Pope Pius XI first instituted Mission Sunday for the whole Church in 1927 in order to help emphasize the Church's universality and to promote our common responsibility for evangelizing the entire world. It seems especially appropriate, therefore, that the Beatification of Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) has been scheduled this year for Mission Sunday. Blessed Paul VI reigned as pope from 1963 until his death in 1978. He oversaw the successful completion of the Second Vatican Council and began the implementation of its constitutions and decrees. It was during that turbulent time that he established the Synod of Bishops. (This year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family in the Context of Evangelization will conclude with today's Beatification Mass.)
After the 1974 Synod of Bishops on the topic of “Evangelization in the Modern World,” Pope Paul issued an Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975), devoted to the task of proclaiming the Gospel to the people of our time. The Synod had declared "that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church." In amplifying that theme in Evangelii Nuntiandi Pope Paul taught that “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection” (Evangelii Nuntiandi,14). Following Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II called in 1983 for a “new” evangelization – “new in its ardor, its methods, and its expressions.”
Evangelii Nuntiandi marked an important moment in the development of the modern Church’s self-understanding in relation to the world. Thus, for example, the great 20th-century American Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles came to view the papal emphasis on evangelization as “one of the most surprising and important developments in the Catholic Church since Vatican II.” Near the end of his long life, Dulles identified two contemporary mission priorities for the Church in the United States: “to catechize Catholics in their Faith and to motivate them to evangelize others. (On this, see Patrick W. Carey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian, 1918-2008, Paulist Press, 2010, pp. 448-450.) It is safe to say that those two priorities remain as urgent - and as unfilfilled.
“The Catholic faith alone,” Paulist founder Isaac Hecker wrote to Orestes Brownson in 1851, “is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.” For the rest of his life, Hecker would repeatedly emphasize the reciprocal relationship between the Church’s mission within and to the Catholic community and her mission outward to the larger American society. “We cannot even preserve the faith among Catholics in any better way than by advancing it among our non-Catholic brethren” Hecker wrote in The Catholic World in 1886. “Indeed,” he continued, “simply to preserve the faith it is necessary to extend it. It is a state of chronic disease for men to live together and not endeavor to communicate their respective good fortune. A Catholic without a mission to his non-Catholic fellow-citizens in these times, and when only a small portion of the human race has the true religion, is only half a Catholic.”