Sunday, July 8, 2018
This article is about some major transformations in world history and in the life of the Church, which affected the evangelising activity of the Church. The text is divided in 6 sections.

From section 1 to 4 (1. The weight of number 40 for Biblical transformations; 2. “Maranatha!” – Missionary tensions between ‘already’ and ‘not yet’; 3. The ‘Ecozoic Era’ – the Cosmic Dimension of Mission; 4. Vatican II – Radical Transformation in missionary goal and methodology), the authors present a kind of general introduction the whole topic.

Section 5 deals with “Epochal Transformations in the Church”: 5.1 – From Christendom to Christianity; 5.2 – From the Mediterranean Church to the World Church; 5.3 – From exclusively male ministry to gender-open and pluralist ministries.

Section 6 covers three major “Epochal Transformation in Religions”: 6.1 – By linking the vertical dimension with the horizontal and cosmic ones; 6.2 – By renouncing violence of any kind; 6. From Religion as ‘Opium of People’ to Religion as ‘Engine of Social Transformation’ – Social Mission of the Church.

At the end of the article, the authors add ‘Section 7’, in which they challenge the readers to participate in a ‘Working paper’ (the present one), by adding their personal reflections and contributions. This article, in fact, does not claim any completeness. The topic discussed is far wider that what this text covers. Many other ‘epochal transformations’ have taken place in history: socio-political transformations (governance), cultural transformations, and economic transformations… They all need much attention.

A complex picture

Our society is going through rapid and profound changes due to globalisation processes, closer integration and expansion of regional and continental unions (European Union, African Union, Union of South American Nations…), economic crisis, advancement of technology and social innovation, migrations and challenges to traditional identities and memberships, etc.

In today’s ‘porous world’, change is, indeed, a major sociological – and even theological – category. It affects everything: from cultures to religions, from world order and global governance to management, from security (viewed in terms of ‘hard power’ – military might, economic indicators…) to peace (understood as ‘shalom’, that is, not merely the absence of conflict and war, but rather an inward sense of completeness or wholeness),[1] from a type of education based on memorising facts or a superficial understanding of things, without real insight or critical mind development, to an ‘ethics education’, which prepares an individual for further life and work, shaped by the all-too-often neglected ‘soft power’ potential of ideas and values.[2]

In his 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio – On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate, John Paul II was already speaking of “a complex and ever changing religious picture” of the modern world.

“Today we face a religious situation which is extremely varied and changing. Peoples are on the move; social and religious realities that were once clear and well defined are today increasingly complex. We need only think of certain phenomena such as urbanisation, mass migration, the flood of refugees, the de-Christianisation of countries with ancient Christian traditions, the increasing influence of the Gospel and its values in overwhelmingly non-Christian countries, and the proliferation of messianic cults and religious sects. Religious and social upheaval makes it difficult to apply in practice certain ecclesial distinctions and categories to which we have become accustomed. (…) The difficulty of relating this complex and changing reality to the mandate of evangelisation is apparent in the ‘language of mission’. For example, there is a certain hesitation to use the terms ‘mission’ and ‘missionaries’, which are considered obsolete and as having negative historical connotations. (…) This uneasiness denotes a real change, one has certain positive aspects”[3].

This article has a twofold objective: to identify major changes and to envisage their repercussions on Mission vision, strategies and activities. The need to identify the many specific changes (transformations) in act today is given by the fact that many hint at ‘changes and transformations’ in general terms, but when they are asked to pin them down and identify them with precise references, confusion and uncertainty mount.

1. The weight of number 40 for Biblical transformations

Mentioned 146 times in Scripture, the number 40 generally symbolises a period of testing, trial or probation. Forty days or years are the periods required for radical transformation (New Creation, Exodus and Resurrection).In the Bible, major transformation does occur at personal, communitarian and cosmic levels and it takes 40 days or 40 years.[4]

One point needs to be stressed. In any given process of transformation, there are always two forces at work, and they both need to be perceived and taken into account. This point is beautifully expounded in the chapter 3 of the Gospel of John through the usage of the Greek adverb ἄνωθεν (anōthen), which has a twofold meaning: (a) “from above” (or “from heaven”); (b) again, anew, a second time.

“Jesus told Nicodemus: ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (ἄνωθεν)’. Nicodemus asked: ‘How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’. Jesus answered: ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit’”. (Jn 3:3-5).

We believe that any human transformation is, above all, a work of God’s Spirit. Yet, this power “from above” meets human reality “below” (Nicodemus and his desires and expectations). God’s presence in the world is a given fact for those who believe. The element “from above” is central, but it does not do away with what God himself has created and now wants to “transform”, “renew”, push forward toward perfection. There is always a ‘convergence’ of the two (see the law of Incarnation). The transcendent God is always an immanent God. The God of Heaven, the God of the Whirlwind, the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty, the Strict Father… is always the “God-with-us”, our Merciful Father, the Living God, ready to dirty his hands in our matters, to bring about for us the best life – “life in its fullness” – which he wants us to live here and now.

2. “Maranatha!” – Missionary tensions between ‘already’ and ‘not yet’

This reflection is deeply intertwined with our personal history. We have always been attentive to changes in our past life, and we still are at present. We see the future pregnant with surprises. Changes, transformations, new discoveries and developments fruits of human creativity have always exerted a certain fascination on us. We welcomed them as “words of God” addressed to us, to institute, to our community, to the Church and to the world. The future still allures and fascinates us, since we strongly feel in communion with the One who, in the book of Revelation, says: “Am the Alpha and Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8).

Yes, in this deep communion of faith and hope, together with “the Spirit and the bride”, any ‘missionary’ true to this name keeps crying out: “Maranatha!” (Rev 22:17).[5] He or she is convinced that no second, no minute, no hour, no day, no month, no year is empty of God’s presence. Our God is always “Emmanuel” (“God-with-us”). Hence, Maranatha! is an expression of hope for something that has still to increase, as well as a song of joy, because that ‘presence’ is already visible.

But it is also an invocation for the acceleration of the coming of the Kingdom. ‘Maranatha!’ recalls the supplication ‘Thy Kingdom come!’. Prayer is an important factor in any real transformation (Rev 7:9-17) and it needs to be a constant in the life of any missionary committed to transform the world into God’s Kingdom. Their prayer is not just about the future.

Too many people today love to make predictions of a dire future, if – for instance – certain leaders continue to be in power, if certain candidates are elected, if things do not change… And they demonise and blame anybody: “We have problems, and ‘those people’ are to blame!” “Immigrants are to blame!” “Liberals are to blame!” “Conservatives are to blame!”. This type of discourses are clearly harmful. They tear us apart; they calcify religious, political, social divides; they dehumanise others and trade on fear and hopelessness.

When praying in and with Christ, we turn to a better vision of our divisive world. We can turn to the Book of Revelation 7:9-17, where we see Jesus, the Lamb of God, victorious and welcoming those “who have survived the travails of many kinds”. They form “a great multitude that no one could count”. All tribes, all peoples and languages are beyond count… but they are all there. We are all there, too. No matter where we are from or what language we speak, no one is precluded from this moment. No one is excluded. There is no wall, no boundary dividing these worshippers.

This vision is a vision of life overflowing with difference and grace and joy and love. Hunger has ceased, as has thirst. The heat of the day no longer beats down on our shoulders as we work. Grief and pain and hopelessness and despair are vanquished as easily as we wipe a tear from a child’s eyes. Death has been defeated, and so also the many ways we have invented to divide ourselves.

This is a vision of hope and abundance, which makes such a vision so much harder to believe in a world threatened by environmental, economic, political, and personal crises. More and more, we live in a world where scarcity is the order of the day, where what we lack looms over us.

“What good is this vision when the oceans are rising, promising to engulf the poorest among us? What good is this vision when so many are squeezed out of an economy that demands more and more, but pays workers less and less? What good is this vision when political conflicts devolve into warfare at the slightest provocation? What good is this vision when our lives are in shambles? What good is this vision when the world has ceased to make sense? Maybe it could do a great deal of good. (…)

There are two important things to remember about Revelation. First, the book is not about establishing a timeline for the end of days (…). Neither is it an invitation for us to become eschatological prognosticators of the exact time and specific people who will shepherd the demise of the world.

Revelation is about God in the end. Revelation points us to a holy God who keeps promises, a God who ensures justice for the downtrodden and judgment against their oppressors. Revelation is about a God who creates the world and then sets it right again. Revelation is not about the destruction of the world, but the way God will set it right again. In short, this book is not about us or what the future will hold, but about a God in whom we can trust on our worst days as much we can on our best days.

Second, therefore, Revelation is not really about the future. It’s not really about tomorrow. It’s a book about today. Revelation is about the here and now. Revelation is about us, all of us”.

When, in prayer, we imagine (and ask for) a world so transformed by God that an innumerable crowd of different people from different places speaking different languages gather together as one, we ought to be inspired to action, especially when that vision is so discordant with what we see in our everyday lives. But we ought to be moved not to will ourselves to become better people, but to trust that God is already drawing us together, that God’s promises are already made true even in a world that has stopped making sense. On the ground of God’s promises, we cannot help but act and hope for something better”.[6]

A missionary is a person who lives between “the already” and the “not yet”, constantly welcoming and praising “the magnificent”, since he or she believes that God is already present. Throughout the planet, through its different nation races, creeds and social backgrounds, at all meridians and parallel, the Lord is present, and the missionary is the one who proclaims joyfully this presence, even though he sees the tragic inadequacy of any world order, the presence and action of the mystery of evil both in the hearts of human beings and in the religious, economic, social and cultural structures. Missionaries must be able to perceive “the already” and “the not yet” of the fullness of God’s presence and redemption. They see the fullness of life and joy already present as a powerful ‘seed’, and as a ‘promise’ of an abundant harvest.

The final transformation of the cosmos into God’s Kingdom is both an enjoyed presence and a passionate longing or dream. St Paul, the most fascinating missionary, synthesised the dynamics of “the already” and “not yet” in Greek word, μυστήριον (mustérion),[7] a ‘plan’ cherished in God’s heart, but to be revealed in order to be accomplished by human beings. It is a process of an accomplishment which is interspaced with darkness and light, greed and benevolence, thunder and shalom.

In Daniel Comboni, our ‘father’ in the missionary ministry, we contemplate, in its full measure, the dynamics of the already and not yet, and the sense (τέλος, télos) of history to be accomplished in the midst of astounding difficulties. He perceived (“it was an inspiration from above”) his Plan for the regeneration of Africa as part of the great μυστήριον of God for a particular part of the cosmos still in need of ‘salvation-regeneration’, and spent his entire life for its accomplishment, fully aware that the ‘seed’ had such a terrific (divine) power that guaranteed its fulfilment, despite all the ‘adverse forces’.

The final words he breathed out, on his deathbed on October 10, 1881, were reported to be: “I am dying, but my work will not die… Courage for the present and especially for the future!”.

3. The ‘Ecozoic Era’ – The Cosmic Dimension of Mission

One of our ‘gurus’ in our early years of missionary ministry was the theologian and Jesuit father, Bartolomeo Sorge. Besides having been blessed with direct personal interactions, we always read his articles and books and listened to his talks. In the late 1970s, both in writing and speaking, he used to repeat this refrain: “We are living in an era of ‘epochal’ changes”, explaining that, by ‘epochal changes’, he meant “very great changes”. Then, he would hurry to clarify: “Actually, instead of ‘epochal changes’, I should use the expression ‘the change of an epoch, or the change of an era in human history, which is far stronger than ‘epochal change’”.

For many years now, we have been living with these words ringing in our heads. Actually, they have become for us a modus pensandi, or a modus cogitandi, and a modus vivendi. We have been reading, reflecting and praying a lot on the meaning of ‘change of epoch’, where the emphasis is more on discontinuity than continuity. Of course, continuity is not done away with: it is ‘there’, guaranteed by God’s faithfulness (he is the ‘number one’ of history), by the blowing of the Holy Spirit, by Jesus Christ (“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” – Rev. 22:13), by the Word of God (“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” – Mt 24:35). So, continuity is assured “from above”. “From below”, however, great discontinuity meets us, and it is characterised by “radical changes”, which are not dots and commas, but dictionary, grammar, syntax… ideas, concepts.

Fr. Bartolomeo elaborated this vision in a book, entitled La traversata – La Chiesa dal Concilio Vaticano II a oggi,[8] in which he elaborates the changes and identifies the great transformers behind the changes.

The forgers of the phrase Ecozoic era are two Americas: Thomas Berry, a scientist and theologian, and Brian Swimme, an evolutionary cosmologist, in their fascinating book The Universe Story – From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era – A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos.[9] The books does not covers just ten thousand years, but it portrays the evolutionary transformations of the universe, starting from the beginning, with the Big bang, right up to our own times, which they call Ecozoic Era, and define thus: “The emerging period of life following the Cenozoic, and characterised, at a basic level, by its mutual enhancing human-Earth relations. The word derives from the scientific tradition that divides the Phanerozoic eon into Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras”.

Without the horizon of the ecozoic era, Mission would be ‘proselitism’, rather than service to the Kingdom.

4. Vatican II – Radical Transformation in missionary goal and methodology

On 11 October 1962, in St. Peter’s Basilica, Saint John the XXIII, in his opening address to the bishops, explained his vision for the Second Vatican Council. His words were “revolutionary” in the real sense of the term.[10] He proposed five points for achieving this goal:

  1. Be filled with hope and faith. Do not be prophets of gloom. “Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations, which by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward God’s superior and inscrutable design”.
  2. Discover ways of teaching the faith more effectively. “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously”.
  3. Deepen the understanding of doctrine. Authentic doctrine “should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine and deposit of the faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another”.
  4. Use the medicine of mercy. “Errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnation”.
  5. Seek unity within the Church, with Christians separated from Catholicism, with those of non-Christian religions and with all men and women of goodwill. “Such is the aim of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council which… prepares, as it were, and consolidates the path toward that unity of mankind where truth reigns, charity is the law and whose extent is eternity”.

Indeed, those words (and what they stood for) were the true beginning of a new epoch. Today, those words are echoed in Pope Francis’ words. Both insist on the word rejoice. Joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the virtue of hope. Joy is the evidence that one feels the presence of God in human events, even when everything seems so dark and harmful.

Allow us to quote from that epoch-making speech.

“It often happens, as we have learned in the daily exercise of the apostolic ministry, that, not without offense to our ears, the voices of people are brought to Us who, although burning with religious fervour, nevertheless do not think things through with enough discretion and prudence of judgment. These people see only ruin and calamity in the present conditions of human society. They keep repeating that our times, if compared to past centuries, have been getting worse. And they act as if they have nothing to learn from history, which is the teacher of life, and as if at the time of past Councils everything went favourably and correctly with respect to Christian doctrine, morality, and the Church’s proper freedom. We believe that we must quite disagree with these prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster, as if the end of the world were at hand.

In the present course of human events, by which human society seems to be entering a new order of things, we should see instead the mysterious plans of divine Providence which, through the passage of time and the efforts of men, and often beyond their expectation, are achieving their purpose and wisely disposing of all things, even contrary human events, for the good of the Church”.[11]

What those words provoked has been described by many as “a new Pentecost”. True enough, the expression did not occur inside the structure of a direct, unequivocal attribution stating outright that “Vatican II will be (or is, or was) a new Pentecost”, though it connoted hope and expectation in that direction. Without any doubt, the Spirit blew over the assembly of bishops then inaugurated. And when the Spirit blows, change and transformation are seen as taking place.

Change and transformation became theological categories, alongside the phrase “the sign of the times”, in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, in particular from paragraph 4 to 10.[12]

The Pastoral Constitution dared to call the many “deep-seated changes”, the “various social changes” and even the “changes in attitudes, morals and religion” observed in the world and history “signs of the times, making use of a biblical expression for social transformations pregnant with God’s presence and carrying the germs of the incoming Kingdom of God.[13]

Up to then, the sacraments were (and still are) signs of God’s presence and action. During the Eucharistic celebration, the bread and wine are signs of Christ’s real presence. Similarly, now ‘changes in history’ are signs of God’s presence (or absence) and action. So, we are called to see them, analyse them, accept the ‘positiveness’ or the challenge present in them, and collaborate with God bringing their potentiality to its fullness.

A missionary is a person who believes in the presence of God in history, in all religions, and in all human situations, and proclaim the ‘good news’ that God is ‘there’. Through the words and actions of the missionary, God reveals his presence, as he did in the words and actions of Jesus, his first missionary. St Paul understood this perfectly. While visiting Lycaonia,

“in the city of Lystra he met a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out: ‘Stand up on your feet!’. At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language: ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ (…) But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: he has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:8-17).

Paul does not doubt that the Living God has always been with the inhabitants of Iconium, through many signs of his presence (rain, crops, food…) and filling their hearts with joy. He does not bring a new god. The living God has been waiting for him to reveal to the people of Lystra how close he had always been to them. The miracle Paul accomplishes, through the power of the Spirit, is an invitation, an urge to see and contemplate the Living God acting in their lives.

Mission is proclaiming life, and missionaries are people who believe that the God they proclaim is a God who comes, not to steal and kill and destroy, but to bring about a radical change, so that his children may have live, and have it to the full (cf. John 10:10). They are witnesses, heralds and champions of God’s love, mercy, tenderness. The result of this is always ‘joy’, which will be ‘full’ after the overcoming of anything that denies life.

We all ought to consider Pope Francis a veritable ‘sign of the times’ for today’s world, in his conviction that the Evangelium is always gaudium! Let us do away with the “prophets of doom” condemned by John XXIII. If it does not bring about life and joy, the gospel we preach and translate in life is false. This is the ‘acid test’ for the truthfulness of a witness of Christ.

5. Epochal Transformations in the Church

Time has come to list out briefly some of what we consider important “epochal transformations”, that is, those events in history which have characterised an era along the past 2,000 years of Christianity, and have been recognised as “signs of the times”.

Of course, Mission is the constant horizon we have in mind, and the criterion for choosing a change rather than another. There have been many other transformations in the last 2,000 years of Christianity. We intend to point out only some of them, which we consider more pertinent to Mission.

5.1. From Christendom to Christianity

Before the coming to power of Emperor Constantine, conversion to Christian faith meant ‘risky transformation’, because of the possibility of being persecuted. After the Edict of Milan (February 313), in which Roman Emperor Constantine I, and Licinius, who controlled the Balkans, agreed, among other things, to change policies towards Christians and treat Christians benevolently within the empire,[14] conversion was the gate to security and privileges.[15]

Faith became cheap. Hence, the rise of monasticism, a style of life that stressed the fact that faith and conversion are serious matters. We must admit that the Edit of Milan was a mixed blessing for the Church ever since.

“On the positive side of the ledger, it finally sealed the end of the persecution of the earliest Christians. The blood of the martyrs had been so eloquent that their witness caused even a few Emperors to ask what kind of love would see so many followers be prepared to die for their beliefs. It also saw the Church become a significant player in shaping the values of society, especially in the West. There is no question that Christianity moderated, cultivated, and humanised some of the worst Roman excesses. On the cost side, the Church became very powerful very quickly. Bishops started to wear the purple robes of the senators. Churches took on the shape of the Roman Basilicas, while the government of the Church mirrored that of the Empire. Liturgy imported all sorts of practices that were popular in the Roman temples. Tragically, for the next few hundred years, conversions were demanded at the end of a sword. No religious dissent or pluralism was tolerated (…) The problem with all this is not that worldly imperial language was now being used in reference to Jesus. He described himself as a King. Christianity started to forget that Jesus also pointed out that his kingdom was “not of this world” and that his courtiers could be recognised by how they feed the hungry, water the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners. Jesus’ reign and his courtiers are of an altogether different order to that usually prized in worldly kingdoms”.[16]

It may be worthwhile considering a quotation from Bonheoffer Dietrich’s The Cost of Discipleshp.[17] What can the call to discipleship, the adherence to the word of Jesus, mean today to the businessperson, the soldier, the labourer, or the aristocrat? What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today?

Drawing on the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer answers these timeless questions by providing a seminal reading of the dichotomy between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”.

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves… grace without discipleship…. Costly grace is the gospel that must be sought again and again, the girl which must be asked for, the door at which a man must know… It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life”.

The Cost of Discipleship is a compelling statement of the demands of sacrifice and ethical consistency from a person whose life and thought were exemplary articulations of a new type of leadership inspired by the Gospel, and imbued with the spirit of Christian humanism and a creative sense of civic duty.

Another interesting book of Bonhoeffer is the posthumous Letters and Papers from Prison, in which he continued his interaction with the philosophical and literary tradition of Western civilization, thus making his Letters worthy to be considered a core text on the question of secularisation. The following passage is a real pearl:

“Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and the world. Our earlier words are, therefore, bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organising must be born anew out of this prayer and action… It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will, once more, be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom… Till then, the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time”.[18]

Mission is never the integration in a given world order, be it Roman, European or American.

5.2. From the Mediterranean Church to the World Church

This is another major transformation in the history of the Church, amply analysed particularly by Karl Rahner as the major fruit of Vatican Council II, in two famous articles, present in Karl Rahner’s Concern for the Church,[19] whose contents have been revisited by Seán D. Sammon in an article of America, the American Jesuit Review.[20]

Writes Sammon: “From 1962 to 1965 the eyes of the world focused on the city of Rome and the revolution in understanding and practice taking place, as an age-old institution struggled to find its place in the modern world. The occasion was the Second Vatican Council, and almost two decades later, in April 1979, the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner sought to measure its impact.

Speaking in Cambridge, Mass., Rahner argued that Vatican II was the Catholic Church’s first official assembly as a world church. The council, he said, initiated a shift that has occurred only once before: when the church transitioned from the world of Jewish Christianity to take its place in the larger Mediterranean world”.

Rahner divides the life of the Church in three epochs. The first – and shortest – was that of Jewish Christianity, a time during which the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was proclaimed in Israel and to its people.

The Church’s second great epoch was initiated by the Council of Jerusalem, when the believers in Christ eliminated circumcision for Gentile Christians, thereby giving birth to a Christianity that began to grow in the soil of Greco-Roman civilisation.[21] During this epoch, which last almost 2,000 years (from the Council of Jerusalem to the Vatican Council II), Christianity became increasingly identified with European culture. Between the birth of what may be referred to as Gentile Christianity and the present one, “an evolution took place”.[22] For nearly 2,000 years, the Church has appeared to be tightly bound to European civilisation and exported as such by its colonial missionaries. The evangelising Church was reluctant to offer anything other than a religion embedded in the European languages, cultures and civilizations that it considered superior.

During this second epoch, the ‘Mediterranean’ Church was basically a northern part of the ‘world phenomenon’, whose structures and the theological thought were rooted in Greek-Latin philosophy and world-view, and her institutional background was shaped by the modalities of the Roman Empire. The only two efforts to broaden the idea of the Church were at first frustrated, and later done away with: at first, with the separation for (schism) and condemnation (excommunication) of the Orthodox Church (and her horizon) in 1054; in a second moment, with the collapse of effort to bring together the Mediterranean Church and the North-European Church, marked by the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and the separation of the English Church and the Anglo-Saxon world from Rome (1534).

Theologically, ‘catholicity’ was understood as ‘uniformity’, with the Church of Rome giving the only acceptable ‘form’ of the communion, imposing the only possible rite (the Latin-Roman rite) and the only possible language (Latin). The plurality of theologies, rites and language (at the beginning all very present) came to an end. The concept of local church disappeared (it remained in the Orthodox Churches, with the different Patriarchates, different rites and languages).

A different Type of Council

Seán D. Sammon argues that the Second Vatican Council, initiated by Pope John XXIII, was fundamentally different in makeup from any that had occurred before, and surely different from Vatican I where the Asian and African episcopate was made up of missionary bishops of European and North American origin. At Vatican II, however, these same regions were represented, in the main, by delegates indigenous to Africa and Asia. And they did not come to Rome as uncertain visitors. At Vatican II, we witnessed a gathering of the world’s bishops not as an advisory body for the Pope, but rather with him serving as the final teaching and decision-making body in the Catholic Church. For the first time in history, a worldwide council with a truly worldwide episcopate came into existence; one of the oldest globalized institutions in the world was finally taking on a face that matched its complexity and diversity.

For Rahner, Vatican II was a “seismic event”. “When the dust settled, we were left standing in a different place”. The Council presented us with the possibility of a Church that would act through the influence exercised by all its components. Admittedly, the thought of moving from a Western European form of Christianity to a world Church raised theoretical problems that were anything but clear. For example, Rahner wondered whether the marital morality of the Masais in East Africa would continue to simply reproduce the ethics of Western Christianity… Should the dream of a truly world Church become a reality, there would no doubt be challenges to face, not the least of which would be maintaining unity in the midst of diversity.

At Vatican II, there was the rediscovery of Catholicity as “inclusive dynamism”, whereby pluralism was possible within the framework of one Faith (pluralism of codices, theologies, rites…). During the Mediterranean Epoch, instead, catholicity was an exclusive concept: to belong to the Catholic Church one had to become Roman.[23]

One of the symbols of this ‘plurality in unity’ were the continental synods (Africa, Asia, Latin America) at the end of the second millennium and at the beginning of the third, which, even though the Roman connotation is still very present, the voice of local, regional continental churches is being heart.[24]

It is obvious that this is one of the main objectives in Francis’ papacy. For instance, in his major documents, Evangelii Gaudium. Laudato Si’, and Gaudete et Exsultate, one third of the quotations come from Local Churches all over the world. Such references had been almost totally ignored by the previous Popes. In other words, Catholic Magisterium was mostly Roman: Popes had been quoting themselves and their predecessors.

This evolution should have a tremendous result in the missionary movement. In the past, ‘apostolic mission’ meant to go and ‘build’ the Roman Church in different parts of the world. The movement was strictly controlled by the Roman Church, who wanted to extend herself. Today, instead, missionaries are at the service of the local churches, more rooted in local cultures and incarnated in local realities, and readier than ever to help local Christian communities to evangelise areas of life in which the Christian message is still either irrelevant or only superficially affecting concrete life.

5.3. From exclusively male ministry to gender-open and pluralist ministries

Christendom is the proper name to define Rahner’s “second epoch” in the life of the Church. This was the period when ministries, governance and leadership in the Church was strongly dominated and conditioned by the mind-set, culture, and philosophy of the Roman Empire, particularly the Western Roman Empire. As in the Empire, also in the Church ‘ministry’ was understood as ‘leadership’ (command) and was strongly male-controlled. The particular care of Jesus for women, the attention of Paul to role of women in the first Christian communities, and the ‘lay’ character of most ministries in the Church (which, by the way represented a radical novelty in the Roman Empire) was soon sneered at and put aside. As soon as the Church become the official religion of the Empire, the richness in ministry in the Apostolic Church disappeared.

The strong centralisation of responsibility (and its juridical terminology) of the Roman Empire passed into the Church. So much so that, when the Roman Empire collapsed (476), its structure was taken over and perpetuated by the Church, now more than ready to find Biblical and theological justifications for it. A ‘forced’ and not always correct re-interpretation of the New Testament took place. For instance, a simple “presbyter” (elder) became necessarily an “ordained priest”. And the determination of the Orthodox Church to keep the traditional interpretation of the New Testament, in particular as far as the structuring the various churches, was frustrated with the communication of the Patriarch of Constantinople by Rome (1054).

The way the Roman Church was structured was considered eternal and divine. No diversification from it would be allowed. As to this aspect, the remarkable effort of localising the Church in Northern Europe and in the Anglo-Saxon World was termed ‘rebellion’ against God himself, and hence ‘excommunicated’. Today we know, more than in the past, that Martin Luther never intended to split the Church, but only to reform it.

Theologically, Christendom was a period characterised by the logics of “anathema sit” (“let it be cursed and damned” – which translated, in practical term, as “let it be greatly reviled, loathed, and shunned”). The theological visions of the different ecumenical councils were gradually re-expressed n theological and juridical statements, all formulated in the language of a so-called theologia perennis, which frustrated any type of pluralism and transformed Western Christendom into a religion that was too moralistic and legalistic, at the expense of the transcendent dimension.

Probably the most revolutionary decision of John XXIII’s was that Vatican II would be “a pastoral council”, whose aim was to renew the Church, not to excommunicate anybody.[25] We know that the Roman Commission had already prepared complete documents to be signed by the bishop, and all of them had been reflecting the old vision. But when John XXIII saw that between the Roman Curia and the bishops around the world there was an abyss, he dismissed what they curia theologians had prepared. So, the first part of the Council was spent in elaborating a new methodology and process that would allow all the bishops, together with the bishop of Rome, to be the magisterium (It was already a beautiful re-affirmation of collegiality and synodality).

Theologically speaking, that was possible thanks to one of the greatest theological intuition that the Council itself would endorse: the definition of episcopacy as a real sacrament (actually, the fullness of the sacrament of ordination).[26] The bishops, who for centuries had been the “representatives” of the Pope (who granted them faculties), were once against “representatives of Christs”, not of the Pope, in charge of local churches, loci in which the Universal Church of Christ is fully present.

The bishops, together with their collaborators (priests and deacons), were seen as part and parcel of “the People of God”,[27] “the messianic people [that] has Christ for its head”… “made into a kingdom and priests to God the Father”… “who also share in Christ’s prophetic office” and participate, each in his or her proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ.

In “the people of God” there are also women. During the Council, Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (April 1963) had dared to say that, among “the signs of the times”, that is events particularly significant for the knowledge of God and religion, there was also the growing role of women in public life. This social ‘transformation’ was to be seen as very important for the establishment of the Kingdom of God in history. The issue was – and still is – a revisitation of the role of the role of women in the church, including which steps can be taken to ensure their presence in significant positions of leadership within the ecclesial community.[28] It is true that that are basic skills expected of anyone who wishes to be an effective religious leader today (talent as an administrator, a habit of efficiency, the capacity to conceptualize and think analytically. Yet there are other more important ones needed in anyone who might be judged capable of bringing about the transformation required in the whole world and in the Catholic Church today. Effective religious leaders must be men and women in love with God, deeply rooted in the values of the gospel they are called to proclaim. How else can they speak convincingly about the spiritual meaning of events in the world that surrounds them? Equally important is an ability to dialogue with many diverse groups and to be at home with differences of opinion. Such leaders are committed to building unity in the midst of significant diversity. They are marked by a strong desire to make things better, and an equally strong desire to implement the changes that are necessary if the church and its people are to move forward, regardless of the resistance they encounter. Today, more than ever, we need church leaders who have a clear sense about what is happening among the People of God and in the world at large, individuals with the ability to empower believers, inspiring them to put aside self-interest in favour of a much larger vision.

6. Epochal transformations in Religions

In the traditional missiology, the focus was on personal conversions through which a person entered the Church. Overall, the end of all non-Christian religions was among the objectives of missionary activity: Christianity was to replace all of them.

Today there is a different perception, particularly due to the social and theological understanding of religions, and to the great contribution of Vatican II, particularly in Nostra Aetate.[29] World religions are no longer “the enemies” of Christianity.

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognise, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men”.[30]

6.1. By linking the vertical dimension with the horizontal and cosmic ones

This new vision of world religions was highlighted, among others, by father Yves Raguin, SJ (1921-1998). Born in 1912, he had entered the Society of Jesus in 1930, and had been ordained a priest in 1942. A leading authority on Chinese religion and on spirituality East and West, Fr. Raguin wrote more than 20 books on these topics. Most of them were first written in French and translated into Chinese, English, and several other languages.

Fr. Raguin studied at the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 1946-49,[31] and was in Shanghai during the years 1949-53. After his arrival in Taiwan, he took the direction of the Jesuit Dictionary project[32], which is now completed. With other Jesuits, he founded the Taipei Ricci Institute in 1966, in the capital of Taiwan, and remained its director until November 1996. More than a scholar, he was a man and a priest whose kindness and wisdom helped an innumerable number of people. The mission to which he dedicated his life was to gain a better understanding of the working of the Holy Spirit within the Chinese culture and to foster a deeper understanding of the contribution of Chinese spirituality to a broadening of Christian thought.

Fr Raguin considered himself a ‘true missionary’, but in a way that differed from the classical vision of a missionary. He used to say: “My main task is to inject in all Asian religions, particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism, an ‘element of transformation’, by bringing them into contact with Jesus’ radical religious experience. Jesus is the perfect image of God not only for Jews and his followers, but for all peoples”. He had reflected a lot on the experience of Mahatma Gandhi, who had accepted the ‘message of Jesus’, while reaffirming his own Hindu identity. Fr Raguin was convinced that “Gandhi had enriched his own Hindu religious thought and identity through the encounter with Christ and with all Christ stood for”.

Fr Raguin thought that, after Vatican II, the emphasis of Mission should not be put on personal conversion (though this remained an important component of Christian evangelisation) but on the transformation of any human religion by coming into contact – through dialogue and life-sharing – to liberate humanity from all the many social problems it experiences (see, for instance, the numerous injustices that still oppress many peoples).[33]

6.2. By renouncing violence of any kind

Definitely, for Fr Raguin was seeking (and practising) a new paradigm for mission, and he thought he had found it in “Mission as interreligious dialogue”. Starting as an expression of attention to other cultures and of real solidarity with people who belong to that culture, the theme of dialogue has changed radically in him, above all by accepting the multi-religious and multicultural pluralism of his (and our) time. Echoing the English philosopher of religion and theologian, John Harwood Hick, he would define this multicultural dialogue “a kind of theological Rubicon, which one must have the courage to cross”.

For him the horizon of mission was not the building up of the Church (plantatio ecclesiae), which he criticised of ‘ecclesiocentrism’, but the spreading of the Kingdom where it is already present (though partially) or making it emerge, if it is not yet present. From the ‘U-turn’ of Vatican II, as a missionary – like the Church – he saw himself at the service of the Kingdom.[34] He believed that “the Church becomes on earth the initial budding forth of that Kingdom”.[35] As a Catholic missionary and member of the Church, he wanted to be a proclaimer of the Kingdom of God already begun, a sign revealing God’s Kingdom or redemptive presence now; a servant of the continuous unfolding of the Kingdom. And he filled this last role by acting on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the despised and the persecuted, as Jesus did and as he instructed us to do as his disciples (Matthew 5:1-12). Whether or not we ourselves enter the final Kingdom will be determined by our response to the neighbour in need. Those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and comfort the sick are those who inherit the Kingdom (Matthew 25:31-46), thus manifesting God’s redemptive presence on this earth.[36]

When one of us met Fr Raguin in Taipei, he asked him to elaborate on this point. He said: “Here in Taipei there are 2,000 Hindu temples. When we arrived, they were exclusively ‘doors of heavens’, places where a person would meet God, who lived in heaven, to whom a poor could, at most, vent out his drooping spirit. Today, instead, at least 30 of these temples have opened premises for the poor. For the first time in the history of Hinduism, we have clear signs of the interdependence between the love of God (highly celebrated in the temple) and the concern for the poor, the marginalised, and the outcasts. Is this not a clear evangelisation of Hinduism? This type of transformation must take place in all religions (Christianity included). Today, on the vigil of third millennium, when religions are often used to justify violence (as if it were God’ will), this transformation is all the more important. The traditional approach, which insisted on personal conversion, is more likely to increase the antagonism among religions, up to the point of justifying violence”.

He pointed out the great ‘evangelising’ role played by the presence in Asia of Mother Theresa, totally committed to help the most unfortunate human beings, but never linking the help she would offer to conversion. “Working for greater security for all, for peace, for integrity of creation, renouncing any type of violence, will bring world religions at the service of the Kingdom”.

6.3. From Religion as ‘the Opium of People’ to Religion as ‘Engine of Social Transformation’ (The Social Mission of the Church)

The evolution of the social impact of religions is one of the major transformations, which have appeared over the last 50 years. The social analysis of Karl Marx was based on the experience he had of religion in Lutheran Germany and Anglican England, where religion was strictly part of the establishment and at its service, according to the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio”.[37]

Keeping into account that Marx was one of the founders of sociology (he drew conclusions from what he saw), the conviction to which he arrived – “religion is the opium of people”[38] – was neither theological nor philosophical, but exclusively sociological. By examining the situation of in Germany and England, he ‘just saw’ that religion was helping the state to control people, in a historical moment of great transformation, characterised by the emergence of democratic approach to governance (power is in people, who choose their representatives). So, he was right in saying that religion was against transformation in those particular protestant contexts. Wrong have been those who generalised a specific conclusion of a sociological and made it into a general philosophical statement.

Over the past half century, Christianity (if not other world religions) has become a major engine of social transformation. We may recall what happened in the Philippines and Latin American, where Christians helped in a decisive manner to bring about the end dictatorial systems of governance (in those contexts, the influence of Liberation Theology and the role of Basic Christian Communities cannot be underplayed). In the downfall of communist ideology in Russia and Eastern Europe, Christianity played a major role. What was termed “opium of the people” turned out to be a force for change. This ‘U-turn’ of Christianity can hardly be explained by a sociologist.

It is important to distinguish Christianity from other religions. Only Christianity, through the contribution of the social encyclicals of the Popes and the statements by World Council of Churches, Christians have developed a robust Social Teaching of the Church. It is true to say that Christianity has ‘a faith with social power’. Yes, Christian faith has a power that transforms the world and makes it more and more similar to the Kingdom promised by God.

This teaching is not an optional in evangelisation. And it is not of yesterday: it goes back to Rerum Novarum, published by Pope Leo XIII in May 1891, today considered a foundational text of modern Catholic social teaching[39]. Yet, a Catholic Church document of almost 47 years ago has been most influential for us: Justice in the World, produced by the 1971 Synod of Bishops, dealing with the issue of justice and liberation of the poor and oppressed. The text called for more countries to share their power and for wealthy nations to consume less. It was written by many bishops from poor, undeveloped countries and was influenced by Liberation theology. They wrote that justice is central to the Catholic church’s mission, that “Christian love of neighbour and justice cannot be separated”, and that “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation”.[40]

Another important document on Social Teaching of the Church was John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, in 1991.[41] The year 1989 had been a monumental one of civil protests against communism throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Communism as a major political and economic force had collapsed under opposition to one-party rule. The mood of that year is perhaps best remembered in the ‘Solidarity’ movement’s forcing elections in Poland and images of citizens demolishing the Berlin wall that had divided East and West. In 1991, Pope John Paul II reflected on the rapid downfall of communism in his encyclical. He named three ‘decisive factors’ in the fall of these regimes:
• the violation of the rights of workers
• the inefficiency of the economic system, which prevented initiative, private ownership and economic freedom
• the spiritual void of atheism, which had denied purpose and meaning in life for younger generations (13, 22–24). But John Paul II remained concerned for the people of these nations as they turned to the market economy and endured economic hardship in the process. He was also concerned for the peoples of the ‘Third World’ who were still impoverished and denied the social development and economic prosperity of the market (26–29).

For the theme of this article, we want to point out it paragraphs 5 and 58 the text, where John Paul II stresses the relation that exists between religion and human social life, between the proclamation of the Gospel and the social concern of the Church, between love for others and for God and the promotion of justice, and confirms that “to teach and to spread her social doctrine pertains to the Church’s evangelising mission and is an essential part of the Christian message”.

“The Pope [Leo XIII] and the Church with him were confronted, as was the civil community, by a society which was torn by a conflict all the more harsh and inhumane because it knew no rule or regulation. It was the conflict between capital and labour, or — as the Encyclical puts it — the worker question. It is precisely about this conflict, in the very pointed terms in which it then appeared, that the Pope did not hesitate to speak. Here we find the first reflection for our times as suggested by the Encyclical. In the face of a conflict which set man against man, almost as if they were ‘wolves’, a conflict between the extremes of mere physical survival on the one side and opulence on the other, the Pope did not hesitate to intervene by virtue of his ‘apostolic office’, that is, on the basis of the mission received from Jesus Christ himself to “feed his lambs and tend his sheep” (cf. Jn 21:15-17), and to ‘bind and loose’ on earth for the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt 16:19). The Pope’s intention was certainly to restore peace, and the present-day reader cannot fail to note his severe condemnation, in no uncertain terms, of the class struggle. However, the Pope was very much aware that peace is built on the foundation of justice: what was essential to the Encyclical was precisely its proclamation of the fundamental conditions for justice in the economic and social situation of the time. In this way, Pope Leo XIII, in the footsteps of his Predecessors, created a lasting paradigm for the Church. The Church, in fact, has something to say about specific human situations, both individual and communal, national and international. She formulates a genuine doctrine for these situations, a corpus that enables her to analyse social realities, to make judgments about them and to indicate directions to be taken for the just resolution of the problems involved. In Pope Leo XIII’s time, such a concept of the Church’s right and duty was far from being commonly admitted… The Pope’s approach in publishing Rerum Novarum gave the Church ‘citizenship status’ as it were, amid the changing realities of public life, and this standing would be more fully confirmed later on. In effect, to teach and to spread her social doctrine pertains to the Church’s evangelizing mission and is an essential part of the Christian message, since this doctrine points out the direct consequences of that message in the life of society and situates daily work and struggles for justice in the context of bearing witness to Christ the Saviour… Today, at a distance of a hundred years, the validity of this approach affords me the opportunity to contribute to the development of Christian social doctrine. The ‘new evangelization’, which the modern world urgently needs and which I have emphasised many times, must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine. As in the days of Pope Leo XIII, this doctrine is still suitable for indicating the right way to respond to the great challenges of today, when ideologies are being increasingly discredited. Now, as then, we need to repeat that there can be no genuine solution of the ‘social question’ apart from the Gospel, and that the ‘new things’ can find in the Gospel the context for their correct understanding and the proper moral perspective for judgment on them” (5).

Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice. Justice will never be fully attained unless people see in the poor person, who is asking for help in order to survive, not an annoyance or a burden, but an opportunity for showing kindness and a chance for greater enrichment. Only such an awareness can give the courage needed to face the risk and the change involved in every authentic attempt to come to the aid of another. It is not merely a matter of ‘giving from one’s surplus’, but of helping entire peoples, which are presently excluded or marginalised, to enter into the sphere of economic and human development. For this to happen, it is not enough to draw on the surplus goods, which in fact our world abundantly produces; it requires above all a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power that today govern societies. Nor is it a matter of eliminating instruments of social organisation which have proved useful, but rather of orienting them according to an adequate notion of the common good in relation to the whole human family” (58).

In Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium,[42] the entire chapter 4 is dedicated to “The Social Dimension of Evangelization[43]. He re-emphasises “the profound connection between evangelisation and human advancement” and the right of Pastors “to offer opinions on all that affects people’s lives”. “No one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society”. He quotes John Paul II, who said that the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice”. “For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category” rather than a sociological one. “This is why I want a Church that is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us”. “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved… no solution will be found for this world’s problems”. “Politics, although often denigrated”, he affirms, “remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity”. I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by… the lives of the poor!”. He adds an admonition: “Any Church community”, if it believes it can forget about the poor, runs the risk of “breaking down”. With regard to the theme of peace, the Pope affirms that “a prophetic voice must be raised” against attempts at false reconciliation to “silence or appease” the poor, while others “refuse to renounce their privileges”. For the construction of a society “in peace, justice and fraternity” he indicates four principles: “Time is greater than space” means working “slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results”. “Unity prevails over conflict” means “a diversified and life-giving unity”. “Realities are more important than ideas means avoiding “reducing politics or faith to rhetoric”. “The whole is greater than the part” means bringing together “globalisation and localisation”. “Evangelisation also involves the path of dialogue”, which opens the Church to collaboration with all political, social, religious and cultural spheres. Ecumenism is “an indispensable path to evangelization”. Mutual enrichment is important: “We can learn so much from one another!”… for example “in the dialogue with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of Episcopal collegiality and their experience of synodality”. “Interreligious dialogue”, which must be conducted “clear and joyful in one’s own identity”, is “a necessary condition for peace in the world” and does not obscure evangelisation.

Here is one of the many pearls disseminated in the text about what Francis calls “the communal and societal repercussions of the Kerygma”:

Our redemption has a social dimension because God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men. To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds. The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable… From the heart of the Gospel we see the profound connection between evangelization and human advancement, which must necessarily find expression and develop in every work of evangelization”.[44]

7. A Working Paper

Away from us the idea that we have listed all the “epochal changes” in the life of the Church and in the world that had some impact on evangelisation. The limited space granted to our article prevents us from continuing.

But why not considering this contribution of ours just as a “working paper” whose main purpose is to to share ideas about the chosen topic or to elicit feedback from others. It could be a ‘beginning’ of wider reflection carried out by all Comboni Missionaries. We are certain that a similar exercise would be of great advantage for many.

We could just mention few other important ‘transformations’:

  1. From an anthropocentric proclamation to a cosmocentric evangelisation.
    Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ could guide us in a reflection on what we can define “an environmental conversion”. The traditional understanding of ‘Christ’s Mandate to the Church to Disciple and Teach All Nations” could be enriched by reconsidering it starting from Mark 16:15: “To out to the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to all creation”.
  2. From the Kingdom made coincide with the Church and her spreading to the Kingdom as the fruit of the collaboration between the Church and the World, between Faith and Science.
  3. From a liturgy at the service of devotions to a liturgy as a ‘force’ which transforms human beings and the world.

Conclusion – Unfinished Reflection

The few epochal transformations we have tried to underline and the many others that we might have mentioned should convince us, more and more, that history is characterised by radical continuity, with a prevalence of epochal discontinuity.

In the past, the mind-set of the Church and her approach to changes and transformation has been highly conditioned by the famous principle of Vincent of Lerins:[45]What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all is the Catholic Faith of Christianity”.[46]

Fidelity was reduced to repeating the past. The dynamics of changes and transformations (despite the assurance that Holy Spirit is always at work) were ignored. Attentions to ‘the signs of the times’ faded away.

The ‘actualisation’ of the Word of God, instead, needs to be constant: the fullness of truth is ahead, not behind… “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13a). Amamnesis (zikkaron in the Hebrew) is the re-actualisation of the celebrated mystery: not just a remembrance of the past, but rather a making the past present. The ground and reason for the confession of One God is God’s own saving action, the salvation history that the confessing person, in recalling, makes present, is drawn into, and participates in.

Fr. Moretti Franco and Fr. Pierli Francesco
Comboni missionaries in Kenya


[1] Although it can describe the absence of war, a majority of biblical references refer to an inner completeness and tranquillity. In Israel today, when you greet someone or say goodbye, you say, ‘Shalom’. You are literally saying: “May you be full of well-being” or, “May health and prosperity be upon you”. The ‘blessed peacemakers’ are more than mere mediators or political negotiators: they are those who carry an inward sense of the fullness and safety that is only available through ‘son-ship with God’.

[2] Ethics education has gained considerable importance in our modern context and has become, along with science, one of the fundamental pillars of societal development. “Within such a framework, ethics education, intercultural dialogue and critical thinking have a significant role in forming an ethically mature human person. Ethics is the foundation of our human relationship to ourselves and to the world around us. The purpose and role of ethics has always been the preservation of the human being as a person, human dignity, and the conditions for leading a good life. Today’s time, today’s culture in which we live is characterised mainly by pluralism with which we have to deal, with crises and turmoil that we are experiencing, with the increasing interconnectivity of the world (globalisation) and the dependence of one another, and the ‘relativisation’ of values, which is primarily an expression of decreased confidence in society and the loss of certainty about the answers to the fundamental questions of our existence. Ethics protects and nurtures humanity of our existence, both in ourselves and in others, and practice of dialogue is essential. We always live in relationship to others, namely in a relationship of mutual giving and receiving, therefore recognition of our dependence on others and caring for others is essential” (See Ethics and Values Education, Manual for Teachers and Educators, in

[3] John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio – On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate, December 7, 1990, 32.

[4] 1. The rains of the Great Flood lasted 40 days (Gen 7:12). 2. Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah. 3. Isaac’s son Esau is 40 years old when he marries Judith and Basemath. 4. The embalming of Israel (Jacob) takes 40 days. 5. Moses spends 40 days on the mountain with God receiving the Law. 6. The scouts are in Canaan 40 days. 7. Caleb, the only scout who trusts in YHWH, is 40 years old when he enters Canaan; his life alone is spared by God. 8. God punishes the Israelites with 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, so that the entire generation dies before returning to the land of Israel. 9. The land has peace for a period of 40 years under the judges Othniel, Deborah, and Gideon. 10. God punishes Israel by allowing the Philistines to defeat them for 40 years (the epoch of Samson). 11. Eli, the final judge, rules for 40 years. 12. The Philistine army stands against Saul’s army for 40 days until David slays Goliath, turning the Philistines to route and presaging his succession to Saul as king of Israel and Judah. 13. The reign of King David is 40 years. 14. The reign of King Solomon is 40 years. 15. Elijah spends 40 days on the Mountain of God, where Moses spent his 40 days with God. God appears to Elijah and calls him to be a prophet. 16. God commands Ezekiel to lie on his right side for 40 days to bear the sins of Israel. 17. Ezekiel prophesies that Egypt shall be desolate for 40 years. 18. Jonah prophesies that Nineveh will be overthrown in 40 days. 19. Jesus fasts in the wilderness for 40 days. 20. According to the book of Acts, Jesus appears to people on earth for 40 days after his resurrection. 21. In Acts, Stephen says that Moses is 40 when he flees Egypt and that 40 years pass before he encounters the burning bush. 22. Ezra is commanded by God to write for 40 days before being taken up to heaven (Apocrypha).

So the 40 years of wandering links the Exodus event with Noah’s flood, Isaac’s and Esau’s marriages, Israel’s burial, the Mosaic Law, and the land of Canaan. Later writers would link those events with the judges, David’s and Solomon’s dynasty, Elijah’s call by God, and the prophetic legacies of Ezekiel, Jonah, Ezra, and Jesus, as well as Jesus’ resurrection.

[5] “Our Lord has come!”, or “Our Lord, come!”. Both of these translations are true, the first serving to undergird the absolute assurance of the second, which may account for the fact that this ancient word has been translated both ways. In fact, Maranatha is translated either as a prayer (a begging for an increase of presence and action in the world on the part of God, or a statement of fact: The Lord has already come” (or: “He keeps coming” with his saving surprises).

[6] Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto,

[7] “The mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones” (Col. 1:26). Paul preaches God’s word to carry out the divine plan (μυστήριον) to make Christ known to the Gentiles.

[8] Mondadori Editore, 2010. The thesis of the book: Society has now become irreversibly pluri-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious. To act as a spiritual, cultural and social ferment, the Church must act in a new way, otherwise it is no longer credible, neither when it announces the Gospel, nor when it fights for man and his dignity. At the turning point of the fifty years since the Second Vatican Council, to evangelise a profoundly changed world, all that remains is to continue with courage the “crossing” (“la traversata”) along the “route” (“la rotta”) clearly marked by the Council and faithfully followed by the “ferrymen” (“traghettarori”). The post-conciliar “crossing” has been undoubtedly tormented, made even more complex by the swirling social changes, divisions and contrasts that have crossed the Catholic world. In this delicate season, some charismatic figures have played a decisive role that have accompanied the Church and our society in the transition to the third millennium. Drawing on his many memories, public and private, Father Bartolomeo Sorge outlines a passionate and intense portrait, with the hope that such memories can be an example to “a new generation of ferrymen”, called to complete the long journey of the Church towards the goals indicated by the Council, overcoming uncertainties and tiredness, without fearing to face new situations and new challenges.

[9] By HarperOne, New York, 1992. After 67 million years, the Cenozoic era is ending. Humans are establishing a new relation with the rest of the universe. Will it be the Technozoic era or the Ecozoic era? If we choose to align with nature rather than fight it, ours is the universe story. (As Geddy Lee sings, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice). The universe is 13.7 billion years old already, and has billions to go. What’s next? Who knows? “The path before us is neither random nor determined but creative”, write Swimme and Berry. Our past decisions give rise to yet narrow our future options. This common story is our map. Without it, we have no use for the wake of the past or the compass of the future.

[10] St John XXIII, Mother Church rejoices (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia) – Opening address at the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962.

[11] Ibidem, 8-9.

[12] “In every age, the church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task” (4). “Ours is a new age of history with profound and rapid changes spreading gradually to all corners of the earth” (4). “We are entitled then to speak of a real social and cultural transformation whose repercussions are felt at the religious level also” (4). “The spiritual uneasiness of today and the changing structure of life are part of a broader upheaval” (5). “The scientific mentality has brought about a change in the cultural sphere and on habits of thought” (5). “The traditional structure of local communities – family, clan, tribe, village, various groupings and social relationships – is subjected to ever more sweeping changes” (5). “A change in attitudes and structures frequently calls accepted values into question” (7). “Such rapid and uneven change, coupled with an increasingly keener awareness of existing inequalities, make for the creation and aggravation of differences and imbalances” (8). “The Church also maintains that beneath all those changes there is much that is unchanging, much that has its ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (10).

[13] The Biblical expression “signs of the times” has been used with a general meaning of significant events and trends in many languages for centuries. It was given a specific theological meaning at Vatican Council II in Gaudium et spes (art. 4), where it refers to those events in history characteristic of an epoch, which, if properly read, can reveal the presence or the absence of God. “Signs of the times” was first used in a theological context by Pope John XXIII in the Bull Humanae salutis (Dec. 25, 1961), in which he convened the Vatican Council, to meet in the next year. After dismissing those who see only darkness burdening the face of the earth, the Pope stated: “We renew our confidence in our Saviour who has not left the world he redeemed. Instead we make our own the recommendation that one should know how to distinguish the signs of the times (Mt 16:4) and we seem to see now in the midst of so much darkness a few indications that argue well for the fate of the Church and humanity”.

In Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (April 13, 1963) the term “Signs of the Times” is used three times, not however in the text of the letter, but as the sub-titles to three distinct sections (par. 29, 126, 142). Under this heading, the pope noted three events in particular as being significant for the knowledge of God and religion: the progressive development of the working classes, the growing role of women in public life, and the gradual disappearance of colonialism. The origin of the term “signs of the times” (semeia tou kairon) is the Gospel (Mt. 16.1-4).

[14] The Edict of Milan gave Christianity a legal status (religio licita), but did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire; this took place under Emperor Theodosius I, in 380 AD.

[15] The Edict of Milan required that the wrong done to the Christians be righted as thoroughly as possible. It claimed “it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever”. The edict further demanded that individual Romans right any wrongs towards Christians, claiming that “the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception”.

[16] Richard Leonard, in

[17] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Simon and Schuster, 1959. Bonhoeffer is one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, who illuminates the relationship between ourselves and the teachings of Jesus in this classic text on ethics, humanism, and civic duty.

[18] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (London: SCM Press/New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971), 300 (May 1044).

[19] Karl Rahner, Concern for the Church, Theological investigations (Vol 20), Crossroad, 1981.

[20] Seán D. Sammon, “The Birth of the World Church”, America, October 15, 2012 issue. This section is highly indebted to this article. For a software edition of the article, “The Birth of the World Church: The epoch initiated by Vatican II”, see:

[21] “Consider for a moment the many other endings that also took place when converts were no longer required to practice circumcision: the Jewish Sabbath was abolished, new canonical writings were accepted, the church’s centre moved from Jerusalem to Rome and modifications were made in moral doctrine. These developments represent a decisive break with the past, a new beginning for Christianity with Paul at the forefront of change”.

[22] “The movements that gave rise to these changes were significantly less decisive than the break between Jewish and Gentile Christianity. While Paul and the early Church made the entire world the focus of their attention, this universality has been difficult to discern for much of the Church’s history”.

[23] The ties that for centuries bound Christianity to European civilisation have weakened considerably during the past 100 years. John L. Allen, Jr., points out that at the beginning of the 20th century the cultural and ethnic profile of the Roman Catholic Church was not significantly different from what it had been about the time of the Council of Trent. Approximately 200 million of the world’s 266 million Catholics lived in Europe and North America; the remaining 66 million, about 25%, were scattered across the rest of the planet. By the end of the 20th century, only 300 million of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics were European and North American, approximately 33%. The overwhelming majority, 750 million people, lived in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This shift is the most rapid and sweeping demographic transformation ever to occur in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, these changes are not yet evident in the leadership of the Church. During the conclave of 2005, for example, Italian cardinals cast 19 votes, equivalent to the total number from Africa and Asia combined. But there are just 55 million Catholics in Italy, while Africa and Asia are home to more than four times that number. The appointment of cardinals on the part of Pope Benedict XVI also appeared to favour the northern hemisphere over those areas where the Catholic Church is growing. With Pope Francis, the trend is clearly changing.

[24] During Vatican II, French theologian Yves Congar proposed to revisit and rediscover the ecclesiological category of Patriarchy as an instrument of “plurality in unity” which had been present during the first millennium.

[25] As early as May 23, 1923, Pope Pius XI had wanted to convoke an Ecumenical Council to condemn the modern errors of Communism and Modernism. The Cardinals, at that time, voiced strong opposition to the idea, stating that so many bishops had been imbued with Modernist and liberal ideas that such a Council would do more harm to the Church than good.

[26] Lumen Gentium 26-28 – “A bishop marked with the fullness of the sacrament of Orders, is “the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood” (26); “Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them” (27); “Christ, whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world, has through His apostles, made their successors, the bishops, partakers of His consecration and His mission. They have legitimately handed on to different individuals in the Church various degrees of participation in this ministry” (28).

[27] Lumen Gentium, Ch. II – “The People of God” (9-17).

[28] During the council, Paul VI initially appointed 15 women as “auditors” in September 1964. By the end, 23 such women (including both religious and laity) served at the council, and their contributions have now been documented in an Italian book titled Madri del Concilio (“Mothers of the Council”) by historian and theologian Adriana Valerio.

Paul VI gave a talk welcoming these women to the council on Sept. 14, 1962, which was certainly a nice gesture, but with this small hiccup: the women were not there yet. The first to arrive did not join the Council until several days later.

Officially speaking, the auditors had no role in the Council’s deliberations, and, in fact, the female delegates were supposedly there only to track issues of “special concern to women”. In reality, they found creative ways to make themselves heard. (Unforgettable was Sr. Mary Luke Tobin’s reaction, when told that her pass would get her into sessions of “particular concern” for women. “Good”, she said, “that means I can attend them all”).

In practice, the women auditors were treated as periti by many participants, and freely attended the meetings of subcommittees working on council documents, especially texts that dealt with the laity. The women also met together on a weekly basis, reading draft documents and commenting on them. These valiant women worked within the structures of the church and out of love for the church, often in a much hidden way, doing it all with humility, humour and integrity.

[29] Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, October 1965. “In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship”, 1.

[30] Ibidem, 2.

[31] Founded in 1928, the Harvard-Yenching Institute is an independent foundation dedicated to advancing higher education in Asia in the humanities and social sciences, with special attention to the study of Chinese culture. Located on the campus of Harvard University, the Institute currently enjoys partnerships with more than fifty university and research centres in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

[32] An encyclopaedic dictionary, which was completed after 52 years of work. The Grand Ricci dictionary treats 13,500 single characters and 300,000 multi-character expressions in seven volumes and 9,000 pages, and was compiled by the Jesuit-run Ricci Institutes in Paris and Taipei. Entries range across 180 branches of knowledge, such as astronomy, Buddhism, finance and medicine, using vocabulary currently spoken in mainland China as well as regional variations. The dictionary provides archaic and modern senses of usage and written forms of the Chinese characters. Some 2,000 characters from oracular inscriptions found on tortoise shells and ox shoulder blades dating as far back as 1500 B.C. are presented as the origin of the writing system.

[33] The Vatican Council Fathers noted that one finds in every people “a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life”, and sometimes one even finds recognition of “a supreme being or still more of a Father”. This awareness and recognition “results in a way of life imbued with a deep religious sense”. Two examples of this basic sort of religiosity are given: Hinduism, with its exploration of divine mystery in both myth and philosophy; and Buddhism, which “testifies to the essential inadequacy of this changing world”. Both religions propose means of escape from the trials of life into some sort of superior illumination. Cf Nostra Aetate, ibidem.

[34] See the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, November 1964.Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission” (1).

[35] Lumen Gentium, 5.

[36] Church is not equal to the Kingdom. It is one thing to insist that the Church is the servant or instrument of the Kingdom of God. It is another matter entirely to suggest that the Church is itself the Kingdom of God. Before Vatican II, many Catholics said precisely that. We automatically assumed that, whenever the New Testament speaks of the Kingdom of God, as in the many parables of the Kingdom (the net cast into the sea, the mustard seed that grows into a large tree, and so forth), the New Testament was flatly identifying it with the Church. Actually, it was not. The Kingdom is larger than the Church. After all, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the Kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Or, in the words of St. Augustine as adapted by Karl Rahner, S.J., “Many whom God has, the Church does not have. And many whom the Church has, God does not have”. Cfr Fr. Richard P. McBrien, What Is the Kingdom of God?, in

[37] Cuius regio, eius religio is a Latin phrase which literally means “Whose realm, his religion”, meaning that the religion of the ruler was to dictate the religion of those ruled. At the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which ended a period of armed conflict between Roman Catholic and Protestant forces within the Holy Roman Empire, the rulers of the German-speaking states and Charles V, the Emperor, agreed to accept this principle.

[38] The full quote from Karl Marx translates as: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. It appears in the introduction of Marx’s work, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which he started in 1843 but which was not published until after his death.

[39] Many of the positions in Rerum Novarum were supplemented by later encyclicals, in particular Pius XII’s Quadragesimo anno (1931), John XXIII’s Mater et magistra (1961), and John Paul II’s Centesimus annus (1991).

[40] Justice in the World, 6.

[41] John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, Encyclial Letter on the Hundreth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, 1 May 1991.

[42] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World, November 2013.

[43] Evangelii Gaudium, 176-258.

[44] Evangelii Gaudium, 178.

[45] Vincent initially served as a soldier but left that life to become a monk on the island of Lerins off the southern French coast near Cannes. He was ordained there and about 434 wrote the Commonitorium under the pseudonym Peregrinus (the Pilgrim). He died there, between 434 and 450. St. Eucherius of Lyons calls him a holy man, conspicuous for eloquence and knowledge. Vincent attempted, as did St John Cassian, to find a way that avoided the extremes both of Pelagius and of Augustine. His Commonitories (reminders) offer a guide to distinguish Orthodox teaching from innovation, the maxim now known as the Vincentian Canon: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” is the Catholic Faith of Christianity). Vincent taught that the ultimate source of Christian truth was Holy Scripture and that the tradition of the Church was to be invoked to guarantee the correct interpretation of Scripture.

[46] The Latin text: “In ipsa item Catholica Ecclesia magnopere curandum est ut id teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est”.