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from issue no. 07/08 - 2005

PROPAGANDA FIDE. An interview with the Prefect of the missionary Congregation

The multiple faces of the Church called to unity

A meeting with Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe. His department is responsible for the coordination and the care of more than a thousand ecclesiastical areas, among which the great majority of the African, Asian and Oceanic dioceses. With seminars, schools and sanitary structures. A detailed and complex world that has to deal with different civilization, cultures and traditions. And from which come so many testimonies of vitality and faith

by Roberto Rotondo and Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe handing out small crucifixes to the Guatemalan faithful during his pastoral visit in Guatemala

Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe handing out small crucifixes to the Guatemalan faithful during his pastoral visit in Guatemala

«The Church is missionary by its nature, its chief task is evangelization.» Benedict XVI reiterated the fact during one of his first acts as pope, his brief but significant pilgrimage to the Basilica of Saint Paul Without the Wall, in Rome, 25 April last. At the tomb of the Apostle of the Gentiles, in fact, Pope Ratzinger prayed that «the Church of Rome, its bishop and all the people of God gain the joy of proclaiming and testifying the Good News to all». One of the particular instruments that the Church has institutionally at its disposition to encourage the mission is the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. This department, set up in the 17th century to help and coordinate missionaries and the new Churches that arose in lands far from old Europe, has become ever more the «usual and exclusive instrument of the pope and of the Holy See for the exercise of jurisdiction over all the missions and missionary cooperation», on the basis of what was then established by the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus of 1988. More than a thousand ecclesiastical areas are today entrusted to Propaganda fide, among which the great majority of the African, Asian and Oceanian dioceses, as well as university, seminaries, hospitals, schools. A network of relationships and complex structures often little known even to Catholic believers themselves. To learn more we met the Prefect of Propaganda fide, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, who has been head of the missionary Congregation since 2001.
How is the missionary work of the Catholic Church coordinated by Propaganda fide?
CRESCENZIO SEPE: From the “structural” point of view, Propaganda fide is a detailed and complex world, characterized by the many names that indicate the different branches of our Congregation’s activity: the Propagation of the Faith, the Saint Peter Apostle Charity, the Holy Childhood and the Pontifical Missionary Union of the Clergy. Truly remarkable work, difficult even to explain “on paper”, so vast is the field in which it is called to operate, to coordinate, to intervene.
The first exigency we must reply to is that of keeping an eye on – in the sense of taking care of – a large territory that includes some regions of south-eastern Europe, some zones of North, Central and Southern America, almost all of Africa, the whole of Asia excluding the Philippines, and Oceania with the exception of Australia. As it’s easy to see, here it’s possible to encounter not only civilizations, cultures and traditions different among themselves, but also a Church presence very fluid and variegated. In the offices of the Congregation these different faces of a Church called to unity, but which show the wealth of its complementarity, is not, as Pope Benedict XVI said in the sermon of the mass of Saints Peter and Paul, to be grasped through papers and documents, useful and important as they are, but through all the elements of vitality that come together to characterize the single reality.
What are the elements of vitality proper to each local situation?
SEPE: Apart from examining the reports sent by the local bishops, by the Pontifical Representations and by the Episcopal National Conferences, the concern of the Congregation is addressed directly to the life and ministry of the bishops (around 1,300), to the Christian life of believers, to the discipline of the clergy and religious, and it devotes particular care to all the charitable associations, to schools and, in an altogether special way, to the life of the seminaries. So the coordination of the numerous initiatives occurs through contacts, relationships, visits: everything that concerns the tissue of Christian life, according to the rhythm proper to the different communities and of the structures that they, in their turn, possess.
That is why the element that has most helped me to respond to the objectives and commitments of Propaganda fide have been the journeys I’ve undertaken in these years. Without going to the place itself, without visiting the individual communities one by one, the dioceses, the churches, any activity and any activism in the missionary field would be difficult to understand. Face-to-face meetings in a certain sense legitimate and make our structure alive day by day: they constitute its soul, because what is on paper is transformed into lived experience. The teaching of John Paul II on this point is more eloquent than ever.
What have been, from that standpoint, the journeys that have most struck you, and why?
SEPE: Every journey offers its own particular character and has its own specific purpose. In each case, it is always made on invitation of the bishops, with whom the program to be undertaken is also agreed. The first action is however a meeting with the whole Episcopal Conference of the country and, often, also with the individual bishops. Normally the program also includes a meeting with the priests, the religious, the laity and the catechists, as well as a visit to the poorer and destitute communities where, with great sacrifices and love, male and female missionaries work offering the truest and most genuine testimony of the love of Christ for the most wretched and abandoned. So I have seen able to see with my own eyes how they treat AIDS patients, how schooling takes place in huts or fortuitous surroundings, and how the work of the catechists goes on, all mainly in outlying areas or areas of first-time evangelization.
I must say that every journey makes a deep impact on me that remains unfading and becomes a paradigm for providing concrete responses to the variety of needs. The fact, then, that I always and everywhere take the greeting, the prayers and the blessing of the Holy Father, results in intensely experiencing a deep communion with the universal Church and provides a stimulus for more courageous faith. That happened, for example, in visits to Cambodia, in Laos, in Myanmar (onetime Burma).
In Mongolia, instead, I went, in the name of the Holy Father, to ordain the first bishop and bless the first Cathedral in the history of that country. When you think that until some years ago no Catholic existed there and that today there is a small but booming community that grows every day with new baptisms, you can also understand the deep impression one gets; I got the same impression when, along with other bishops, I conferred baptism on 465 adults in Taiwan, for the most part youngsters. The same happened in Cambodia and in many other countries. These facts re-offer and bring to life the Church of the early centuries. It’s as if one were rewriting an updated edition of the Acts of the Apostles.
On 16 July Eglises d’Asie, the agency of the Missions etrangères de Paris, announced your forthcoming journey to Vietnam. How did the invitation from the Vietnamese government come about?
SEPE: Since you ask me, I can only confirm that I shall soon visit Vietnam. In this case also the invitation came from the bishops, from the President of the Episcopal Conference, from the archbishop of Hanoi and from the archbishop of Hochiminhville, Cardinal Pham.
The government has confirmed the invitation officially and I am waiting to know the details of the program. The visit, as always, has a wholly and exclusively pastoral significance, with visits to the bishops and the Catholic communities existing in the country. There will also be contacts with representatives of the government. I hope that the visit constitutes an encouragement to all to live their own faith with joy, without forgetting the commitment of the Church to the development not only religious, but cultural, social and human also of the great Vietnamese nation.
I have seen able to see with my own eyes how they treat AIDS patients, how schooling takes place in huts or fortuitous surroundings, and how the work of the catechists goes on, all mainly in outlying areas or areas of first-time evangelization. I must say that every journey makes a deep impact on me
There has been much talk in this period with the G8 and the Live8 of how to help Africa. The Catholic missionaries have always been at grips with the great problems such as hunger, war, epidemics that assail poor countries. Work that is almost never taken into consideration by the mass media…
SEPE: The Church – as one reads in Redemptoris missio - altogether and in its parts, exists primarily for evangelization. And I am urged to underline that every charitable intervention, small or big, linked to the promotion of mankind in every aspect of its existence, is directly connected to this evangelizing vocation. This is more evident still in the mission lands where it would be almost impossible to draw up a list of the aid given, from hospitals to schools and to everything that is done to mitigate the great evils caused by poverty. In recent days there has been talk throughout the world of aid to Africa, a continent that, as Pope Benedict XVI said in the Angelus of 3 July, is «often neglected». It’s a matter of initiatives certainly legitimate and necessary, above all to sensitize public opinion and national leaders to this rich-poor continent, but we must not forget that the vector for the evangelizing action of the Church has always been works of charity and that for centuries has led to the overall progress of the continent. It’s enough to glance at our annual budget to realize how much the Church does for Africa.
But the real and enduring help that the Church has for centuries offered and continues to offer in Africa is not so much, and not only, charitable and humanitarian, as that aimed at making Africa grow in such a way that it is capable of developing itself in every aspect.
Africa is a continent that possesses capacity and potentiality as perhaps no other continent. The aid we must give is to make it capable of maturing so as to take up its own responsibilities clearsightedly. Why is such a rich continent, rich also in raw materials, still living today in conditions of extreme poverty? Because many people only go to Africa to exploit its riches, leaving the people in miserable conditions.
The Church, by proclaiming the Gospel, makes known to all the sublime dignity of every man as son of God and brother of Jesus Christ, and offers, at the same time, the means for full and overall growth: spiritual, human and social. The Church continues to put into effect this missionary commitment today, despite the thousand of difficulties. And results are not lacking.
The missionary Church must continually take account of the other great religious confessions. After the attacks in London there has again been demagogic talk of a clash of civilizations. What can the religious confessions do in answer to those whom Benedict XVI have described as «stirrers up of hatred»?
SEPE: Terrorism and violence are like random splinters that cannot represent any religion or culture or civilization.
Against these “stirrers up of hatred” we need to call on all men of goodwill to achieve the “civilization of love”.
Thus the dramatic international situation recalls us to the need to find, now more that ever, every path to set going not only dialogue, but to achieve an alliance of values around which to build a new future for the whole of humanity together. What is happening in the Middle and Near East, the unresolved Iraq question, the Israeli-Palestinian tangle, as also the still open wounds of the conflict in Kosovo and Bosnia, testify to the urgent need to find shared ground of commitment for all the religious confessions, actuating, in substance, a form of interreligious and ecumenic dialogue embracing not only the doctrinal sphere, but, precisely, concrete charity and efforts. There is, fortunately, no lack of examples here. And the missionary Church is in the front line, being able to count on an extremely vast network of relations. It is for that matter what I have seen during my trips in which I was able to meet the heads of the non-Catholic or non-Christian confessions.
A network that, going by the data published in the new edition of the Guide to the Catholic missions 2005, is growing…
SEPE: Yes, thanks be to God, above all in Africa and in Asia, there is constant growth. One of the great signs of the pontificate of John Paul II has been just that great flowering of the Churches in the mission lands. The number of baptized on the African continent– compared with the 1978 – has increased by 148 percent, and by 71 per cent in Asia. In consequence the number of the bishops has risen by 43 percent in Africa and by 28 percent in Asia, and one has to consider that, for the very great majority, they are respectively African and Asian bishops. Additionally, the Catholic Episcopal Conference of India, with more than 200 bishops, is the fourth largest in the world, after those of Brazil, Italy and the United States. Again: the diocesan and religious clergy have increased by 65 percent in Africa and 60 percent in Asia. The nuns, by 49 percent in Africa and 54 percent in Asia; and the male religious, by 38 percent in Africa and by 23 percent in Asia. Aspirants to the priesthood and the religious life have increased by 273 percent in Africa and by 136 percent in Asia. These are data that legitimate the claim made in the post-synod exhortation Ecclesia in Africa: the Lord has visited his people that are in Africa. This continent is enjoying «a propitious moment, a day of salvation». More in general, on the ecclesial level, «an hour of Africa» seems to have come.
I would like to point out, in particular, the increasing cultural development that, for example, now makes it possible for local scholars and theologians to be directly involved in the translation of the Bible and the sacred texts, people who know all the nuances of the African languages. That has also facilitated the creation of small communities of believers who have had a momentous role in the spread of the faith. In the small communities nobody feels alone, and evangelizing action becomes almost natural and certainly easier. A better and more precise understanding of the matter of inculturation has then done the rest. Inculturation, in its proper meaning, enables the Gospel to be embodied in different cultures, according to a double approach, “transmitting”, that is, its own values and “assuming” what is good in them.
The presence in Europe of priests and religious coming from Africa and Asia is ever more numerous. Is a missionary backflow taking place?
SEPE: This has been a big shift, almost a Copernican revolution. The fact that priests and religious from the African and Asian continents have become missionaries in their turn, testifies to the catholicity and the “communionality” of the Church: today the message of Christ must be also brought to countries of ancient christianization. As the post-synod exhortation Ecclesia in Europa states, in varied parts of the old continent there is need for a first-time proclamation of the Gospel. The number of unbaptized people is in fact on the increase, both because of the notable presence of immigrants belonging to other faiths, and also because the children of families of Christian tradition have not received baptism because of atheist and materialistic pressures. The conclusion is that also in some areas of the old continent a true and proper missio ad gentes has become necessary.
In your experience over these years have you ever perceived the danger that in countries where Christianity is very much a minority religion, at times hardly tolerated if not opposed, the missionary vocation of the Church may get confused with an attempt by a centralized spiritual organization to gain new ground, and the missionaries with agents sent to colonize?
SEPE: The missionary, by nature and vocation, is not a conquistador, but a bearer of good, of the greatest good, that is faith in Jesus Christ, who is also the Prince of peace. And he demonstrates that by his experience, by the abnegation and gift of himself to the benefit of all, even, in some cases, giving his life. So in countries where the Catholics are a minority, the Catholic hospitals and schools are open to all and nobody is asked for a “membership card” before entering. Thus it happens that in some Arab countries the vast majority of the pupils are of the Islamic religion.
On one of my recent trip, I told a young non-Christian man who had asked me why the missionaries came from distant countries, that the presence of the missionaries served the sole purpose of offering to those who want it a good that has been given to us, and that we want others to share in it. Everyone then is free to accept it or not.
A missionary in Turkana village in Kenya

A missionary in Turkana village in Kenya

What, in conclusion, is the real sense of the mission?
SEPE: I’d like to begin with the first, great signal of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the visit to the Basilica of Saint Paul Without the Wall. At the start of his Petrine office, the Pope decided to reaffirm the missionary character of the Church. The missionary spirit is not, in substance, a simple choice or an option like any another. It is the very nature of the Church that expresses the catholicity and the universality of the message. «Woe to me if I did not evangelize»: Saint Paul’s warning is more alive than ever today, in the secularized society and in the globalized world in which we live. Indeed, this missionary spirit requires a new and deeper expansion. Of a kind to involve not only the structures but the mentality and attitudes of every believer.
The Christians must be trained in a missionary consciousness: today more that ever, the exhortation Ecclesia in Europa affirms, this is necessary in every Christian, starting from the bishops, from the presbyters, from the deacons, from the ordained, from the catechists, from the teachers of religion.
The Church, from its foundation, has sent apostles, bearers of the unique message of salvation that is Christ. The message of the Church, though embodied in different cultures, is the same in every latitude.
The very fine words of Pope Benedict XVI in the sermon of the mass of Saints Peter and Paul come to mind: « Catholicity means universality-multiplicity that becomes unity; unity that remains multiplicity however. From the words of Paul on the universality of the Church we have already seen that part of this unity is the ability of peoples to go beyond themselves, to look toward the sole God».
Every Christian lives and hopes in this: to make known Christ as the only savior of mankind, offering to all the possibility of encountering him, loving him and adoring him.

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