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: Getting ready for Synod-2018

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The headline on the March 3 story at the CRUX website was certainly arresting — “Cardinal on charges of rigged synods: ‘There was no maneuvering!’” The cardinal in question was Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and not only were his voluble comments striking, they were also a bit disconcerting. Did I simply imagine the uproar on the floor of the Synod on October 16, 2014, as bishop after bishop protested an interim report generated by Baldisseri and his colleague, Archbishop Bruno Forte, that did not reflect the discussions of the previous two weeks? Were the complaints about the suffocating Synod procedures Cardinal Baldisseri outlined prior to Synod-2015 an illusion? Didn’t thirteen cardinals write Pope Francis in the most respectful terms, suggesting alterations in those procedures to ensure the open discussion the Pope insisted he wanted?

But, hey, memory is a tricky thing, and this is the season of mercy, so let’s let bygones be bygones and concentrate now on Synod-2018, which will discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment. Those are very important topics. The Church in the United States has had some success addressing them, despite challenging cultural circumstances; so perhaps some American leaders in youth ministry and vocational discernment could be invited to Synod-2018 to enrich its discussion, on the Synod floor and off it (where is where most of the interesting conversations at these affairs take place).

Curtis Martin is the founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which is arguably the most creative campus ministry initiative in the post-Vatican II Church. FOCUS sends recent college graduates back to campuses as missionaries and has had such success in the U.S. that FOCUS missionaries are now working in Europe. There’s a lot the bishops at Synod-2018 could learn from Mr. Martin’s experience.

Then there’s Anna Halpine, president of the World Youth Alliance: a network of pro-life young people all over the world, who witness to the joy of the Gospel and the Gospel of life in an extraordinary variety of social and cultural settings. WYA has also designed and deployed innovative educational programs and women’s health centers that, building out from the Church’s teaching on the inalienable dignity of the human person, offer life-affirming alternatives to the moral emptiness of too many elementary school curricula and the death-dealing work of Planned Parenthood on campuses. Surely there’s something to be shared at the Synod from this remarkable enterprise.

Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa was the director of campus ministry at Texas A&M for eleven years, where St. Mary’s Catholic Center has set the gold standard in traditional campus ministry and created a model for others to emulate. Over the past twenty years, Konderla and his predecessors have fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than that school with the golden dome in northwest Indiana, while helping many Aggie men and women prepare for fruitful and faithful Catholic marriages. Bishop Konderla would make a very apt papal nominee to Synod-2018.

Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has taken up the mantle of the late Dr. Don Briel in creating a robust, integrated Catholic Studies program on his growing campus. Shea’s goal, like Briel’s, is to form mature young men and women intellectually, spiritually, and liturgically, so that they can be, in the twenty-first century, Pope Francis’s “Church permanently in mission.” He has things to say about how to do this, and Synod-2018 should hear them.

Then there is Father Thomas Joseph White, OP, a banjo-playing, bourbon-appreciating theologian of distinction who (with his Dominican brother, Father Dominic Legge) has created the Thomistic Institute, to bring serious Catholic ideas to prestigious universities across the U.S. The Institute’s lectures and seminars fill the intellectual vacuum evident on so many campuses today — the vacuum where thought about the deep truths inscribed in the world and in us used to be. Father White is being redeployed by his community to Rome this Fall, so he’ll be a #64 bus ride away from the Vatican. The Synod fathers should meet him, and perhaps he and Cardinal Baldisseri, an accomplished pianist, could jam.  

So by all means, let’s have “no maneuvering” at Synod-2018. But let’s also have some American expertise there, for the good of the whole Church.