Some call them mission dioceses, some call them “the missions” and others the “young churches.” All of these names and others refer to parts of the world where the Catholic Church continues to evangelize and reach those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.
For a long time the Church has spoken of these local churches as “the missions,” giving the impression that these churches are poor or in rural, harsh conditions. In “the missions” pagans were baptized and people were taught how to read and write. This image is limiting and sometimes even harmful as it makes it sound like the people living there are backwards or uncivilized.
More recently the Church has used the language of “young churches.” The word young is in reference to the fact that many of these dioceses and parishes were founded in the last 100 years. They are still relatively new to the presence of the Church and often times the majority of the faithful are young people. Yet, sometimes this description is not accurate. Places like Ethiopia were actually mentioned in the New Testament. India has had Christian missionaries since the time of the apostles. The first Catholic diocese in the New World was erected in the Dominican Republic. If we call them young churches, we assume people do not know Jesus, and many of them do already!
You might also hear “local churches,” as I have used the phrase here. This refers to the idea that every parish and every diocese in the Catholic Church is made up of communities of faith. These communities have come together because they live together in a local neighborhood or region. They may share languages, cultures and histories. The local context is important to how the community worships and understands who God is. This phrase is a better representation of the reality of churches around the world.
The phrase “mission dioceses” is better though it also has its drawbacks. Not all mission dioceses are actually dioceses, some are officially designated as Apostolic Vicariates or Apostolic Prefectures (which are provisional church jurisdictions). The phrase “mission diocese” refers more generally to any and all churches that could not exist without the support of the larger, Universal Church. In mission dioceses many may already know and worship Christ. These local churches are often organized enough to have a number of parishes as well as priests and religious. Often parishes are spread out and are designed to have “outstations” that serve rural communities. One pastor must visit many outstations to minister to his whole parish community. Mission dioceses may be located in a war-torn area, or Catholics may be in the minority, or the climate is so harsh that missionaries must travel great distances to offer the Sacraments (think of the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska). Often times in mission dioceses the people are poor, as a result of corruption or unfair distribution of resources. Communities in a mission diocese often do not have access to basic human services like clean water, healthcare, an education or secure homes. In places like this missionaries are the ones who offer to help the community with human services. The people of mission dioceses often display deep faith, a sense of persevering hope and devotion to God. The manner of expression of this faith may be different that what you have experienced before, but it is faith in the same God. Missionaries are of course also concerned with growing the community’s faith, they build churches, offer the Sacraments and teach the faith. The children and families in mission dioceses are missionary disciples too!
When we envision mission dioceses in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania (Pacific Islands) we must remember that there is great faith in all of these places. These are places where the Catholic Church is alive and working to evangelize through missionaries and pastoral ministers.
We all have work to do as we build the Kingdom of God in our world.
We all need to be evangelized again and again.
Thanks be to God!