CARDINAL JOSEF TOMKO was one of the longest serving prefects of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
In his three terms of five years, plus an extra year, from 1985-2001, he traveled the world to try to ensure that the Church’s message was being heard. He has written a memoir of those experiences in On Missionary Roads, published in English in February.
Cardinal Tomko was consecrated bishop by John Paul II in 1979. Register correspondent Edward Pentin spoke to the 83-year-old Slovak cardinal in Rome.
You were appointed by Pope John Paul II to oversee a global missionary effort beginning in 1985, from which you retired in 2001. During that time you prepared the necessary steps to create some 180 new dioceses worldwide, ordained 62 bishops, and brought many more into the priesthood. What is the key to effective evangelization, do you think?
What is essential to evangelization? Why evangelization? Because we have a command: Go and teach, and teach all the nations without exception. I don’t think that this task has yet finished.
We have the promise of the assistance of Jesus Christ but it is the human work, the human cooperation that is also urgently needed. Jesus Christ has given us this command, and so that’s the reason why we are going on missions and we are evangelizing.
Now, proclamation is the main purpose of evangelization, to go and teach. But it’s not like teaching in schools, this teaching is announcing, simply proposing the life, the figure of Jesus Christ, his mission, his person as man and as God, as the Son of God who became man. The main mystery is there and this is what we’re doing.
What’s the difference between a poor and an effective evangelization?
Its effectiveness cannot be judged in the sense of success. Success is a secondary thing in the sense that what we are called to do is propose the person and the message of Jesus Christ.
If we succeed in doing this, then what happens in the hearts of the listeners is beyond our capacity, so we don’t always see the fruits — missionaries in particular don’t, not immediately.
For example, I had a meeting with missionaries in one region of Japan. Some of them were working for 20, 30, 40 years without seeing or baptizing anybody. So they were rather complaining of their frustrations, asking what they were doing there. I asked them a simple question: Were you sent for the harvest, or to bring simply the Gospel?
Somebody else will come after you and take the harvest. That’s the meaning. We are simply bringing the message and proposing the message.
What can we learn from John Paul II and Benedict XVI on how to evangelize effectively? They both have different styles.
Yes, different ways and still one, because a strong faith in both Popes is so visible.
Everyone manifests this in their own way, following their own temperament and own character of course. Also the style of one was more preaching while the other more as a theologian than a preacher.
Now Benedict is becoming more and more popular because he can explain the faith in such a simple yet dedicated way because everyone feels that’s truly his faith. It’s not simply a theory, not ideas, it’s his life.
When he’s speaking and writing about Jesus Christ it’s always the same. When you see his short catechesis on Sundays at 12 o’clock, it’s only five minutes, but an idea is always there and he gives in a very simple way the teachings of Jesus Christ. And that’s very beautiful and that’s Benedict XVI.
John Paul II was going out to the world and calling the youth and other people. But what is the main strength of both personalities is a strong personal faith and dedicated life.
Cardinal Camillo Ruini wrote recently that the Church must find ways of speaking to the world today. How can this best be done, particularly in view of the problems in Italy at the moment and how the bishops are trying to put the Church’s teaching across in the face of strong opposition?
The most important thing for the Church is to conserve her own identity.
We are not a political power, but still lay Christians must work in the political sector, witnessing first to our faith.
Second, what is very important is to present our faith everywhere in such a way that is accessible to the people in the sense of respecting the culture of the people and speaking their language. We sometimes speak the Church’s language, and for somebody who is not familiar with that, he will not be convinced because it’s going over his head.
What we need is to speak to these people so first they must feel that I believe what I am speaking about, second that I love them and that I have joy and satisfaction and certitude inside, and want to share that with them.
So in one word we have to inculturate the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ in each culture and each way of thinking.
How did you come to write your book, On Missionary Roads?
I was asked by my people in Slovakia to write about my experiences because I have so many pictures and films, so they were extremely interested, especially the youth.
So in 2001, 2002 I started to write, but in Slovak. In 2003, the book was ready in Slovak and 115,000 were sold in a small country like Slovakia with 5,400,000 people, not all Catholics. Anyway, it was a great success. Some Americans of Slovak descent saw the book and said that it would be wonderful in English. So I said they had the rights to translate it, so they did, and Ignatius Press published it at the end of December and in the spring of this year.
It’s a reflection of all your experiences?
Yes, since I made so many travels, I prepared this kind of missionary geography, not only of my experiences, and put in mostly my own maps and pictures. The people find it interesting.
What were your fondest memories of being prefect and working so closely with John Paul II?
My fondest memories are always in connection with traveling with John Paul II, since I accompanied him on all his travels in missionary countries from 1985 to 2001. Then I made more after that.
These travels were extremely interesting for me and also for the people, I think. I can remember the consecration of Bishop Harrington in northern Kenya, among the Turkanas. The consecration was under a big tent. The heat was so intense. After the invocation of the Holy Spirit, a strong wind came down and simply broke the tent. Then lightning came down and the people were wondering what happened. Somebody said, “Ah look, the Holy Spirit is truly coming!”
At other times, the traveling was dangerous. When we flew from Rabaul in northern Papua New Guinea, it’s close to two active volcanoes, which had erupted before and we were flying in a small plane to the island of Bougainville where there was a war. So one danger was flying over these volcanoes and the other was arriving in Bougainville.
The military groups said to us, if something happens then do this and that and go immediately to the plane and fly off immediately, but anyway we will protect you. We had a wonderful Eucharist there.
What anecdotes do you have of your time spent with John Paul II?
I remember the travel to Asia and Oceania, in 1986, 16 days of traveling. The first night we were sleeping, so to say, during the flight, 10 or 11 hours to Dakar in Bangladesh. We stopped over there, we saw the Ganges, then we did our work the whole day, sleeping at midnight, and at 5 a.m. we got up and sent our baggage off for the next flight.
Once more, there were ceremonies with the governments and the people, and then we flew on to Singapore. The weather there was terrific — monsoons and rains. Then it stopped. We finished ceremonies in Singapore, took again an overnight flight to Fiji, landed in Fiji, went around.
Then on to Auckland in New Zealand, then to Canberra in Australia, and there I remember meeting the Holy Father coming from his room and going to the chapel. So I asked him, “Have you slept Holy Father?” He said, “Yes, first time.” First time on the trip!
That was work, such work that my good friend (former Vatican Secretary of State) Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who was a man of spirit, said, “Look how beautiful is the division of work that we have!” In other words, the Pope does the hard work (fatica), and we feel tired (faticati).
Edward Pentin writes