‘Ad Gentes’: It’s All About Salvation

COMMENTARY: Second Vatican Council Symposium


Ad Gentes

Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church

Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965


The best defense is a good offense.

That is the theme of the Second Vatican Council’s 50-year-old decree Ad Gentes (To the Nations) on missionary activity, which informed the papacies that followed the Council.

The document has stood its ground amid a tectonic shift in Catholics’ attitudes about the missions.

At the turn of the last century, the missions were axiomatic, a central part of Christian life. You see it in literature, both Protestant and Catholic.

The girl Cordelia, in 1923 England, surprises the unchurched narrator of Brideshead Revisited by describing her missionary involvement: “You send five bob to some nuns in Africa, and they christen a baby and name her after you. I’ve got six black Cordelias already. Isn’t it lovely?”

To the young Cordelia, as to laypeople in general, missionary activity was absolutely necessary: It brought the salvation of Jesus Christ to the masses threatened by doom in this life and the next.

But it was also triumphalist in a way that wouldn’t last. When the narrator returns to Cordelia’s mansion 20 years later, he finds the world utterly changed and Cordelia’s childhood chapel all but abandoned.

It is a metaphor for what happened to the faith in the postwar world: After two disillusioning world wars, many in the Church turned inward, fretting over its own problems and worried that perhaps there was no real reason to proclaim Jesus Christ to people who, many came to believe, could find salvation without ever hearing his name.

In our own day, the problem has grown worse.

“I’d estimate that 95%-98% of all the Catholics — including pastoral leaders — that I’ve ever worked with are functional universalists,” author Sherry Weddell has said. “Concerns regarding the personal salvation of anyone never cross their minds or affect their pastoral decisions and priorities.”

The Church after Ad Gentes keeps reminding them that this should not be the case.

Ad Gentes strongly reaffirmed the need for missions and salvation in Christ: “All must be converted to him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and all must be incorporated into him by baptism and into the Church, which is his body,” it teaches (7), adding, “Those men cannot be saved, who, though aware that God, through Jesus Christ, founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it or to persevere in it.”

The decree taught not only the necessity of Christ, but the necessity of Peter: “The mandate of Christ to preach the Gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15) primarily and immediately concerns them, with Peter and under Peter” (38).

This primacy of preaching Christ — this offense as defense — has informed every papacy since.

Pope Paul VI re-invented evangelistic travel by popes. St. John Paul II turned his whole pontificate into a proclamation of Jesus Christ to the masses. The first sentence of his first encyclical, 1979’s Redemptoris Hominis, is “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history.” He then turned the next 21 years of his pontificate into a countdown to the Great Jubilee of Christ, as he traveled the world inviting Catholics to take part in a New Evangelization.

Benedict XVI’s pontificate, from his first homily, invited whoever would listen to friendship with Jesus. Before becoming pope, he had written Dominus Iesus, a strong affirmation of the doctrine that Christ is necessary to salvation. And the introduction of Benedict’s first encyclical said, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” His last encyclical reminded us, “In the end, souls will stand naked before the Judge.”

Francis began his pontificate by saying in his opening homily, “We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ,” and he has repeated the theme again and again. “Humanity greatly needs to lay hold of the salvation brought by Christ,” he said in 2014.

Ad Gentes provides what could be the mission statement of his pontificate: “The Church, prompted by the Holy Spirit, must walk in the same path on which Christ walked: a path of poverty and obedience, of service and self-sacrifice to the death” (5).

The decree was the essence of Vatican II, giving every Catholic an urgent, continuous missionary mandate.

Laypeople: “Their main duty, whether they are men or women, is the witness which they are bound to bear to Christ by their life and works in the home” (5).

Priests “personally represent Christ,” and the priesthood “by its very nature belongs to the mission of the Church” (39).

Bishops: “The bishop should be first and foremost a herald of the faith, who leads new disciples to Christ” (20).

Religious, “by their prayers and by their active work, play an indispensable role” (15).

It is true that some who never heard of Jesus Christ can be saved. It is also true that some who never receive necessary medical care can still live. But if we truly care about them, we wouldn’t count on it. They will thank us later, as 5,000 African children recently did in Kenya, in celebrating the anniversary of Ad Gentes.

Our job is not just to serve the needs of others, but to bring them to salvation. What is at stake is not the education or empowerment or enlightenment of the poor; it is the eternal state of their souls. We come not to impose our cultural baggage on them, but to introduce them to the God-man who changed the trajectory of history.

The Church, says Ad Gentes, “is missionary by her very nature” (2). If we don’t preach Christ, we have no reason to exist.

Tom Hoopes is writer in

residence at Benedictine

College in Atchison, Kansas.