Sandra Mazzolini

29 April 2024


Development of the Concept of Mission in Catholic Church Post Vatican II

  1. The Concept of Mission: Perspectives from the Second Vatican Council


Certain moments in the history of the Church and of theological-missiological thought were decisive for the development of the concept of mission. Such is the case for the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which functioned as both the culmination of developments that had preceded it, and the starting point for further growth and analysis. Some time before the Second Vatican Council, the traditional concept of mission had already begun to shift, not only through a plurality of sometimes contradictory positions among both missiologists and canonists, but also as a result of contemporary historical processes, such as decolonization, the gradual secularization of that part of the world that had traditionally been considered Christian, the creation within “mission territories” of local Churches with their own hierarchies, and the incipient although still minoritarian emergence of a model of Church that was open to both Biblical and patristic tradition on the one hand, and modern social and culture on the other.

The problematization of the concept of mission emerged multiple times both in the run-up to the Second Vatican Council and during its celebration. After rejecting the possibility of replacing the concept of mission and traditional missionary lexicon with new terminology that might better express the apostolic aspect of the Church, the Second Vatican Council, strictly speaking, did not so much provide the post-Council Church with an updated definition of mission, but rather a set of fundamental and foundational perspectives that will guide further developments in the concept of mission. These perspectives may specifically be found in such texts as Lumen gentium (which proposes a broader understanding of the Church, far beyond its strictly juridical-societal and clerical aspects), Gaudium et spes (which rethinks the relationship between the Church and the contemporary world, no longer in terms of pure opposition, but rather in terms of reciprocity), Ad gentes (a decree on the Church’s missionary activity, which, among other things, valorizes the missionary role of every Church), Nostra aetate (which focuses on the relationship between the Church and other religious traditions, acknowledging their positive aspects), and Dignitatis humanae (which affirms religious freedom for all and each individual as a human right).

Essentially, four ideas signal the shift away from the traditional understanding of the concept of mission. One. The theological foundation of mission, which determines a specific understanding of the identity of the Church – seen as essentially missionary (see Ad gentes 2) – as well as the duty of the missionary, which is “one and the same everywhere and in every condition, even though it may be carried out differently according to circumstances” (Ad gentes 6), not to mention the subjects and recipients of a mission. Two. The employment of the concept of mission in terms that are not solely juridical and territorial, important as these are, but also taking into consideration the socio-cultural spaces that a mission should not ignore and that will shape its forms and modalities. Three. The move away from the traditional division between Christianity and mission territory, which no longer reflects reality, and the subsequent affirmation that every local Church is an active subject of missionary work (see Ad gentes 3). After all, a local Church is the universal Church within a determined space, which is not merely a territory, but also a cultural-anthropological dimension. Moreover, both subjects and recipients of a mission are enmeshed in relationships, in a manner of speaking they are shaped by their cultural-anthropological spaces of belonging, and of course such spaces contain multiple and varied perspectives. Four. The use of a diversified lexicon, notably the employment, however still imprecise, of the term “evangelization,” derived from the Protestant tradition and only lately adopted by the Roman Catholic one.


  1. Elements of the Development of the Concept of Mission After the Second Vatican Council


In the decades following the Second Vatican Council, the four aforementioned ideas have led to further thought, following two correlated and fundamental trajectories. The first trajectory has focused on the theological foundation of the concept of mission and its constitutive elements, while the second has had to do with the development of the concept of evangelization and its implications. The Church’s Magisterium as well as its missiologists have explored both trajectories, proposing new possibilities and further developments not in the abstract, but always in reference to the contemporary context.

American missiologists Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder argue that the second half of the twentieth century was characterized by three main trends of thought, which shaped the concept of mission in terms of participation in the mission of the Divine Trinity, of freeing the path to the kingdom of God, and of proclamation of Jesus Christ as universal savior. These three threads (which share significant areas of overlap) did not follow one another chronologically, but rather developed in parallel; nevertheless, each ended up emphasizing different ideas, partly in response to specific issues and problems arising in different continental contexts. The core elements of each continue to generate interest in the twenty-first century, leading to new perspectives that are still being developed. Bevan and Schroeder therefore proposed to re-conceptualize the Church’s mission within the framework of a prophetic dialogue, which would allow for both an updated synthesis of the three threads and a comprehensive overview of the elements that characterize the modern-day mission, for example: dialogue and annunciation; liturgy, prayer, and contemplation; the commitment to justice, peace and the preservation of Creation; interfaith dialogue; the commitment to inculturation and to the ministry of reconciliation.

From this perspective, it becomes clear that the development of the concept of mission in the years following the Second Vatican Council has shed light on its complexity. Essentially, this complexity derives from the different thematic areas that together shape this concept, from theology to missionary history, from the role of the missionary pastor to the relationship between mission and society, as well as the relationship between the mission and humanity’s cultural and religious universes. In other words, the concept of mission can only really be approached interdisciplinarily. This is evident, for example, if we look at the development of the concept of evangelization, a dynamic concept with implications for the communication of faith and for social commitment. The integral approach necessitated by the complexity of the concept of mission includes foundational-doctrinal elements, as well as practical-operational aspects. In other words, the mission cannot be solely identified with a single one of its elements, be it theoretical or practical, though of course certain contexts may warrant a certain emphasis of a single element over others.

This interdisciplinary and integral approach correlates with the idea of plurality, which has also characterized the development of the concept of mission in the years since the Second Vatican Council. Plurality refers to the actual configuration of modern-day contexts, each shaped by geopolitical considerations as well as processes such as migration, urbanization, the development of new communication technologies, and so on. In this regard, a stark distinction between Christian territories and mission territories becomes obsolete and even unthinkable: it can no longer provide a framework for the understanding of the concept of mission. Rather, a new framework must be sought, one that balances the focus on territorial scope (which cannot be wholly ignored) with a focus on new worlds and social phenomena, as well as new cultural areas, ones that do not coincide with purely geographic spaces.

Such a framework encourages a renewed focus on and development of specific and pertinent questions, which have as much to do with missionary practices as with the foundations of mission. At the same time, it also encourages renewed attention to the results of the changes and transformations that are currently taking place. From this perspective, it shall suffice to note the following: first of all, that the concept of mission can no longer be intended in a Eurocentric sense or as something that obligatorily goes from the West to the rest of the world; secondly, given (among other things) the inherent relationship between the concept of mission and the visible unity of the Churches, the question of the plausibility of the “ecumenical” concept of mission cannot be ignored or seen as secondary (after all, this question includes the extent to which different Christian traditions have developed shared themes in different ways, the commitment to the resolution of persistent, and the search for new areas of inquiry); thirdly, we must rethink relationships with those who belong to other faiths and those who follow their own personal path independently of religion, firmly eschewing any possible form of colonialism and proselytism, which cast a shadow on the concept of mission, and activating opportune, well-pondered dialogue processes, which may allow for the discovery and recognition of the values distributed across humanity’s religious and cultural universes, indeed further shaping the concept of mission.

Given all of this, it is clear that the development of the concept of mission in the years following the Second Vatican Council has been shaped by the receptive processes of the Council itself; at the same time, it is also clear that this development still remains very much in progress, as it grapples with the plural, ever-changing dynamics of the contemporary moment.



Dr. Sandra Mazzolini is a theologian and full professor and chair of Church and Mission for the Faculty of Missiology at Pontifical Urbiana University in Rome. Her research specializes in ecclesiology and Church history. 

Cover photo: Padre Pedro Opeka, leads Catholics gathered at the cemetery in the Akamasoa district in Antananarivo as he blesses the graves for the All Saints celebrations, on November 1, 2018. Also as Father Opeka, he is a Catholic priest working as a missionary in Madagascar. For his service to the poor, he was awarded the Legion of Honour. (Photo by Marco Longari / AFP.)

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