To the Peoples – Ad Gentes


Celebrating 50 Years of “To the Peoples” October 15th 2015.

Sr Sheila Curran RSM, IMU-CORI Justice Coordinator

Mission and Justice

I thank Hugh and the Mission Identity Committee for inviting me to make this

presentation on Mission and Justice this evening as part of celebrating 50 years of Ad

Gentes or To the People”


Mission is a “single but complex reality, and it develops in various ways” (RM 41). Yet

one cannot talk about mission without talking about justice. Justice is a broad term, but

in the context of mission it refers to the Church’s commitment, down through the

centuries to the poor, marginalised and vulnerable people through its charitable works. It

is practiced throughout the Hebrew Scripture, and was the praxis and teachings of Jesus.

Mission is about proclaiming God’s reign on earth and we do that by following the God

of Jesus Christ. In Lk 4:18-19 Jesus stands up in the Temple and quoting from the

Hebrew Scriptures he proclaims what his mission was about:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news

to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of

sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s


Again in Mt: 25: 31 Jesus is asked when did we see you sick, hungry or in prison and he

responds by saying so long as you did it to the least of these you did it to me. This sets a

very clear agenda for mission. Therefore, justice is not an add on to the Christian way of

life, but an integral part of what it means to follow the God of Jesus Christ. One cannot


talk about justice today without talking about “Cry of the Poor” and the “Cry of the

Earth” as one. I wish to say here from the outset that word poor cannot be limited to

those who are materially poor. When I use the term throughout this paper I am referring

to all of those who are on the margins. For example the category does not always address

the complexity of women’s oppression and exclusion within church and society or the

complexities of race. Therefore the word poor is a complex and term. It is not a one size

fits all. We all need to be cautious when we use the term. Given that Fr. Donal Dorr has

the task of talking on Mission and the Care of Creation I will focus this presentation on

the work of justice in relation to the “Cry of the Poor” and its complexities. I will begin

by giving a brief overview of its development and consequences over the past fifty years

and I will end by presenting some challenges for today.

I hope that in these brief 15 minutes I will give sufficient material to generate a lively

discussion among all of you here present.

Vatican II and it’s commitment to Justice

It is interesting to note in his letter of convocation of the Council Pope John XXIII named

three themes: Ecumenism, the Openness of the Church to the Modern World, and

Poverty. Pope John XXIII proclaimed that the Church is a “Church for all and in

particular the Church of the Poor.” While the issue of poverty was discussed in the

corridors of the Vatican it did not form part of the discussion within the Council itself.

Some of the Bishops who had come from the Global South particularly those from Latin

America alongside others such as the Italian Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro (1891-1976)

were preoccupied about the situation of poor people in the world. They were also


concerned with the gap between the Gospel message and what was happening to the

poor. We can only imagine the consequences had this topic made it’s way on to the

Council’s agenda.

However, the Church of the poor, was further developed in a number of the Council’s

documents that articulated the nature and mission of the Church as responsible for, and

accountable to, the poor. Ad Gentes states that the church, like it’s Lord, must walk the

“way of poverty” (AG 5) and it affirms that the Church, through her children, is one with

people {men} of every condition, but especially with the poor and the afflicted (AG 12).

In Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution, there is a very strong commitment to social

justice. It states

Everyone must consider everybody as {his} their neighbour without exception as

another self, taking into account the means necessary to live with dignity. In our

times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbour of every

person without exception ….. As long as you did it for one of these the least of

my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40).

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, …..whatever violates the integrity

of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind,

attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as

subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery,

prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working

conditions…. All these poison human society, but they do more harm to those

who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are

supreme dishonour to the Creator.

Gaudium et spes along with all the other documents of Vatican II are by no means

perfect. While Gaudium et spes is western in its content and presents a top down

approach of mission and development it was an attempt to highlight the injustices that

existed in the world at that time.


Pact of the Catacombs

It is interesting to note that at the close of the Vatican Council II in 1965, 40 Bishops led

by Dom Helder Camara, met at night in the Domitilla Catacombs outside Rome to

celebrate the Eucharist and they signed a document that “expressed their personal

commitments as bishops to the ideals of the Council under the suggestive title of the Pact

of the Catacombs: A Poor Servant Church”. In this document they committed

themselves to living a simple lifestyle and to working alongside the poor as well as

working for structural change. They stated

We will do everything possible so that those responsible for our governments and

our public services establish and enforce the laws, social structures, and

institutions that are necessary for justice, equality, and the integral, harmonious

development of the whole person and for all persons and thus for the advent of a

new social order, worthy of the children of God.1

So the work of justice and the cry of poor were a clear options for these bishops and I

believe that over 500 bishops signed this document. I am sure not many of you present

have heard about this document. It is interesting to note that no Irish Bishop signed this

document (You can find it simply by looking up Pact of the Catacombs, it is worth


One of the places where the Church of Poor and work for Justice became a reality was in

Latin America. I want to briefly outline its contribution to work for justice within the

global Church. It will also gives a context for us to understand why Pope Francis

frequently talks about a “Church that is poor and for the poor”.

1Pact of the Catacombs–‐the–‐pact–‐of–‐the–‐



Option for the Poor and the Church in Latin America and its contribution to work

for Justice

The Latin American Bishops in response to a request from Pope Paul VI, at the end of

Council, asked the bishops of CELAM to organise a Regional assembly to reflect on the

application of the Council for Latin America. The Medellín conference took place in

Medellín in Colombia in 1968. The problem of real poverty and the solidarity of the

Church with the poor, which are marks of an authentic Christian, were the greatest “igns

of the times”which motivated the Churches in Latin America after the Council. Vatican

II reaffirmed that the world is the locus of salvation and it was the inequality and high

levels of poverty that impacted on the lives of those attending the Medellín conference.

The conference struggled to come to grips with a continent where people were dying of

hunger and were being oppressed. How could people continue to believe in God where

there was more death than life? It was in Medellín that the Latin America Church first

took on what is now know as the Preferential Option for the Poor. It was not a political

option but one that Church acknowledges as central to the Gospel and to the work of

evangelisation. It is the first Church document to deal with the issue of poverty,

mentioning that material poverty is a sin, a form of “nstitutionalised violence” The

emphasis on the poor and justice have been a central feature of all of the Latin American

Bishops conferences to the present day.

The Church in Latin America demonstrated to world that it is not enough to minister “o”the poor but also be with and for them. Mission, as a work for justice implies thus

engaging and confronting the oppressive powers that are the root cause of unjust poverty


and, at the same time, empowering the poor themselves through solidarity and the taking

of an action drived from critical analysis. The theology that developed out of this context

became know as liberation theology. People like Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez understood the

concept of liberation from a biblical perspective and one which was global. He was

concerned with the liberation of the human person, in particular what liberation means for

the poor and marginalised, from a faith perspective. His basic question is what does it

mean to say to a poor person that God loves them when all they experience is poverty and

oppression? This theology is based on contemplation and action, seeking to enable the

poor to be agents of their own destiny. For Gutiérrez theology must accompany

commitment. The continent of Latin America has and continued to produce many other

fine theologians whose works have been translated into many languages: People such as

Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff, Ivone Gebara, Elsa Tamez to name a few.

The Church in Latin America has borne witness throughout many years to what it means

to work for justice. We remember people like Joan Sawyer (1983), an Irish Columban

Sister, Peru, Jean Donovan, a lay missionary in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero

also in El Salvador alongside thousand of ordinary people who lost their lives in the

defence of the poor and in the defence of life across the entire continent. These people are

considered martyrs in Latin America. It is not only in Latin America that people paid the

ultimate price in proclaiming the Gospel in the pursuit of Justice but it is the place I know

best having worked there for many years. Martyrdom is not what God wants but

unfortunately it can be the consequence of the pursuit for justice.


This is the context that has marked Pope Francis experience of Church and I will now

address to what he has had to say about mission and justice.

Pope Francis and what he has to say about mission and justice today

Pope Francis is the first pope from the so called developing world and it is interesting to

note that from day one his words and actions are a challenge in terms of mission and

justice. In one of his first statements in which he became instantly popular was that he

wanted a “hurch which is poor and for the Poor”(EG 198). This statement adds a new

category to the work for justice. Today’ challenge not only asks to minister “o,”“or,”and “ith”the Poor, but it also urges the Church to minister “rom”the Poor in a

relationship of mutuality and friendship (EG 198-200). This “rom”the Poor can be

understood in two ways: as downward movement of the non-poor to insert themselves

among the Poor, and –ven more challenging–as the “pward”movement of the Poor

who, through a process of awareness, critical analysis, and liberation, evangelise the

Church from their own inculturated way of being missionary disciples.2 If this were to be

taken seriously it would change the face of our Church in so many ways.

We live in a globalised world and globalisation is a phenomenon we have to contend

with. While it has enabled news kinds of communication and relationships it has also

fragmented our world and it is doing violence to thousands of people especially the poor.

It sets a challenge for the Church to use it’ global networks to bring together people in

solidarity to work for justice.


Adrianna Carla Milanda, Discipleship as Boundary–‐Crossing: Intercultural Mission

for the SSpS Today, February, 2015 (Unpublished).


One of the concrete ways in which we are being challenged in our mission for justice is

the current migrant and refugee crisis. Pope Francis in the World Day for Migrants (Sept

2014) stated “igrants and refugees are what Providence gives us to help build a more

just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world and

a more open evangelical Christian community.”Unfortunately that is not how many

Christian countries view the situation of migrants and refugees. The resistance of some

European States to the EU projects to relocate 120,000 refugees across the continent has

been shocking. The Church has not been to forefront rather it is divisive particularly in

Eastern Europe. For example in Hungary the Bishops Conference said nothing about the

razor-wire fence sealing Hungary’ southern frontier with Serbia. Other Bishops

Conferences have remained silent or are of the opinion to bar Muslims on the grounds

they “could not feel at home” in a predominantly Catholic country.3 This is contrary to

the Gospel and to the very essence of our Christian faith. We in Ireland have not been to

the forefront either despite the fact that we once were those people seeking refuge in a

foreign land. Pope Francis on his famous visit to the island of Lampedusa talked about

the globalization of indifference and said, “We are a society who has forgotten how to

weep and experience compassion”. When we know how to weep and experience

compassion, then we will work for justice. Many of us here present may know what this



Jonathan Luxmoore in Warsaw, “old  Blast from the East” (Tablet Oct 3rd 2015)



Challenges for today

So today what is it in our mission for justice today that brings us to cry with those who

are suffering? As Pope Francis says “t is only when we have face to face encounters

with others whose physical presence challenges us, with the pain of their pleas,”(EG 88)

can we truly begin the work of justice. This propels us to go to the margins, to listen to

the cry of the poor and now more than ever to the cry of our earth.

I have tried in this short presentation to show some of the ways in which the Church

developed it’ thinking on mission and justice. It is by no means exhaustive. A note of

caution however, while the Church has been to the forefront down through the centuries

in demanding justice, human rights, freedom, equality, participation and accountability

from society, it has not implemented these same values within its own structures.

As it has been from the early beginnings of the Church, mission refers, with certain

priority, to the explicit proclamation of Jesus (EG 110-175). It is equally true that

mission today is a complex reality where human experience has to be engaged. Mission

today has to be aware that the proclamation of Jesus must be authentically incarnated in

the “any faces” of the Church and in her engagement in the world (EG 176-258). In a

world where the Spirit of God is moving but where there is increasing violence,

inequality, ecological calamities, and religious conflicts, the Church is called to prophecy

through works of justice. There is a temptation within the Church to reduce mission

again to a specific task or program, or to particular places, or peoples, or to the work of

certain experts in the Church. It is the temptation to regain control of a vocation that is

much more demanding and inclusive. It is on the understanding of mission and justice

today that the future of the Church stands. Ultimately, mission today is a call to radical

discipleship for justice for every Christian in every situation and context.


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