Dear Father, one thing I have never completely understood is this: if all people, even non-Christians, can be saved, why all this emphasis on evangelisation? Shouldn’t we just leave non-Catholics and, all the more, non-Christians in peace since they can be saved without us?
It is interesting that you ask this question since it is one that was asked by many people after the Second Vatican Council. As we know, Christ sent the apostles out to all nations to baptise and teach the faith (cf. Mt 28:19-20).
Since then missionaries have gone all over the world to carry out that mandate, often risking and even losing their lives to do so.
The missionary spirit has always characterised the Church. Indeed, many Australians are overseas carrying it out today.
When the Second Vatican Council taught in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium that “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience, those too may achieve eternal salvation” (LG 16), many began to question the whole purpose of missionary activity. Since all can be saved, even without knowing Christ and his Church, why go to all the trouble of preaching the Gospel to them?
The first thing to remember is that while in theory all can be saved, it is much easier to be saved in the Catholic Church.
As I wrote in my last column, in the Church we have the fulness of the truth taught by Jesus Christ about God, man, life after death, morality, etc., and we have the fulness of the means of salvation and sanctification in the Mass and the sacraments.
To say that all can be saved is a little like saying that it is possible by many different ways to get across a body of water to shore many kilometres away.
One can swim, but there is the danger of sharks, waves, tiredness or getting hit by a boat.
One could also float on a log, but the same dangers would obtain. It would be easier and safer to paddle in a kayak or canoe but it is still not certain the person would arrive.
The easiest way is in a large boat, and the Catholic Church is that boat. If we saw people trying to reach the shore by those other means we would do everything possible to invite them into the boat.
We should remember that everyone is looking for truth and happiness, not only in the next life but in this one. In the Church we have the fulness of truth and it is by living in accordance with that truth that we find the happiness we are seeking. We have found the way and we would like everyone else to find it, too.
Pope St John Paul II in 1990 addressed the reason for the Church’s missionary activity in his encyclical Redemptoris missio, The Mission of the Redeemer.
He writes: “Why mission? Because to us, as to St Paul, ‘this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Eph 3:8). Newness of life in him is the ‘Good News’ for men and women of every age: all are called to it and destined for it. Indeed, all people are searching for it, albeit at times in a confused way, and have a right to know the value of this gift and to approach it freely. The Church, and every individual Christian within her, may not keep hidden or monopolise this newness and richness which has been received from God’s bounty in order to be communicated to all mankind” (n. 11).
Pope Francis, too, took up the call to mission in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium in 2013.
He writes that “evangelisation is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of these are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone” (n. 14).
So if we truly love our fellow man, including many in our own country who do not know Jesus Christ and the Church, we will show this love by doing everything possible to announce the faith to them. They are free to accept it or reject it, but at least they will have heard it.