In the 1957-58 school year, I was in the fifth grade at St. Joseph School in Howell, Michigan. Each Lent the Holy Childhood Association had a program to collect money to support a newly baptized Catholic child in some missionary country. I could be wrong on this, but I think the cost was $5.00. In our classroom, boys and girls competed to see which group could raise more money. The US/mission country divide was very clear.
In high school in the mid-1960s, our music teacher played a recording of the new “Missa Luba,” a Mass in Latin but in a Congolese music style. Very reverent and totally unlike the Gregorian chant that I was learning! Inculturation of the Gospel then recognized the Church’s different cultures but for many Catholics in the United States only in a very superficial way.
In 1960 it was big news when Pope (now St.) John XXIII appointed as a cardinal Bishop Laurean Rugambwa of Rutabo, Tanganyika. Wow, the Church was indeed universal! In my lifetime, most of the countries in Africa and many elsewhere have taken new names after they separated from their colonial mother countries.
If a papal conclave were held right now, the electors would come from 68 countries, an increase of 20 from the March 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis. The idea of a pope from Poland, then Germany, and now Argentina seemed most unlikely when I was in grade school.
In The Coming of the Third Church, Walbert Buhlmann, OFM Cap. estimated that 1970 was the year when the majority of the world’s Catholics began to live below the equator. The times, they were a-changin’!
Between September 1986 through January 1992, I worked in Rome at the worldwide headquarters of the Order of Friars Minor. My sense of a World Church increased greatly through living with 50 friars from approximately 20 countries.
Between 1993 and 1995, I worked with the late Arnulf Camps, OFM (a missiology professor at the Catholic University of Nijmegen) on a book about the OFM presence in the People’s Republic of China. It concentrated on the 20th century but also covered the years between 1294 (arrival of the first friar in modern-day Beijing) and 1955 (expulsion of all foreign missionaries from that country). Although Arnulf and I wanted to include a chapter on Chinese friars expelled around the same time, the possibility of reprisals against family members still in the PRC made that impossible.
When I preside at Mass now, I am very conscious of belonging to a worldwide Church embracing many cultures. In my international travels, I have seen this up close and personal in Europe, Mexico, the Middle East, India, Taiwan, and the PRC.
The entire Church is missionary, which this Extraordinary Missionary Month is meant to reinforce as the Catholic Church observes the centenary of Maximum Illud, Pope Benedict XV’s much-needed and groundbreaking apostolic letter about the Church’s missionary vocation.
Click here to read my 2019 article, “Becoming a World Church.”