Rethinking “mission territory”

George Weigel

In his June 1908 apostolic constitution, Sapienti Consilio, Pope Pius X decreed that, as of November 3 that year, the Catholic Church in the United States would no longer be supervised by the Vatican’s missionary agency, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide). American Catholicism had grown up. The U.S. Church would now be a mission-sending Church, not “mission territory.”

This pattern has long characterized the organization of the world Church. Young local Churches begin as “mission territory” and their bishops are chosen in consultation with what’s now called the “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples” (but which everyone in Rome still refers to by its old name, “Propaganda,” or simply “Prop”). After these young Churches demonstrate that they can stand on their own spiritually, organizationally, and financially, they cease being “mission territory” and relate to the Roman Curia like the older local Churches; the bishops of these newly “graduated” local Churches are thus chosen in consultation with the Congregation for Bishops.

The rapid de-Christianization of Europe, however, prompts a thought-experiment: What should the Church do when this process of ecclesial maturation slips into reverse? Where do venerable but collapsing local Churches “fit” in their relationship to the Curia, the central government of the Catholic Church? If there can be a (sometimes lengthy) period of ecclesiastical apprenticeship during which a young, growing local Church is supervised by Propaganda Fide, might there be a parallel arrangement for decaying older local Churches, in which they’re taken into a form of ecclesiastical trusteeship aimed at rebuilding their evangelical, catechetical, and pastoral strength? And if we can imagine that (admittedly bold) move, which Roman agency should be the trustee?

For purposes of this thought-experiment, my nominee would be the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. It seems the logical place. For John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, the Magna Carta of the New Evangelization, called for urgent evangelism among Christians who had fallen away from the practice of the faith, or who had been poorly catechized, or who had, more likely, suffered both maladies, the latter contributing to the former.

That seems to describe most of the Church in western Europe. So perhaps the Church’s central administration should stop relating to dying European local Churches as if they weren’t dying, and recognize that they are, in fact, mission territory. But rather than putting such local Churches back under the supervision of “Prop,” put them into trusteeship under the supervision of a reconstituted and re-staffed Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization – just like a failed company that goes into Chapter 11 bankruptcy is supervised by a trustee until such time as the company can stand on its own feet again.

What would happen under this “trusteeship”? Again, let’s think outside the box. The trustee agency would recommend to the Pope replacements for failed bishops and nominees for empty sees, drawing candidates from around the world who had demonstrated success in enlivening a sclerotic or corrupt local Church. Pastoral life in the moribund local Church and the structures of its national bureaucracy would be examined by Catholics who are expert in making organization serve evangelization; those consulters would then make recommendations to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization for mandated reforms. There would be apostolic visitations of seminaries and houses of religious formation, led by seminary rectors and religious men and women from living and growing communities, who would recommend needed changes; the trustee agency would then mandate their implementation.

Where might this form of trusteeship be tested? How about Germany? The practice of the faith is dying there. Senior German churchmen have made clear that they believe something different than what’s in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, whether the issue is the nature of marriage, the ethics of human love, the character of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood, the authority of revelation, or the enduring effects of baptism. And what could be more appropriate on the quincentenary of the Reformation than to call German Catholicism to a thoroughgoing Catholic reform?

Perhaps this thought-experiment – putting the German Church into ecclesiastical trusteeship – isn’t the answer to the Church’s German problem. But recognizing that Germany is mission territory is the beginning of any serious analysis of a grave situation, and any serious thinking about how it might be addressed.

Featured image by dronepicr | wikicommons

COMING UP: Should the Church talk about money? If we follow Christ’s teaching, yes.

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In Luke Chapter 3, three different groups asked John the Baptist what they should do to bear the fruit of repentance. John gives three answers: 1) Everyone should share clothes and food with the poor; 2) Tax collectors shouldn’t pocket extra money; and 3) Soldiers should be content with their wages and not extort money. Each answer John gives is related to money and possessions, but no one asked him about that! They only ask how to demonstrate the fruit of spiritual transformation. They don’t grasp John the Baptist’s perspective, that he could not talk about spirituality without talking about how to handle money and possessions.

Jesus puts some harsh words in God’s mouth in the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” In Luke 12:20, we hear: “But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus will it be for one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

Alternatively, Jesus provides some great promises on both sides of that parable. In Luke 11:41: “…give alms and behold, everything will be clean for you.” And in Luke 12:33: “…give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven.”

When my wife Cathy and I were experiencing our conversion to the Lord in the early 1990s, we decided we were going to try to live out our Catholic faith to the full: in our attending Mass every Sunday, in our family and in our checkbook.

So, despite four young kids and no way of knowing if we could afford to send them to Catholic school or college, we started tithing. One thing it dramatically did was contribute to our growth in faith and trust in God. We truly believed in God’s promise that He never will be outdone in generosity. And now, 25 years later, we can only rejoice that we still are doing fine despite paying for Catholic schools, colleges and three daughters’ weddings! So what, that we are driving two cars that have 365,000 miles between them!

When we created our will back then, we decided to leave 10% of our assets to the Church. After I became President of The Catholic Foundation in 2012, we became aware of the concept to “treat the Church like one of your children.” We thought that made a lot of sense, so we changed our will to do just that … such that our four children and The Catholic Foundation will each receive 20% of our estate.

Today, we are not sure how our kids will be able to do what we did; with Denver’s crazy housing market, how will they be able to afford Catholic school for their kids, future colleges and, someday, weddings? It looks daunting for them. Shouldn’t we leave them 100% instead of just 80%? For us, it was an easy decision—better to give them a portion with God’s blessing than to think they’d be better off with it all. Besides, they are helping themselves have the best chance possible.

How? By doing their own tithing! I remember years ago, when the business manager at our parish called me to ensure that it was okay that our daughter had made a large contribution to the parish. Cathy and I were unaware she had done so. What had she done? She had tithed her high school graduation gift money. You can imagine how proud we felt.

A “planned gift” through a will or another avenue is the easiest gift to make because it only gets made when we can’t use it anymore – at least, not in this world. Maybe it can be better used by God and his Church. Listen to Revelation 14:13: “I heard a voice from Heaven say, ‘write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, said the Spirit, let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them.’ ”

Cathy and I want our works to accompany us, as we are sure you do, too. We have been saved by Jesus for eternal life – let us make sure our faith in that is manifested in our living and in our giving.

Would you prayerfully discern how God is calling you to steward the assets He has entrusted to you? We hope we and you hear these words someday from Jesus (Matthew 25:34): “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Deacon Steve Stemper is CEO & President of The Catholic Foundation. Please contact him at (303) 468-9885 if you would like a meeting to discuss how your planned giving can be used for God’s Kingdom.