This week we will finish our reflection on Ad Gentes, (the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church), by considering certain aspects of priestly formation and the missionary mandate within this Vatican II document. In the weeks ahead we shall address the topic of ordained priesthood in more detail when we consider the next Vatican II document, Presbyterorum Ordinis (the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests).
Priestly formation is a topic dear to my heart, first because I have had the privilege of being an ordained priest for more than 25 years, and second because I spent more than 12 years of my priestly ministry preparing men for ordination to the holy priesthood.
In the 1990’s, when I first began teaching at the seminary, it was commonplace for seminarians to be sponsored by dioceses and religious communities from within and outside of the United States. Foreign-born seminarians recruited to study for a diocese or religious community within the United States would ordinarily refer to themselves as having moved to the United States to pursue priestly formation. Such was my experience as well when I moved from Canada, having been recruited to study for the holy priesthood in the United States.
Later, when assigned as vice-rector and full-time faculty member at the seminary, I discovered that some foreign-born seminarians intending on remaining in the United States were identifying themselves as preparing to become missionary priests in the United States. One could argue that this perspective is consistent with some of the language found in Ad Gentes. However, this is only true insofar as we are all called to be missionaries or “heralds of the Gospel” by virtue of sharing in the common priesthood of the baptized. Seminarians are missionaries by virtue of baptism in the same way that all Catholics are called to be missionaries or “heralds of the Gospel.”
I recall discussing this with a visiting bishop to our seminary from a southern diocese who had come to participate in the annual evaluation of seminarians. Having had recruited seminarians from outside United States for his diocese, the bishop explained that the term “missionary priest” was used by the vocation director in his diocese when recruiting potential seminarians from countries south of the border in an effort to entice new vocations to the United States. “It is a matter of packaging,” the bishop pointed out. “How we promote our diocese outside the United States is important because there is so much competition among American dioceses to find young priests for the New Evangelization,” he explained.
I respectfully disagreed with the explanation offered by the visiting bishop. Using terminology that would suggest there are some seminarians preparing to become missionary priests in the United States is flapdoodle if the intent is to suggest that foreign-born candidates preparing for priestly ministry in the United States are doing what missionaries in ages past had done. The problem with this approach is that it conveniently uses some of the general ideas in Ad Gentes that refer to all Catholics being called to be missionaries or “heralds of the Gospel” but avoids more fundamental principles taught in the decree that reflect an understanding of missionary, in the traditional sense, as one who is sent.
Ad Gentes refers to “those who are sent to different nations,” for example, and to “the lands to which they are sent” (AD, 26). It also affirms that missionaries never take this title or role upon themselves but receive it through a legitimate authority: “Having been sent by legitimate authority they go forth in faith and obedience to those who are far from Christ, as ministers of the Gospel, set aside for the work to which they have been called” (AG. 23).
Ad Gentes teaches that the pilgrim Church is “missionary by its very nature” (AG. 2). Twenty-five years later, Pope John Paul picks up this theme in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio. Adopting Pope Paul VI’s “New Evangelization” language, John Paul uses this interchangeably with the term “mission,” and invite(s) the Church “to renew her missionary commitment” (RM. 2). In short, what Ad Gentes speaks of as “mission,” we now call the New Evangelization, especially when referring to our outreach to lukewarm or fallen away Catholics. Both “mission” and the “New Evangelization” can be defined as witnessing to the faith in word and deed. The mission that Jesus had while on earth is now our mission as the mystical Body of Christ. What Jesus did in His physical body, we are to continue as His body, the Church. This is the essence of the New Evangelization.
Foreign-born seminarians preparing for ordination in an American diocese or religious community are not sent by their local bishops or superiors to serve as missionaries in the United States, but either move to the United States to embark upon a priestly vocation or are recruited by American bishops or superiors and invited to move from their homeland to the United States. These young men from other countries are a different kind of vocation. They not only serve the needs of the well-established Catholic population but also provide significant support to their country folk who have likewise journeyed to the United States, their brothers and sisters and ours, who have emigrated from distant places.
Ad Gentes reminds us that the Church models itself on the divine missions of the Blessed Trinity when She sends missionaries or “heralds of the Gospel” into various regions and territories to preach the good news of salvation. Just as Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, was sent into the world by the Father (John 20:21) for the sake of our salvation, so Jesus sent the apostles into the world to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). Later, Jesus tells us that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send … will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). Similarly, those called to become missionaries in and for the Church are sent by the legitimate authority in the person of the bishop or religious superior. (see AG. 23).
Within Ad Gentes there exists an ongoing tension between two different ideas of “missionary” and “missionary activity.” They do not contradict one another, however. Both are necessary because the mission of the Church continues to involve sending missionary priests, deacons, religious brothers and sisters and even lay missionaries to places where people do not yet believe in Christ. It also includes continued ministry in local parishes and other vicinities in need of renewal from Metuchen to Manville, New Brunswick to North Plainfield, Carteret to Califon, Somerville to Sayreville, Perth Amboy to Peapack, Piscataway to Phillipsburg, Laurence Harbor to Lambertville, and even from Washington to Whitehouse and everywhere in between. This is what the New Evangelization is all about.
The next article will examine Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Decree On the Ministry and Life of Priests. Meanwhile, I promise to pray that our loving God will give you the strength and courage to be the best “herald of the Gospel.”
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit