Reflection on the Apostolic Letter of Pope Benedict XV, Maximum Illud, and its value for the Church in the IMBISA Zone.
Fr Dumisani Vilakati
In October 2019, by the will of Pope Francis as indicated on the 22nd October 2017, the Universal Church will be celebrating the Extra-ordinary Missionary month. This will be in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Apostolic Letter of Pope Benedict XV, Maximum Illud. This Apostolic Letter gave a great impetus to the Church’s missionary activity in the period following the First World War. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, wishes that the month of October 2019 be not only a celebration of Maximum Illud but also paying attention to the Missio ad Gentes in the Particular Churches and indeed in every sphere of Church life. In this reflection we wish to present the more important points of Maximum Illud as well as some important lessons for the Church in the IMBISA zone. It is clear that even though the letter was written a hundred years ago, nevertheless its message is still relevant for the Church today and indeed will be for some time to come.
The Church’s mission from Christ to the present
From the onset, Pope Benedict XV grounds the mission of the Church in Jesus Christ who commanded his disciples to go and preach the gospel to every creature. As such, we note that this is a divine mission. This mission is meant to last forever as the apostles took it so seriously that they also handed it over to their successors. Such was the dedication of the apostles and their successors that, in spite of persecutions, the gospel reached many lands in Europe, Africa, the Americas, Asia and finally Australia and the Islands of the world. In fact, through the efforts of the missionaries, many people have reached sanctity. Some of these attained sanctity by martyrdom and others by showing a good example of Christian piety. Indeed, a number of missionaries can be counted among the saints as well.
In spite of all the work done over the centuries and the manifest zeal for souls among missionaries, many people still remain outside the faith. Pope Benedict XV indicates that about one billion people had not been reached by the faith at the time of writing the Apostolic Letter. This explains the reasoning behind the writing of the letter. It seeks to encourage bishops and priests to a renewed commitment in the task of evangelization.
The role of bishops in missionary animation
In encouraging a renewed commitment to missionary work the Holy Father presents five important matters as he focuses on the bishops who are already involved in the missions.
In the first place he recognizes the visible spirit of the apostolate present among the bishops in the mission territories in spite of the difficulties therein. He notes that this spirit needs to be fostered especially in the cultivation of better relations between the bishops and the priests and other missionary agents present in the mission territories.
Secondly, he places emphasis on the fact that the mission needs to be extended to all people in the territory where the missionaries find themselves. This will allow for the creation of New Vicariates and Prefectures. For this to happen effectively, the Pope requests the addition of Religious Congregations in the mission territories.
Thirdly, in a sense related to the above, is the shunning of any form of exclusivity in the mission territories. Bishops must be open to more Religious Congregations, nationalities and even women.
Fourthly, the Holy Father underlines the importance of collaborating with neighboring ecclesiastical territories in order to deal effectively with common problems and challenges. An area of such collaboration is specifically mentioned as the formation of the indigenous clergy.
The fifth point that is emphasized concerns the proper formation of indigenous clergy with the addition that this be done in sufficient numbers. Their formation should be at par with the clergy in the countries where Christianity enjoys a more ancient tradition. Anything less will give rise to an inferior clergy which will not be able to lead the church properly in the future. As such, the importance of seminaries receives special mention with the clear indication that these be established in territories where they do not yet exist.
The role of those called to be missionaries
After speaking directly to the bishops on the aforementioned points, the Holy Father turns to the missionaries. In the first place he encourages them in this endeavor by pointing out that missionary work is a divine task as all missionaries were sent by Christ himself. As such, it should not be confused with personal or national interests. It is vital that a missionary gives a good example to the people in the missionary territory. This is so that the local people can recognize that the religion is indeed noble and is for all people.
Secondly, he exhorts the missionaries to avoid seeking earnings or money but to always seek souls.
Thirdly, is the encouragement that missionaries or would be missionaries, acquire special skills which assist in evangelization. Mentioned specifically is the need to have some knowledge of the language and culture of the people the missionary is sent to. This is so that he may have the ability to communicate with the local leaders and indeed the general population.
Fourthly, is the importance of a holy life marked by chastity, a certain piety, prayer, union with God and respect for those not yet in Christ especially in their culture and ways of living. Such qualities are viewed in Maximum Illud as important in attracting the local people to the Christian way of doing things.
The role of women in the mission
Having addressed the missionaries directly, the Holy Father moves on to speak about the involvement of women in the mission territories. He notes that they have, since the beginning of Christianity, been involved in the spread of Christianity. Consecrated virgins are singled out as having excelled in educating the young and taking care of the sick and the poor. To this end their involvement in the missions is encouraged and in fact required.
The role of all the baptized in missionary activity
Lastly, the Pope turns to those who have already been baptized noting in particular their duty to assist in the mission. In this way they will be giving testimony and thanks to God for having received the gift of faith. The Holy Father notes three ways in which the baptized may participate fruitfully in such a noble task.
Firstly, they have to offer prayers so that the work of the missionaries may not be rendered sterile.
Secondly, he notes the need to send more personnel to the mission territories. In this sense the Holy Father encourages bishops in countries with a longer tradition of Christianity to send diocesan priests as missionaries to the mission territories. Also encouraged here are Religious Congregations and other Institutes who are exhorted to send more personnel to the missions. The warning is given though that only those noted for a holy life, zeal for souls and a spirit of sacrifice should be considered. Furthermore, being free to preach in areas where the gospel has not been planted remains an important disposition of the missionary.
Thirdly, the Holy Father highlights the importance of providing material resources for missionary work. He calls this participation a labor of love. It should be noted that the scarcity of material resources was acutely felt when the Apostolic Letter was written as this was a period immediately after the First World War. An invitation on supporting the Pontifical Mission Societies which in turn support the work of evangelization in the mission territories is particularly affirmed.
The universal value of Maximum Illud
The message of Pope Benedict XV, proclaimed a hundred years ago in Maximum Illud, is still relevant for the Church today. Of course Maximum Illud is also a document of its time especially in seeing evangelization as just the work of the clergy and religious. Lay people seem to appear where they have to support the works of the missions with prayer and material resources. Also, the language that it uses in some sections, especially in referring to those not yet admitted into the Church, can seem demeaning and in a certain sense representative of a colonial mindset. The lack of a clear mention of the laity in evangelization and a more respectable language for those who are not yet Christians will of course be the great project of the Second Vatican Council.
The obvious lacks in the document though do not subtract from its perennial value. Whereas Pope Benedict XV spoke of one billion people who had not yet reached the faith in 1919 we now speak of billions. The commandment of Christ to go and make disciples of every nation has not expired. The need remains on the importance of working together so that this noble task may be attended to accordingly. Moreover, the lack of personnel and material resources still hampers the work of evangelization even today.
Relevance for IMBISA
In the IMBISA region, we note that some Particular Churches have more human and or material resources whilst others remain without. As such, cooperation and the sharing of resources among the Particular Churches remains an important area to be further explored. Moreover, there is still need to attend to the formation of the indigenous the clergy. Such formation should be at par with their counterparts in other parts of the world as well as being in sufficient numbers. This is especially true of Diocesan clergy who, at times, don’t see themselves as missionaries so that they may be ready for the Missio ad Gentes.
In conclusion we can say that indeed Maximum Illud can serve as an impulse for a more renewed missionary engagement and commitment. Its main points on the cooperation of Particular Churches, formation of the clergy, openness to the involvement of Religious Congregations in spreading the gospel, bringing in other nationalities for this noble and divine task and the inclusion of women are still relevant. As the baptized people of God we should never stop praying, providing personnel as well as material resources for the missionary activity of the church so that this noble task may be attended to accordingly.
Fr. Dumisani Vilakati, IMBISA Pastoral Department, June 2019