is a celebration of joy because Jesus in whom Christians proclaim to the world, is the “manifestation of joy”. Jesus not only brings Good News, He is Good News to everyone who encounters him.
Therefore, on this year’s Mission Sunday, the Pope asks us to reflect on the close connection between grace and joy in the work of evangelisation.
Grace, according to the Pope, is an experience of God’s love. This experience must necessarily reflect the double commandment of love that the Lord gave to us, namely, loving God and loving our neighbours. To make our evangelisation effective, it has to be done not only with words but with concrete deeds of love reflecting the heart and compassion of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who brings Good News to all.
The Pope is keenly aware that God’s love is always a mediated love. That is why he calls for an “evangelisation of humanity built on love”. This love must be proclaimed, “in the most distant places, as well as in a constant outreach to the peripheries of their own territory, where great numbers of the poor are waiting for this message”. The Good News must be shared with all peoples especially the poor.
Certainly, the poor that the Pope mentions, includes both the spiritually as well as the materially poor. Thus, the poor are all who are waiting to be touched by grace.
Nowhere in his message does the Pope see evangelisation as merely a means to increase the numbers in the Church. This would be proselytisation. While the Pope recognises that Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation when he says, “Humanity greatly needs to lay hold of the salvation brought by Christ,” he also emphasises the gracious will of the Father. The gracious will of the Father “describes the Father’s saving and benevolent plan for humanity”.
This is what the Second Vatican Council calls the “universal salvific plan for God”. Such missiology is very much in line with the International Theological Commission on Christianity and World Religions which says that everyone can be saved but they are saved only through the unique mediation of Christ.
We are familiar with the verse, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, translated as “outside the Church, there is no salvation” that came from the writings of St Cyprian, a bishop of the third century. The Catholic Church has never officially proclaimed this teaching as a dogma. Even before the Second Vatican Council, the Church had never interpreted this phrase to mean that those who are not part of the Church are damned.
Today, many theologians interpret the Latin phrase, extra eccelsiam nulla salus to mean “without the Church, there is no salvation” rather than “outside the Church, there is no salvation”.
With this interpretation, the Church has correctly come to see herself as the instrument sent by Christ to bring salvation to all. The Church in this sense is necessary since she is entrusted with the Gospel of Christ, to be preached to the ends of the earth. In fact, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, numbers 846-848, rightly interprets it to mean that “all salvation comes from Christ, the Head through the Church which is His body”.
In this respect, one can go further to complement the saying of St Cyprian with “without Christ, there is no salvation”. Salvation does not come from the Church but from Christ. The Church serves only as the necessary instrument in bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Here, we come to the second point of this article that Mission Sunday is a celebration of joy. Joy is the fruit of loving others and being loved by others. Love always produces joy both in the giver and in the one who receives love. It is as the Pope puts it, “an experience of God’s love but also the possibility of sharing that love”.
When the Good News is presented and accepted, both the evangeliser and the evangelised are able to rejoice because “this is the Good News that leads to salvation”. In the words of Evangelii Gaudium, number 1, “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.”
Existentially speaking, a person cannot but be joyful when he or she is set free from those sins that afflict and enslave. Similarly, joy will certainly fill a person who can finally be set free from his or her inner emptiness and loneliness. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is the Good News that leads to salvation.
This was the joy that filled the heart of Jesus when He thanked His Father, the source of joy, for revealing Himself to mere children (Lk 10:12). This was the joy that filled the disciples when they returned excitedly from their missionary journey. This is the joy that the Church is called to experience in communicating Jesus Christ to the world.
The Pope ends by enlisting the Church to be a welcoming home and a mother for all peoples. In this respect, the Church is to imitate Mother Mary as the model of evangelisation, ever humble and yet ever joyful.
By Fr James Yeo