Why has Pope Francis declared October an Extraordinary Month of Mission? One reason is that he wanted to mark the 100th anniversary of an apostolic letter that guided the Church’s missionary work throughout the 20th century. Maximum illud was certainly an influential text. Like many Vatican documents, it took its name from its opening words, in which Pope Benedict XV recalled “that momentous and holy charge” in St Mark’s Gospel: “Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to all creation.” But this month is not only about commemorating a far-sighted letter that distanced the Church from colonial powers in missionary lands. It is also about giving new momentum to Catholic missions around the world.
Why is this necessary? Consider Latin America, the Holy Father’s home continent. In the 1990s CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Council, concluded that every day 8,000 Latin American Catholics were becoming Evangelical Protestants. In 1900, there were only 50,000 Protestants on the continent; by 2000, there were 64 million.
It was figures such as these that prompted the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes to ask at a synod of bishops in Rome in 2005: “How long will Latin America be a Catholic continent?” Since then the situation has deteriorated further. Brazil, home to the world’s largest Catholic population, loses approximately half a million faithful a year. The proportion of Catholics in the country has fallen from 92 per cent in 1970 to 65 per cent today. Mexico, the nation with the second-largest Catholic population, went from 89 per cent Catholic in 2000 to 83 per cent in 2010.
This helps to explain why the first Latin American pope has declared October a month of mission.
In a message announcing this excellent initiative, Francis noted a “providential coincidence”: that the centenary of Maximum illud falls in the same year as the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region. The Pope convoked the Amazon synod in order “to identify new paths for the evangelisation of God’s people in that region”. As Todd Hartch explains in our cover story, the Church is struggling to evangelise Amazonia, a remote, densely forested region that is home to a scattered population speaking 330 different languages. But it seems that the gathering will not be dominated by a sober discussion of new missionary strategies, but rather by a fractious debate about the ordination of married men and new roles for women. The resulting controversy is likely to distract attention from the Extraordinary Month of Mission.
It would be a great pity if we fail to take full advantage of this opportunity. Catholics in England and Wales should visit missio.org.uk/emm, where they will find everything they need to mark the month, including a daily prayer and texts for Mission Holy Hours.
Catholics elsewhere should go to the Vatican’s official website, october2019.va, where they will find a wide range of suggestions. These include praying the Living Rosary, a practice pioneered by the French Venerable Pauline Marie Jaricot, in which 15 people commit themselves to reciting a decade each of the rosary daily. In this way, the group collectively prays an entire rosary for the Church’s mission every day.
Such devotions may seem insignificant to some. But they are at the heart of the Church’s missionary endeavours, which without prayer would be simply another form of social work.
As Pope Francis noted in his message for World Mission Day 2019, each of us received a call to mission when we were baptised. “This divine life is not a product for sale – we do not practise proselytism – but a treasure to be given, communicated and proclaimed,” he wrote. “That is the meaning of mission. We received this gift freely and we share it freely, without excluding anyone … This missionary mandate touches us personally: I am a mission, always; you are a mission, always; every baptised man and woman is a mission.”
These words are challenging. But they are true. We should not let this month pass by without contributing in some way – however humble – to the mission entrusted to us in this age by Christ himself.