Ad Gentes is one of the four final documents of the Second Vatican Council published Dec. 7, 1965. Focusing on the “missionary activity of the Church,” this Council decree comprises a preface and six chapters consisting of 42 articles (about 33 pages).
The first time I heard the word “missionary” I understood it to mean the ministry of priests and consecrated religious in far-off countries where native people still practiced cannibalism. I recall praying for the missionaries in third grade as we youngsters dropped our highly-prized coins into the green metal box that was passed around from child to child. (The equivalent these days would be the “rice bowls” distributed during Lent to support the poor worldwide through Catholic Relief Services). Meanwhile, our teacher explained how fortunate we were to be Catholic, and how blessed the “pagan babies” would be to receive our sacrificial gifts so they, too, could participate in the joys we took for granted like the sacraments of the Church, clean clothing, nutritious food, fresh water and medical attention.
Each month, the class that collected the most money for the missions in Monsefu, Peru, would be treated to ice cream at lunchtime and given a shiny medal of a favorite saint. The class that collected the most for the school year was given an additional treat of participating in a field trip to the local museum or nature reserve. I often wondered whether the resources used to acquire the yellow school bus for our field trip would have been better used by sending it to the missions (the money not the school bus).
The preface of Ad Gentes (hereafter referred to as AG), begins with what has become a familiar phrase to describe the Church as, “a universal sacrament of salvation” (AG, 1). This phrase first appeared in Lumen Gentium (48), the earlier Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, published one year before on Nov. 21, 1964. It is also used in Gatium et Spes (45), the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, published on the same day as Ad Gentes. While generally used to explain the nature of the pilgrim Church in relationship to its union with the Church in heaven, the phrase is also used to consider the relationship between the Church as universal sacrament and the particular sacraments such as baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist etcetera, and the relationship between universal salvation and particular salvation.
Significant throughout Ad Gentes is the constant refrain that bishops are primarily responsible for the task of missionary activity. The opening paragraph states emphatically: “Upon [the apostles’] successors devolves the duty of perpetuating this work through the years …  [that] God’s kingdom can be everywhere proclaimed and established” (AG, 1). As successors of the original apostles who comprise “the beginning of the sacred hierarchy” of Christ (AG, 6), the centrality of the bishop in the work of the missions is repeated often in the document (i.e. articles, 1, 6, 16, 18, 20, 30, 38, 41).
A central theme that emerges when discussing “mission” in Ad Gentes is its relationship to service. Being of service to people for the sake of the kingdom summarizes the primary motivation of the missionary. Whether it be down the street, in a neighboring town or in an entirely different culture where a different language is spoken, mission is all about outreach to others with the heart of a servant. Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, the document explains: “the specific purpose of missionary activity is evangelization and the planting of the Church among those peoples and groups where she has not yet taken root” (AG, 6).
The life of the missionary or “herald of the Gospel” is a way of living rather than something imposed. In chapter two of Ad Gentes, the Council Fathers talk about the importance of charity in the life of missionaries. While recognizing that they are “sent by Christ to reveal and to communicate the love of God to all people and nations,” the bishops are quick to add that “the Church is aware that this … remains a gigantic missionary task for her to accomplish” (AG, 10). Still, according to the Council Fathers, in the persons of the missionaries, the faith must be “animated by that charity with which God has loved us” (AG, 12).
Throughout Ad Gentes is the recurring Scriptural command given by Jesus to “go into the whole world, [and] preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). This remains the priority of the bishops and all heralds of the Gospel because it is God’s desire that all people be saved. From the time of Jesus, “the duty has weighed upon the Church to spread the faith and the saving work of Christ” (AG, 5).
The final chapter discusses the importance of better collaboration between bishops, priests, consecrated religious and the laity in order to contribute to the “work of evangelization” (AG, 35). The point is that evangelization remains the personal responsibility of all Catholics. Ad Gentes points out that the role all bishops play in supporting the missions is likewise true of priests, some of whom serve in missionary lands, all of whom have the obligation to actively support and promote the missions.
Most active missionaries, however, continue to be represented by religious communities. (AG, 40) Nevertheless, the Council Fathers make a special appeal that more religious communities consider “adapting their constitutions … [in order to involve their members] … as much as possible in missionary activity” (AG, 40). Those belonging to institutes of the contemplative life are also asked to contribute “by their prayers, works of penance and sufferings … [which] have a very great importance in the conversion of souls” (AG, 40).
Lay people, too, are called to active missionary work, including “catechists,” who are singled out as “coworkers of the priestly order” (AG, 17). Ad Gentes highlights also how that “the sick and those oppressed by hardship … [can] offer prayers and penance to God with a generous heart for the evangelization of the world” (AG, 38). All in the Church are challenged to offer active, financial or spiritual support to the missions. People need to be better catechized so that this goal may one day be achieved.
The Council Fathers conclude that in “their solemn duty to spread everywhere the Kingdom of God, [they] lovingly salute all heralds of the Gospel … especially those who suffer persecution for the name of Christ,” (AG, 42) from the jungles of the Amazon and Africa to the streets of Manila, Hanoi and Seoul; from the suburbs of Madrid, Lisbon and Rome to every corner of Lima, Bogotá and Quito, then Guayaquil; from rural Hunterdon County to Metuchen’s sister Diocese of Santa Rosa de Lima, Guatemala. Most especially, wherever our precious Catholic faith is ridiculed, misrepresented or in any way compromised, Ad Gentes suggests that this too ought to be prayerfully offered for the greater honor and glory of God!
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/