In preparing us for Extraordinary Mission Month in October 2019, Fr Kenson Koh provides a crash course on how the Church carried out its mission through the ages. It shows that we are now called to be a part of this mission.

“Mission” is rooted in the Latin mittere, meaning “send”. “Evangelisation”, comes from evangelium, meaning “Gospel”. Today, both mean the same thing, unlike the past 2,000 years of the Church.

Apostolic period: Sharing the faith

The early Christians spread the faith through witnessing and apologetics. Witnessing meant living the Gospel and testifying to the truth. In doing so, many were persecuted and killed.

Apologetics – the defence of the faith through systematic reasoning – started with St Paul. He used reason when facing Festus, the Roman procurator of Judea (Acts 26). St Peter also declared that we are responsible for defending the faith (1 Peter:3). Thus, in the early 300s, mission meant witnessing and defending.

Roman empire: State religion

Many Roman emperors were hostile to the Church, until Constantine declared Christianity an official religion. People began flocking to church as priests could now preach from the pulpit. In the past, Christians could only privately share the Gospel, if asked.

Eventually, a systematic way of evangelising and catechising was introduced. Many people were converted, no longer fearful of being arrested for their faith.

Medieval period: Unifying faith

The Roman empire initially employed various barbarians to look after its borders. Over time, they formed the majority in many villages, taking over large areas both peacefully and by force.

To prevent fighting within tribes, a barbarian leader, Charlemagne, converted to Christianity as he believed religion could be a unifying force. The Pope then sent bishops to the various tribes, thus evangelising most of Europe.

However, many of these new converts remained warrior-like. The knights who were sent to fight in the Crusades often displayed unholy, even violent behaviour. In response, devout people like St Francis of Assisi and St Dominic formed Religious orders that portrayed a new way of looking at Christianity, and later gained the trust of the Muslims.

“The Second Vatican Council introduced new ideas: everyone is to be missionary, and the laity are just as responsible for the Church as are priests and religious.”

“The Second Vatican Council introduced new ideas:
everyone is to be missionary,
and the laity are just as responsible
for the Church as are priests and religious.”

Age of reform: Renewal

Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk from Germany, had observed many clerical abuses and wanted the Church to revert to its true, Christian form. As the Roman authorities ignored him, he put up his 95 theses criticising the Church, and promoted faith based on Scripture alone.

Alone, Luther may not have made much impact. But Germany, which was made up of several principalities, did not want to pay taxes to the Pope and sided with Luther. Countries and kingdoms began leaving the Church.

Thus, the Protestant Reformation was not solely due to doctrinal reasons, but political ones too. The people would follow their leaders and worship differently, without asking why. As time went by, the Church authorities noticed and were troubled that there were different doctrines.

The Council of Trent was convened to restructure the Church, kicking of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Over many years, infrastructural reforms were made, including the creation of seminaries and the proper appointments of bishops.

Holy individuals like St Teresa of Avila and St Francis de Sales led spiritual reforms. The relationship between Church and state was also reviewed due to the aftermath of the political dimensions of the Reformation.

Age of discovery: Church in the world

Though Catholicism declined in Europe, Portugal and Spain got the Pope’s permission to spread the faith in other parts of the world, namely the Americas and Asia.

Following constant fighting between the two countries for land instead of religion and the exploitation of local populations, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith was created to oversee mission work. Later, France sent the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) priests to Asia.

19th century+: Evangelisation

The Church’s missionary activity in Asia slowed when Protestant colonial powers – the British and Dutch – arrived. People also started to lose their faith as the two world wars brought much grief, destruction and death.

Seeing a need for further reform, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican

Council as the Church had been operating in the same way for 400 years since the Council of Trent. Many new ideas were introduced, including the concepts that everyone is to be missionary and that the laity are just as responsible for the Church as are priests and religious.

In the 1970s, political unrest grew as colonies fought for independence. To avoid its association with the evils of colonialism, the Church replaced the word “mission” with “evangelisation”.

Our mission today

Today, it is about bringing Christ to the world. Rather than setting out to convert people outright, we bring Christ to them in the hope that, one day, they will convert. Share your faith in Him!

This is the first article based on the three-part series of talks by Rev Fr Kenson Koh, held by ONE for the Extraordinary Mission Month (Oct 2019) to mark the centenary of Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical Maximum Ilud.

The talks were ‘Crash course: Mission & Evangelisation’,’Tell others about Jesus in Singapore’, and ‘Hey Catholics! Go into the whole world!’.

First published in Catholic News, Sunday 06 October 2019.

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