Mark Elvins calls for a fresh look at our stale ideas about where missionaries are most needed.
THE WORD mission from the Latin "missio" means literally "a sending", and a missionary, in the traditional sense, is one who is sent out by the Church to preach and teach among the heathen; this has become associated with going out to a foreign land like the first apostles who were sent to preach the Gospel to "every nation".
In John 20:21 Our Lord declares "as my Father has sent me, even so I send you"; the second phrase in the vulgate (Latin Bible) is "et ego mitto vos", and the first phrase in the original common Greek uses a word pronounced "apestalken" (cf. apostle) to mean "has sent". Thus the words missionary and apostle have a common origin.
However the word "mission" has many different meanings even within the Catholic context. It can mean (a) specific work to continue the work of Christ and His apostles, or (b) a place where the Gospel has not been preached; where the Church is not firmly established it can also mean (c) an ecclesiastical territory with the simplest kind of canonical organisation; sometimes it can refer to (d) a chapel without a resident priest or (e) a course of
The "English Mission" is not a term used today in England and yet in the 16th century it was considered one of the most important missions in Christendom. In 1574 the first priest with missionary faculties was sent from Rome and by 1580 the English Mission was formally established. This type of mission would fall into the (a) category (to continue the work of Christ and His apostles).
From 1598 to 1623 the mission was led by three successive Archpriests; by 1623 the first Vicar Apostolic was appointed; seven more were to follow. The clergy lived by a common rule and spent a week every year doing spiritual exercises. Twice a year they met for days of recollection. By the 1620's a three-tiered system was established of vicars-general, archdeacons and rural deans to which was added a chapter made up of a dean and 18 canons.
After 1631 there was no bishop in England for 50 years and during this time the secular clergy were governed by the Chapter. In 1850 Pope Pius IX changed the eight vicariates into the Metropolitan See of Westminster and 12 suffragan sees — thus restoring the English hierarchy. Some would say this act was premature for it belied something of the real missionary situation which continued in England.
It might be asked what determines the designation of missionary territory. The restoration of the hierarchy may have given the Church official status in England but the missionary situation remained unchanged. Today the Church is only ten per cent of the population and of that number only about half are church-going. Between 1980 and 1985 the number of churchgoing Catholics fell by 172,000; on the other hand non-Christian religions, such as Islam rose in the corresponding period by 252,000. This surely more than ever underlines the truly missionary situation in England. Peru and Chile for instance are designated mission territories and yet their populations are respectively 92 per cent and 86 per cent Catholic. Peru had its first bishopric in 1537 and Chile in 1561, over 300 years before the re-establishment of the English hierarchy.
These South American territories have a shortage of native clergy but there is a certain irony in English priests serving them as missionaries. England is statistically in greater need of missionaries, and yet with dwindling congregations and a minority church in terms of national population, we still talk of other countries with a largely Catholic population as mission territory.
The Vatican Council (Ad Gentes 1:6)' states: "The Church's missionary activity does not cease. Rather there lies upon the particular churches which are already set up the duty of continuing this activity and of preaching the gospel to those still outside.
"Moreover, the groups among which the Church dwells often undergo radical changes for one reason or other, and an entirely new set of circumstances can arise. Then the Church must deliberate whether these conditions call for a renewal of missionary activity."
It has been estimated that the Christian population has declined by half a million in Britain from 1980 to 1985. This trend will undoubtedly continue, and in a Church which has espoused in so many ways the cause of the youth it is tragic to view the neglect of Catholic education and the inevitable result of wholesale lapsing among young people.
In Poland there is not a single Catholic school and yet the youth are well instructed in their faith, for each Sunday they are taught by their clergy after Mass. In England a fortune is being spent on Catholic education and yet the ignorance of religion_ among young people is quite frightening.
The general ignorance is moreover complained of by university chaplains who witness Catholic students as a prey to every kind of fringe sectarianism. Mass attendance at Cambridge University's Catholic chaplaincy, according to statistics, has fallen continuously over three years with only 27 per cent going to Mass last year. A Seminary Rector has had to compensate for the lack of proper Catholic education in the secondary schools by introducing a year's catechism in the Seminary Curriculum.
All in all England is in ari urgent state of mission, 'but before anything can be done the erstwhile missionaries, the bishops and clergy have to be convinced that England is indeed neglected mission territory crying out for redress.