I often recall the once popular 1971 song called “Signs” that I would feverishly try to strum on my guitar as a young teenager. The original lyrics of the refrain remind me of obstacles and frustrations that the Council Fathers (or bishops) similarly encountered when drafting Ad Gentes, (the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church). Written and performed by the Canadian rock group “Five Man Electrical Band,” the words of the song capture well the confusion that the bishops encountered that reflected the “signs of the times,” including ideas, often contradictory, that tried to influence the direction of the missionary decree: “Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs, Blocking out the scenery, Breaking my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?”
Preparation began in 1960 with the goal to create a document that helped train missionaries, promote missionary work and give all the People of God a greater share in the missions. After years of preparation with hundreds of pages submitted, and draft after draft rejected, six printed pages finally emerged containing a preface and 13 missionary topics. The majority of Council Fathers, especially those bishops who had served as missionaries, rejected even this document. The final draft that came forth from these six pages was accepted as a middle-of-the-road approach capturing the best of the past with a view toward the future. This became the official Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church.
Factors that contributed to the indecisiveness of the Council Fathers when preparing Ad Gentes included:
1.  The pluralistic opinions prevalent in the 1960’s
2.  The lack of new theological content
3. The tension between the former understanding of mission and the more contemporary understanding
Regarding the pluralistic opinions prevalent in the 1960’s, an important question was asked as to how it would be possible, in the ecumenically-heightened environment, to evangelize without giving the impression that the Church was proselytizing (attempting to convert people who are faithful to another religious tradition).
The Council had already published the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) the previous year in November, 1964, in which our Protestant counterparts were no longer called “heretics” and “schismatics” but “separated brethren,” “Protestant brothers and sisters” or “other Christians.” With this change in language came a change in attitude and a shift in theological emphasis. According to this new Vatican II teaching, these “other Christians” belonged to ecclesial communities and enjoyed some share in the Church of Christ, although in an incomplete way. The gap had been so wide for so long but now the Church wanted to bridge that gap with gestures of respect including the decision not to proselytize.
While proselytizing suggests a campaign “to steal” the adherents of another faith tradition, evangelizing suggests sharing our faith. Proselytizing suggests blind adherence to a set of principles while evangelizing suggests unblind faith. Proselytizing suggests “eyes closed” while evangelizing suggests “eyes wide open.” Making this distinction helped set the stage for what Pope Paul VI later coined the “New Evangelization,” an expression that underwent further reflection and refinement by Blessed John Paul, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
A second concern for the Council Fathers were the theological ideas emerging that conflicted with the traditional missionary trajectory. One example was the “anonymous Christian” construct that became popular with Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. In the English translation of his 1976 “Theological Investigations” volume 14, page 283, Rahner states that the ‘anonymous Christian’ is “the pagan who lives in the state of Christ’s grace through faith, hope and love, yet who has no explicit knowledge of the fact that his life is orientated in grace-given salvation to Jesus Christ.” Such ideas challenged the Church’s need to continue the cause of evangelization and even planted seeds of doubt regarding the legitimacy of missionary activity.
Most apparent in Ad Gentes is the limited focus on the theology of missionary activity. Having had already discussed the missionary Church in a comprehensive way in chapter 2 of Lumen Gentium, many argued that it was premature to have dealt with the theological basis of missionary activity so thoroughly in Lumen Gentium rather than waiting to include it in Ad Gentes. To repeat it again in Ad Gentes would have seemed strange and redundant. On the positive side, however, dedicating an entire chapter to the theme of the missions within a Council “constitution” rather than a “decree” heightens the credibility and value of missionary activity.
The ongoing tension between the classical understanding of “mission” and the more contemporary one was another matter that contributed to the difficulty in creating Ad Gentes. Traditionally, being a missionary suggested leaving one’s family and country to serve in a foreign land where the Gospel was yet to be proclaimed. Although the new understanding in Ad Gentes includes this notion of being sent to another country, it contains a broader view as well, encompassing every place the Gospel needs further proclamation, including one’s own neighborhood and even well-established parishes in one’s own diocese. As the decree notes, “their main duty, whether they are men or women, is the witness which they are bound to bear to Christ by their life and works in the home, in their social group, and in their own professional circle” (AG, 21). In short, we are all “heralds of the Gospel” to use a preferred phrase from this document, always and in all places.
According to Ad Gentes, “missions is the term usually given to those particular undertakings by which the heralds of the Gospel, sent out by the Church and going forth into the whole world, carry out the task of preaching the Gospel and planting the Church among peoples or groups who do not yet believe in Christ” (AG, 6). With this Vatican II decree, however, there is a definite change in the way missionaries or “heralds of the Gospel” go about their task.
Priests, consecrated religious and lay people continue to proclaim the Gospel to indigenous peoples. Unlike their predecessors, however, they are sent, not with preconceived ideas, but with the intention of first seeking to understand the people to whom they are sent. What Ad Gentes teaches here is the principle of “inculturation,” a word later used in documents written by Blessed John Paul and others. This means that the missionary seeks to learn the way of life of the native people including their history, customs, and language. Then, the language and symbols, already familiar to the people, are employed to teach the Catholic faith.
In short, these new “heralds of the Gospel” seek “to propose” rather than “impose” the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church. The ultimate gift that the missionary seeks to impart is first and foremost the gift of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. Along the way, the missionary helps people arrive at an understanding that it is through the grace of God in Christ that they are “snatched away from sin and led into the mystery of God’s love, who calls them to enter into a personal relationship with Him in Christ” (AG, 13). Here the seeds are sown for what will become the New Evangelization.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit http://www.catholicspirit.com/columnists/fr-john-hillier/