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No. 40a

After speaking to the whole Church about missionary cooperation in no. 35 of the sixth chapter of Ad Gentes, to the laity in nos. 36 and 37, to the bishops in no. 38 and to priests in no. 39, the Council Fathers turn in no. 40 to consecrated persons. 

The first group they address in no. 40 is the religious communities that have been and/or are already engaged in missionary work: “Religious institutes of the contemplative and active life have up to this time played, and still play, the greatest part in the evangelization of the world.”

That is a bold statement, but if we look back in history, we see that it is true, first of all, regarding the past.  We think of St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and all the other Jesuit missionaries who went to the Far East and to the Americas at the beginning of the sixteenth century.  They were not the only ones: the Franciscans followed them or preceded them into almost all the non-Christian nations and areas of the world.  The Dominicans were not far behind them. 

Already in the thirteenth century, however, Dominican friars accompanied Marco Polo (ca.1254-ca.1324) on his journey to China with the intention of taking up contact with the Nestorian Christians still living in central Asia and in China.  Although they dropped out and returned home because of the hardships of the journey, their presence shows the missionary spirit of religious already then. 

It is also true that religious still play the greatest part in the evangelization of the world.  In recent years individual dioceses and countries have sent out many priests and laypersons to other countries to help with spreading and preserving our faith everywhere.  Nevertheless, the number of religious, men and women, working in the missions is still by far the largest group of missionaries.

Then the Council Fathers ask the religious to continue in this work.  The reason they cite for the religious to do so is the virtue of charity.  It is the charity “which they are obliged to practice more perfectly because of their vocation” and which binds them more closely to the Church. 

A footnote directs to the Council Decree on the Church, Lumen Gentium, no.44, where it says: “Being means to and instruments of love, the evangelical counsels unite those who practice them to the Church and her mystery in a special way.”  The paragraph goes on to say that the bond set up by the counsels shows forth the bond between Christ and His Church.  The spiritual life of religious, even contemplatives, should therefore be dedicated to the welfare of the entire Church.  They have the duty simply by their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience of working for the implantation and strengthening of the Kingdom of Christ in souls and for spreading it to the four corners of the world.  This, of course, means they should do so not only by work but also by prayer.

Mary, Mother of the Church, strengthen all religious communities, especially missionary congregations, in their dedication to bringing the Gospel of your Son to all nations. Amen.