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CURIA-SEPE Apr-12-2006 (1,160 words) One in an occasional series. With photo. xxxi

To one Vatican official, missionaries are world's unsung heroes

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Missionaries are the world's unsung heroes, dedicating their lives to the poor, sick and suffering in oftentimes remote or dangerous places, said the head of the Vatican office for overseeing the church's missionary activities.

The face of today's missionaries, however, has changed; they are laypeople, groups of families or religious from a country nearby, said Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, president of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

The numbers of lay Catholics working in mission lands "has exploded" during the past decade as laypeople fill the void left by an ever-dwindling number of people entering traditional missionary orders, he told Catholic News Service in early April.

Laypeople and especially local catechists represent the church's "most promising and effective force" in evangelization, he said, because they live the same day-to-day lives as the people they reach out to and are often more familiar with local customs and the native language.

Established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, the evangelization congregation's goals have remained much the same: propagating the faith throughout the entire world, coordinating the church's missionary activities, promoting a well-formed and trained clergy, and providing funding for the church's missionary activities.

Over the centuries the congregation, once called "Propaganda Fide," has remained in the same 17th-century building that faces Piazza di Spagna in downtown Rome.

Cardinal Sepe said that under Pope Benedict XVI the congregation's work would remain much the same, with an emphasis on encouraging all Catholics to take up the call to evangelize. But under the new pope, the church's missionary focus was expected to shift to the East.

The continent where the church can break new ground in evangelization is Asia, Cardinal Sepe said. The growth and vibrancy of the church in the Philippines and southern India indicates that the church "needs to keep orienting itself more towards the Orient," he said.

There are also formidable obstacles in evangelizing Asia, particularly China, where diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican have been severed since 1951.

But Cardinal Sepe said Christianity has always encountered obstacles and that hitting roadblocks while spreading the Gospel "is, in a certain sense, normal." The important thing to do in these cases, he said, is to be well aware of one's mission and "always leave the door open to dialogue and understanding."

With China, the church "needs to take it slow" and be clear with authorities about what its true mission is, he said.

By opening its doors to full religious freedom for the Catholic Church, China should not fear that it would be invaded by the Vatican or a foreign church because "the church is (already) present in China" with several million people belonging to the underground Catholic Church, the cardinal suggested.

Vocations are already flourishing there, many new religious institutes have been established, and laypeople are actively involved in church life, he said, adding that "the raw material is there."

Born in a small, rural Italian village not far from Naples, Cardinal Sepe has headed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples since 2001, when he was made a cardinal by the man he called "the great missionary pope," John Paul II.

The late pope's numerous travels around the globe and appeals for the church to renew its missionary conscience made a huge impact, the cardinal said.

Pope John Paul's 26-year ministry widened access to the Gospel message in an unprecedented way by advocating that the church find a new language and new approaches to relaying the Gospel without editing the substance, the cardinal said.

While it was not expected Pope Benedict would do the same amount of traveling as his predecessor, the new pope has been sending forth envoys in his name. When Cardinal Sepe went to Sudan in February, he also went as the pope's personal representative to express the pope's solidarity with the troubled African nation.

The cardinal said he wanted to bring "a little encouragement, a little confidence," to Catholics in Sudan and to personally deliver money raised by the congregation from an auction last Christmas.

The congregation manages large amounts of money to distribute to its mission lands, which include all of Africa, all of Asia except the Philippines, all of Oceania except Australia, 80 dioceses in Latin America, 8 dioceses in Canada, U.S. dioceses in Alaska, and some dioceses in Europe's Balkan region and the Caucasus.

"It's a huge amount of work" covering all four corners of the earth, he said.

But nothing seems daunting to the 62-year-old cardinal, who has had lots of practice juggling a myriad of tasks. After he was ordained a priest in 1967, he earned degrees in theology and canon law at the Pontifical Lateran University. He then started studying for a second degree in philosophy at Rome's La Sapienza University while studying at the Vatican institute for diplomats, and teaching dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Urbanian University, which is directed by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

He recalls how his spiritual director warned him about doing too much, "but I was young," he said, and able to handle the load.

In 1972, Cardinal Sepe began working with the Vatican's diplomatic corps in Brazil as secretary to the apostolic nuncio there. The now-cardinal's missionary spirit was apparent even then -- in his free time, he would head to the "Guara dois" shantytown outside the capital, Brasilia, to bring medicines, milk and the Gospel message to the poor.

Fluent in five languages, plus a passable Latin, he then returned to the Vatican's Secretariat of State in 1975 where he monitored Vatican media outlets. In 1987 he was named assessor, one of the highest positions in the secretariat.

After serving as secretary of the Congregation for Clergy, he became secretary of the Vatican's jubilee organizing committee in 2000, coordinating plans for more than 40 major events that brought millions of pilgrims to Rome.

The cardinal called his a career "a beautiful adventure."

He said that together with humanitarian workers, missionaries work day and night in the camps, handing out medicines, food and teaching people marketable crafts and skills. They are "the real and true heroes of our time and overlooked," the cardinal said.

Being a missionary is not a choice, he said; it is an integral part of being baptized in a living church. Whatever path or career one carves out for oneself, that is a missionary vocation in which one can spread the Gospel message to others, he said.

"Mission is also hope" because no one goes through life without encountering difficulties, he said.

However, God "gives us the guarantee, the strength," that he will help people fulfill their mission, he said, and faith in God's presence "bolsters everyone's hopes to go forward despite the hardships."

As long as one is motivated not by self-interest, but by love for God and the other, then "one can do anything," he said.


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