Pope John Paul II has called for mass mobilization of Catholics to spread church teachings in a new wave of missionary activity, particularly to the Third World and even in countries where proselytizing is forbidden by Islamic law.
“The mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the church, is still very far from completion,” the Pope states in a 153-page encyclical letter released this week. The mission must continue, says the Pope, with the conviction that the Catholic Church “alone possesses the fullness of the means of salvation.”
Titled “Redemptoris Missio,” the message is the eighth encyclical issued by John Paul II in his 12-year papacy and the church’s first major statement on missionary work in a quarter century.
An encyclical letter is one of the most authoritative forms a papal pronouncement can take.
“From the beginning of my pontificate, I have chosen to travel to the ends of the Earth in order to show this missionary concern,” he wrote. “My direct contact with people who do not know Christ has convinced me even more of the urgency of missionary activity.”
The encyclical states that missionary work has to be directed “to the South and the East,” and that missionaries’ greatest challenges would be in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the numbers of non-Christians are growing.
According to the Vatican, of the Earth’s 5 billion people, “only one-third know and recognize Jesus Christ in terms of faith and only 18% are Catholics.”
The aim of missionary work is “Christian conversion,” including baptism, the encyclical states. But he stresses that Catholics must be open to dialogue with non-Christians.
In an apparent reference to religious workers who espouse liberation theology, the Pope said it was an error to portray missionary work “as if it consisted principally in helping the poor, contributing to the liberation of the oppressed, promoting development or defending human rights.
“The missionary church is certainly involved on these fronts but her primary task lies elsewhere: The poor are hungry for God, not just for bread and freedom,” the Pope said.