“NEW EVANGELISATION” AND ITS NEWNESS
- Benedict Vadakkekara
The expression “New evangelisation” is rich semantically as it implies the emergence today of a new world
reality in which the Church feels called to carry out her fundamental and immutable mandate: “Go out to
the whole world; proclaim the Good News to the whole creation” (Mk 15,16). Despite the mandate being
one and the same, “the world” the Church has been encountering down through the centuries has not, in
fact, been homogeneous. The Church of “the Apostolic Age” had the awareness that the Gospel was
already preached “to the whole world” precisely because it had a restricted idea of the world. “I ask: Have
the Jews not heard? But of course they have. Because the voice of those preaching resounded all over the
earth and their voice was heard to the ends of the world” (Rm 10,18). “Keep in mind the Gospel you have
heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven…” (Col 1,23; see also Col 1,6 and 1Pt 5,9.
These NT statements make sense today if they are understood in the background of the geographical
knowledge of the Mediterranean peoples.
As the term “Mediterranean” etymologically signifies, the people of this region believed that they lived at
“the Centre of the Earth” (Media – Terra). According to their mindset, from the earth-centre where they
lived, the world spread out to cover a flat area embracing practically the Roman and the Persian empires
and a good part of the Asian continent. They naturally located the “ends of the earth” in these areas.
Towards the west they saw “an end of the earth” on the Pacific Coast (today’s Spanish town Finisterre
(Finis Terrae or End of the Earth), a little beyond the ancient pilgrimage centre of Santiago de
Compostella (the tomb of St James). The eastern “end of the earth” was marked by the Indian Ocean,
where the early Church located the tomb of Apostle Thomas on the south-east coast of India. Thus for
the early Christians the Gospel had been preached to the confines of the earth (marked by the tombs of
two apostles James and Thomas on the western and eastern ends respectively). In other words the Gospel
spread from the Roman empire (oikumène, Lk 2,1) in which the Holy Family was officially registered
(Bethlehem) to the whole world (kosmos, Mk 16,15).
1. “Being witnesses”, “preaching”, “teaching” and “proclaiming” to “the whole world”
The NT uses several expressions like “being witnesses”, “preaching”, “teaching” and “proclaiming” in
order to signify the various actions the disciples did for spreading the Gospel across the world. Despite the
differences in their meanings, all these terms imply the act of personally sharing the Good News on the
part of the disciples with those who were yet to hear it. In this essay the term “evangelisation” is the
preferred term in order to refer to this activity of the disciples, even though it is found neither in the NT
nor in the Christian literature of the following centuries. As a matter of fact expressions like “Dilatatio fidei”
(Expansion of the faith), “Propagatio fidei” (Propagation of the Faith), “Evangelii Praedicatio” (Preaching of
the Gospel), “ministerium Verbi” (Ministry of the Word), “Procuratio salutis” (Providing of the Salvation),
“Convocatio gentium” (Mobilising of the nations) and “Praedicatio apostolica” (Apostolic preaching) entered into
use in order to indicate the work of communicating the Gospel. The agents who carried out the activity of
spreading the Good News used to be called “operarii/ ministri Sancti Evangelii” (Labourers/ Servants of the
holy Gospel), “peregrinantes pro Christo” (Pilgrims for Christ’s sake), “nuntii evangelii” (Heralds of the Gospel),
“proficiscentes ad infedeles convertendos” (those set out to convert the infidels) and “ministri Christi in gentibus”
(Ministers of Christ among the nations).
Towards the end of the first millennium AD evangelisation was a rather rare activity in the western
Church. This finds confirmation in very fact that there was no commonly accepted term to signify the
work of propagating the Gospel. A general policy in the Church regarding evangelisation did not evolve
just because there was no need for it. Practically the whole of Europe was Christian and the existence of
the entire continent of America, much of Africa and Oceania remained unknown to Europe. A crusade
had been formally declared against the Islamic world in the East, and therefore there was no felt need for
evangelisation. The lack of subjects to be evangelised meant that there could not have been a concerted
evangelisation thrust in the Church. However, it continued to be carried out in an isolated manner
especially to win over the Jewish population.
A case in point is the one of St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). In his Earlier Rule (1221) Francis of Assisi,
the first founder of a religious institute to deal with evangelisation, dedicates an entire chapter to those
brothers desiring to preach Christ and the Gospel to the people of other faiths - “quicumque frater voluerit ire
inter saracenos et infidels” (Let any brother who wishes to go among the Saracens/ Islamic population and
other infidels). Francis then had no one word or expression to take recourse to in order to signify what
today one might call evangelisation. And for Francis as well as for his contemporaries, the evangelisation
was for the most part, targeting the Islamic faithful. That is why he refers to “Let any brother who wishes
to go among the Saracens/ Islamic population and other infidels”. The term “infidel” was then in
common use among Christians to allude to Moslems and for Moslems to indicate Christians.
2. Entry of “Mission” into ecclesiastical vocabulary
With the discovery of the seaway from Europe towards the Americas in 1492 and towards India in 1498
the Christian Europe found millions of people on either side of their continent to be evangelised. The
pope entrusted the two leading countries of those days, namely Spain and Portugal, with the task of
carrying out the Church’s task of evangelisation. Meanwhile the Protestant Reformation broke loose and
the papal attention went principally to keeping the faithful within the Catholic fold and to win back those
who had been led away by the Reform movement. What has come to be described as Counterreformation
then occupied the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities. This explains why, for example, evangelisation
failed to find its place on the agenda of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), even though the “West Indies”
and the “East Indies” had been “discovered” just a few decades previously.
In much the same way, no specific terminology got coined to refer to the Church’s duty of preaching
Christ to the millions “in the East and West Indies”. In several contexts “the Indians” in the East and in
the West of Europe used to be specifically mentioned as those among whom the work of evangelisation
was to be carried out. But as no large-scale evangelisation activity was directly sponsored by the Church, it
failed to materialise into any new linguistic expression. Meanwhile both Spain and Portugal strove to
continue the work of colonisation and evangelisation in “the New Spain” and in “the Portuguese Empire”.
It was also widely believed in ecclesiastical circles that “these Indians” were better disposed to accept the
Gospel than “the Turks”. As a matter of fact the introduction of the word “mission” in the ecclesiastical
language would start only when the Church would directly enter the evangelisation field.
Though the word “mission” (missus, past participle of the Latin verb mittere, meaning to send off) is both
biblically and theologically rich in content, its use specifically for evangelisation began only at the start of
the 17th century. St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) had already used the term (votum missionis) with
reference to the total availability of the members of the Society of Jesus for being unconditionally disposed
to be at the service of pope. This would be the fourth vow for the Jesuits requiring them to proceed to any
destination wished by the Church’s supreme authority for the salvation of souls. Therefore the term
“mission” came to be known as a characteristic aspect of the vocation of the Jesuits. However the term
would soon be borrowed from the ambience of the Jesuits and given a more specific significance with
regard to the life of the Church. And it would gain wide circulation and its use would be extended to all
the European languages.
The use of the term “mission” with its new signification actually started in a small way in the then newly
born Order of Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites (OCD). The Order took shape in 1593 as a Reform of the
Carmelite of the Ancient Observance (O. Carm) championed by St Teresa of Jesus and St John of the
Cross. The new Order had to articulate its charism in order to make it distinct from the Family of the
Ancient Observance. In 1604-05 Fr John of Jesus Mary OCD composed three works in order to justify
the Order’s choice of evangelisation activities as an integral part of its institutional charism. In other
words, it was very much in keeping with the mind and express wish of St Theresa of Jesus. The three
works of Fr John of Jesus Mary are: Tractatus quo asseruntur missiones et rationes adversae refelluntur (A Treatise
refuting the objections against the missions and their reasons); Votum seu consilium pro missionibus quo ad nova
obiecta respondentur (Vow or suggestions for replying to the new objections to the missions); Instructio
missionum (Instruction on the missions). The author intended to establish that missionary life is an essential
component of the Reform introduced by St Teresa of Jesus.
It did not take long for the word “Missio” to gain wide approval. Other works like Stimulus missionum sive de
Propaganda a religiosis per universum orbem fidem (Rome 1610) and De procuranda salute omnium gentium (Antwerp
1613) by Thomas of Jesus were published. In the minds of the average faithful in Europe the term
“mission” meant the work of presenting Christ to the millions in other continents who were ignorant of
the Gospel. The first official use of the term by a pope was by Paul V. He employed in the Bull Onus pasto-
ralis officii of 22 July 1608 approving the establishment of the Congregation of St Paul the Apostle for the
Missions. With the establishment of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the
Faith) in 1622 the word “missio” came to be launched into the very heart of ecclesial life and activities.
Actually it represented much more than the mere entry of a new term in the ecclesiastical language. It was
signifying a new activity that the Church was then launching into on the global level. Terms like Mission,
Missionary, Apostolic Missionary and the like evolved quickly and spontaneously in order to represent the new
activity that the Church and its agents were carrying out in great numbers all over the world. The Catholics
were the first to enter into the “missionary” field and carry out “missionary” activities. It would take
several decades for the Protestant Churches to become missionary.
3. Corruption of the term “Mission”
In the course of time the term “mission” and its various derivates got corrupted when they were
associated with colonisation. Initially it was the Church that formally linked missionary activities with
colonisation. The direct papal intervention in the colonisation process actually began as an act of
mediation between the then two principal Catholic powers of Portugal and Spain. Beginning from the bull
Romanus Pontifex of Pope Nicolas V in 1454 there took place a series of papal interventions justifying and
legitimising the occupation and colonisation of other peoples and their lands on the part of Portugal and
Spain. These two Iberian rivals used to get into disputes over the islands and territories they were reaching
for the first time (“discovered by them”) especially from the middle of the fifteenth century. As far as they
were concerned, it was a question of “discovering” and “taking possession of” anything they found by
erecting their national symbol in it.
The papal policy of mediation reached its climax in 1493 with the bull Inter caetera of 4 May 1493 of Pope
Alexander IV, who, “as the Vicar of Christ and by virtue of his apostolic power”, gave the king of Spain
“full power, authority and jurisdiction” over the lands already discovered or to be discovered, which lay
towards the west of a line of demarcation (raja) drawn from the Arctic pole to the Antarctic pole, passing
100 leagues away from the Azores and Cape Verde islands. In return, the king of Spain had to send
“worthy, God-fearing, learned, skilled, and experienced men, in order to instruct the aforesaid inhabitants
and residents in the Catholic faith and train them in good morals”. Though Portugal was not mentioned
expressly in the bull, its presence was very much implied in it. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), concluded
between the Spanish and Portuguese kings, moved the dividing line to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde
islands, off the west coast of Africa. Thus the whole world beyond Europe was partitioned between Spain
and Portugal. The lands to the east of the demarcation line fell to Portugal and those to the west belonged
to Spain. Though there would be other treaties later on, this partition of the whole world between Spain
and Portugal would be substantially maintained.
This explains how missionary activities got intrinsically linked to colonisation. Accordingly in very many
instances missionary work went hand in hand with colonisation. In some cases the soldier preceded the
missionary and in some others both of them went together. The caricature of a missionary holding in one
hand a crucifix or a Bible and a sword in the other, is emblematic of the way missionary activities were
undertaken in numerous lands. Therefore it comes as no surprise if in many contexts it became impossible
for the native population to distinguish the Christians missionary from the European soldier. For the
peoples of Africa and Asia they were the Franki (Frenchmen, written and pronounced variously as Feringhee,
Firingi, Ferenghi, Faringee, Firingi; in Arabic Faranjī and Persian Farangī), irrespective of their national
provenance. The complex phenomenon of missionary enterprise and colonisation together resulted in
much bloodshed, perpetration of violence, injustice, genocide, slavery, exploitation, and destruction of
cultures. The term “mission” got thus emptied of its original biblical and theological significance and has
been stained with the ill-effects of colonisation. In the collective memory of millions across the globe the
term “missionary” is coated with the dark stains of history and consequently it has lost its transparency
and cannot any longer stand for the bearers of the Good News of liberation and salvation.
4. Changing of Symbols
Following World War II when the fresh air of freedom and independence began blowing across the globe
particularly in Asia and Africa, the missionary undertakings and their agents in many contexts found
themselves in an embarrassing situation. They had been so much bonded with the colonial mindset and
structures that they ill-fitted the air of independence that the people now inhaled and cherished. If they
appeared as vestiges of the colonisation period, they were no longer in a position to become signs of hope
and liberation for the newly freed people. It was in this context that the Vatican Council II was convoked.
Thanks to the new vision of Vatican II and the foresight and insight of the Church leadership, much was
achieved through the implementation of a policy of inculturation.
Viewed from the perspective of the Christians in the countries that were freed from the colonial
experience, the Vatican II symbolised a radical break with the past. From the “Latin liturgy of the
missionaries” they were now able to worship in their own language. In many missionary contexts in Africa
and Asia the impression that the Church was a by-product of colonisation began to change. In this way the
Church started acquiring the colour and smell of the local soil. The native rhythm of the local people came
to echo through the churches and the worshipping assemblies. The spread of the idea of local Churches
and the creation of National Episcopal Conferences contributed towards erasing the missionary stigmata
attached to the various Churches across the globe.
The Vatican too felt the need of taking recourse to new symbols in order to be freed from the “weight of
history” and to become more relevant to the contemporary world. The former symbols needed to be
purged not only of the form but also of the content. On 15 August 1967, Pope Paul VI renamed the
Congregation for Propagation of the Faith (Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide) into the Congregation for
the Evangelization of Peoples (Congregatio pro Gentium Evangelizatione). Mission had for long been
understood as preaching to Christ to the pagan populations. If by the term “mission” one formerly
intended preaching Christ to the pagans, now the Church began speaking of presenting Christ to Non-
Christians. Of late, it has been highlighted that the term “Non-Christian” reflects the closed mindset of
the Christian and that a more normal and human term was called for in referring to “Non-Christians”.
Thus the Church now uses the generic expression “People of other Faiths” or takes pain to specify the
religious identity of its interlocutors, as Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem and the like.
The two classical ways of carrying out missionary work were either going to the “pagans” and preaching
the Gospel to them and baptising them or by remaining in one’s place and helping the missionaries
through prayer and material contribution. Accordingly the Church created two heavenly patrons of the
missions, each representing a classical method. St Francis Xavier (1506-1552), reputed for his missionary
voyages within Asia and for the innumerable baptisms administered was declared Patron of the Mission.
The representative of the second method is St Therese of the Child Jesus (1873-1897), a nun who
confined herself to a cloister in Lisieux in France. Both these saints were solemnly declared in 1927
Patrons of the Missions by Pope Pius XI. The declaration was also a formal approval and promotion on
the part of the Church of the two practical ways of being a missionary – either by going to the pagans to
preach Christ and baptise them or by helping the work of the missionaries especially through prayer or by
contributing materially to the missionary activity.
Though these two saints continue to be hailed as the Patrons of Missions, on 10 May 1984 the Church’s
Secretariat for Non-Christians issued a significant document entitled The Attitude of the Church toward
Followers of Other Religions: Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission. Its 11th paragraph has the
heading “Illustrious missionaries” and it reads: “Among the many examples which could be drawn from
the history of Christian mission, the norms given by St. Francis of Assisi, in the Regola non bollata of 1221,
are significant. The friars who ‘through divine inspiration would desire to go among the Muslims...can
establish spiritual contacts with them [Muslims] in two ways: a way which does not raise arguments and
disputes, but rather they should be subject to every human creature for the love of God and confess
themselves to be Christians. The other way is that when they see that it would be pleasing to the Lord,
they should announce the word of God’. Our own century has seen the rise and affirmation, especially in
the Islamic world, of the experience of Charles de Foucauld, who carried out mission in a humble and
silent attitude of union with God, in communion with the poor, and in universal brotherhood”.
While reading this paragraph one cannot but be struck by both what it does not say as well as by what it
does say. First of all, the section “illustrious missionaries” does not make mention of the two officially
recognised Patrons of the Missions. They seem to have merged into “the many examples” that mission
history presents. Secondly, the two classical ways of carrying out missionary activity are not given any
particular attention inasmuch as the two patrons who are representative of them are not given any
distinctive importance. Instead, the document speaks expressly of two others “among the many
examples”, namely St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916; beatified by
Pope Benedict XVI on 13 November 2005). Again, here Francis of Assisi is given an exceptionally
prominent pedestal precisely because of the full textual citation of “the two ways” of evangelisation that he
proposes to his friars.
It is known for certain that Francis of Assisi made three attempts to go among the Moslems to preach and
that in 1219 on the third occasion he succeeded to reach the military camp of Sultan Malik al-Kamil in
Damietta, a town on the mouth of the river Nile in Egypt. Francis made no conversions and he had to cut
short his stay with the Sultan and rush back to Italy to settle some serious problems in the Order. It was in
a context of an exceptionally cordial atmosphere of fellow-feeling and trust that Francis took leave of the
sultan. A particular aspect of this meeting between Francis and Sultan was that it took place when the
Church’s fifth crusade against the Muslims was under way. The sultan was organising the defence against
the attacking Christian army.
Mentioning Charles de Foucauld alongside Francis of Assisi with reference to evangelisation too is
particularly significant. Like Francis Charles too opted to be “a universal brother” and lived among “the
furthest removed, the most abandoned”. It was while living among the Tuareg population at Tamanrasset
in Southern Algeria, then a French colony, that he was shot dead. He wanted to relate himself with others
in such a way that the people would be led to say: “If such is the servant, what must the Master be like?”
For both these “illustrious missionaries”, bearing witness to Christ was to be in a non-threatening manner.
Whether it was in the context of the crusade or colonisation, they had to aim at presenting Christ and not
any human authority.
Both “the illustrious missionaries” differed from the classical missionaries. While Francis of Assisi is never
known to have baptised anyone, Charles de Foucauld administered baptism just to a Moslem boy. Both of
these “missionaries” emphasise on universal brotherhood and living with meekness and humility among
the people of other faiths. Both left to “the Lord of the Harvest” to determine the manner and the time of
harvesting. At the same time one cannot ignore the fact that, viewed in the perspective of classical
missionary work, both of them were failures as missionaries. But the Church proposes precisely these two
as the new models for the contemporary evangelisers. The actuality of the vision and mindset of Francis of
Assisi is again confirmed by the fact that Assisi came to be chosen to play host to the leaders of the world
5. “New Evangelisation”
As the curtain was coming down on the second millennium Pope John Paul II used to speak rather
often of the need for a new evangelization especially with reference to the West. He declared for the
Diocese of Rome a yearlong mission, during the course of which every family was visited by the
“evangelisers” and a special edition of the Gospel of Mark was presented. On 30 June 2011 Pope Benedict
XVI announced his decision to establish a “Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelization”,
which was constituted on 21 September this year. And on 24 October 2011 the pope announced that the
topic of the worldwide assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2012 will be focused on the theme: The New
Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. The Post-synodal apostolic exhortation Africae munus
promulgated in Benin on 20 November 2011 has a whole section dedicated to New Evangelisation. The
document uses expressions like “Bearers of Christ”, “Witnesses of Risen Christ” and “Missionaries in
Christ’s footsteps” (No 159-171).
All these are indications that the long-established tradition of priests and religious going from a centralised
organisation based in Christian Europe to other parts of the world to preach the Gospel and convert
others actually now belongs to the past. Moreover, one cannot ignore the fact that the entire continents of
Asia and Africa, excepting the Thai kingdom, had been reduced to being colonies of Christian Europe,
giving a colonial colouring to the Christian missions. At a time when these countries have become
politically free of the colonial rule and the process of cultural decolonisation is very much under way, the
use of words like “mission” and “missionary” is like adding insult to injury as far as these local Churches
are concerned1. In certain contexts some of the terms like “missionary” and “conversion” are so much
charged with antinational sentiments that it always prudent to steer clear of them.
In the present globalised, networked and multicultural world of ours, practically it is impossible to draw a
line of demarcation between a territory to be evangelised and a religiously Christian territory. It is
becoming a growing reality that the heart of Europe now needs to be evangelised as the peripheries of
Nairobi or Mumbai. Persons of different religious convictions may be living under the same roof. In most
urban contexts, one can easily have as next-door neighbours people of various creeds. Therefore the idea
of “being sent” or “being an emissary” to a missionary situation is becoming more and more irrelevant
today. On the other day the insight provided by Francis of Assisi and Charles de Foucauld answers best to
the evangelical exigencies of the contemporary world. Both Francis and Charles speak of “not going to”
but of “among” people of other faiths. The scene of evangelisation is all over the world, wherever a
fellow-being is found. It is fundamentally by witnessing to the values of God’s kingdom that the seed of
the Gospel is sown in the hearts of others. It only when the evangelisers “see that it pleases the Lord” that
that they speak of sacramental life and ecclesial fellowship. In the ultimate analysis one may say that the
1 Recently a candidate for doctorate defending his dissertation in the
Faculty of Missiology of a Pontifical University in Rome, proposed the use of
the word “witness” instead of “mission”. He went so far as to suggest the
change of the name of “missiology” into “witness-ology”, a suggestion his
professors did not approve of.
“newness” of the work of evangelisation is best expressed in the evangelisation lifestyle of Francis of
Assisi and Charles de Foucauld.
Documentary Sources and Studies
Esortazione Apostolica Postsinodale Africae Munus del Santo Padre Benedetto XVI all’Episcopato, al Clero, alle Persone
Consacrate e ai Fedeli Laici sulla Chiesa in Africa al servizio della riconciliazione, della giustizia e della pace, Città del
Vaticano 2011; Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Interreligious Dialogue. The official teaching of the
Catholic Church from the Second Vatican to John Paul II (1963-2005), ed. F. Gioia, Boston 2006; A history of
Christianity in Asia, Africa and Latin America 1450-1990. A documentary sourcebook, ed. K. Koschorke – F.
Ludwig – M. Delgado, Cambridge 2007.
Converting colonialism. Visions and realities in mission history. 1706-1945 (Studies in the history of Christian
missions), ed. D.L. Robert, Cambridge 2008; Hoeberichts J., Francis and Islam, Quincy 1997; Iammarrone
G., Principi e contenuti fondamentali della teologia della missione cristiana e francescana, in Miscellanea Francescana 106-
107 (2006-2007) 359-387.