Winter 1994

“Woe to Me If I Do Not Preach the Gospel”

Marc Ouellet

"Indeed, preaching the gospel is no reason for me to boast; it is an obligation that has been imposed upon me. And woe to me if I do not preach the gospel." (1 Cor 9:16)

Paul's utterance was reitierated by John Paul II at the very beginning of his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (=RM). Twenty-five years after the conciliar decree Ad gentes and fifteen years after Paul VI's apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, John Paul II wished to invite the Church to "renew its missionary commiment": "the Second Vatican Council wished to renew the life and activity of the Church according to the needs of the modern world; to this end, it underscored the Church's missionary character, basing it in a dynamic way upon the trinitarian mission itself. The missionary impulse thus belongs to the inner nature of the Christian life and inspires ecumenism as well: 'May they all be one . . . so that the world may believe that you sent me" (Jn 17:21).

"Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel." Is the imperative necessity and inward exigence of mission the privilege of the high-level apostles who have the official responsibility of preaching the Word? Does it apply equally to ordinary Christians, lay people, and religious who fulfill their daily tasks without echoing their message in the public sphere? Can we identify the Church's new missionary consciousness with this expression from the Apostle to the Gentiles? If so, what "woe" is carried by the failure to fulfill our missionary obligation? A simple moral imperfection consequent upon a neglected secondary obligation? Or a greater "woe" that reaches the identity of the person and of the Church itself? Or perhaps the very glory of God?

I wish to embark on such questions in this essay, drawing inspiration from John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar, who have reflected upon the essentially missionary nature of the Church. History will retain the name of Karol Wojtyła as one of the principle protagonists of the missionary renewal of the Church at the close of the second Christian millenium. His work as a bishop and as a thinker, inspired by the great tradition developed at the Council, his contributions to the conciliar texts on mission, his itinerant manner of assuming the Petrine office, his articulated program of new evangelization, and even his solidarity with a certain Polish messianism make him a key figure for understanding the Church's missionary turn in our age.1 For his part, Hans Urs von Balthasar has constructed a rather unique theological synthesis, one of the pillars upon which it rests being the fundamental category of mission. My intention in this essay is to draw attention to certain aspects of the Church's missionary consciousness whose renewal John Paul II has contributed to, and which are again taken up within the perspective of a theological whole in the work of Balthasar.


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1. Cf. R. Buttiglione, La pensée de Karol Wojtyła (Fayard: Communio, 1984); B. Pottier, "Vatican II et Jean-Paul II," NRT 107 (1985): 361-75; B. Lambert, "'Gaudium et Spes' hier et aujourd'hui," NRT 107 (1985): 321-46.