The Mission of Christ and Christ-like Women
by Paul Mankowski
There is something wryly amusing in the picture of the 16th-century explorer landing on some tiny spit in the North Atlantic, and—by thrusting his guidon into the sand some dozen yards up the beach—claiming the entire American continent for France or England or Spain, blithely unconscious of the diversity of terrain, the number of indigenous people, the variety of climate, and the sheer vastness of the land and of the enterprise of possessing it, an enterprise whose true scope was only fully understood three centuries later.
At the outset of Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II advances—though far from naively—a comparably audacious claim: that all nations, all peoples, of whatever origin or religion or condition, are beholden to the saving power of Jesus Christ. He does not, of course, pretend that this claim is original—quite the contrary—rather he understands that the cross planted on Golgotha two millennia ago was and remains the definitive and final act of conquest—the conquest of human sin by divine love—and that all Christians are embarked on the project of bringing this good news, this gospel to the entire world. The burden of this encyclical is to expound the meaning of this claim for our own time and to awaken the Christian faithful to the responsibilities which follow from it.
The generally irenic and sanguine flavor of recent papal documents has led some readers to wonder whether the strength and nature of countervailing forces, especially those within our own house, are known in detail by the Holy See. No reader of this encyclical will have grounds for doubt in this regard. Such difficulties, the pope insists, are, in his own words, “the most painful of all.” In spite of the exhortation of the Second Vatican Council to increase and intensify the Church’s missionary activity, there is no denying that such activity has languished since the council. The current pope notes that his predecessor Paul VI already noted this missionary anemia, which he characterized as “a lack of fervor [which] is all the more serious because it comes from within. It is manifested in fatigue, disenchantment, compromise, lack of interest and above all lack of joy and hope.”  John Paul brings this into sharper focus:
Nor is the pope naive about the consequences of these incorrect perspectives. He writes,
Clearly, the pope has scored a bull’s-eye here. Consider this passage which appeared in America magazine this summer, from an article titled, “Being a Missionary,” in which a priest explains why he and his companions decided to pull out of Jordan last year:
“Fatigue, disenchantment, compromise, lack of interest and above all lack of joy and hope” describe the soul of this “enlightened” evangelization. It is so unsure of itself it has lost all confidence that it has any gift worth giving. These would-be missionaries are straightjacketed by what they perceive as the overwhelming complexity and novelty of their situation. That cultural differences present evangelical complexities no one could deny; to think awareness of this complexity is novel is an error that betrays an astonishing historical innocence. Consider the description given in the Acts of Apostles of that first Pentecost:
From the first half-hour of the Church’s existence, cultural diversity of an extraordinary kind was not a fond hope but a permanent fact of life. By the end of the day these new Christians, still gabbling in their own native tongues, greatly outnumbered the apostles, as 3,000 baptisms were performed that very afternoon. By the same token, it should be remembered that, until quite recently, with travel being at once difficult, precarious and limited to the very wealthy or very ambitious, the cultural differences between one valley and its neighbor were greater than those which today exist between continents. To travel at the time of Christ even thirty miles around the Mediterranean seaboard would bring one in contact with people who spoke new languages, ate strange foods, made their wine differently, worshipped unknown gods and in ways that were frequently shocking, people whose art and architecture and clothing and laws and wedding customs were unthinkably distant from one’s own. Regarding the depths of the chasms separating race from race, tongue from tongue, culture from culture, the Church’s pentecostal embrace of Libyans, Elamites, and Romans represents an effort unthinkable in contemporary terms. In an age when, I am reliably informed, most teenagers in Belize are avid Chicago Cubs fans, and Bedouin children have memorized by heart the entire repertory of Starsky and Hutch, in an age when Garfield is translated into Swahili and Tagalog, in an age when most missionaries are separated by fewer than 20 hours from Paris or Los Angeles and none is more than seven days from either—in such an age few of us indeed are in a position to make patronizing remarks about the problems of “inculturation” faced, and sometimes imperfectly overcome, by evangelists of earlier generations.
St. Paul, you remember, did not say, “Woe to me if I nuance not the Gospel.” He was resolutely convinced of the necessity to preach it to the entire world. And yet who was more ready than St. Paul to dispense with any needless stumbling block, any personal or cultural trait which might prove an impediment to acceptance of the good news? Paul insisted:
Paul embodied this zeal in his travels, which were extraordinary for the physical energy, as well as the intellectual nimbleness, they required. His journeys were an emblem, and more than an emblem, of his conviction that salvation through Christ is offered to all men of all nations. This conviction has in our own day been given new life, and a new emblematic reality, by another traveler for the sake of the gospel. Pope John Paul writes, “In the name of the whole Church, I sense an urgent duty to repeat this cry of St. Paul. From the beginning of my pontificate I have chosen to travel to the ends of the earth in order to show this missionary concern. My direct contact with people who do not know Christ has convinced me even more of the urgency of missionary activity.” [l] The Church continues to speak to all the nations of the world. And if the truth be told, the Church continues to speak the many languages of men not with a Roman, but with a Galilean accent, because the Church speaks in the voice of Jesus the Nazarene, who is the Christ. “Under the impulse of the Spirit,” the pope says, “the Christian faith is decisively opened to the nations.” This original impulse is still at work, still with us. Like a pebble dropped into a glassy pond, the action of Pentecost started an outward rippling of proclamation which will never cease as long as there are men to hear it. For the proclamation is the proclamation of God’s word, and once a word has gone out from God, it does not return to him until it has accomplished everything he intended.
The encyclical Redemptoris Missio distinguishes three interrelated activities which are parts of the church’s one missionary endeavor. First are the peoples and groups “in which Christ and his Gospel are not known or which lack Christian communities sufficiently mature to be able to incarnate the faith in their own environment and proclaim it to other groups. This is mission ad gentes (‘to the nations’) in the proper sense of the term.” The second is the situation of “Christian communities with adequate and solid ecclesial structures. They are fervent in their faith and in Christian living.” Pastoral care of the faithful of these communities is also part of the church’s missionary mandate. Third, it says,
I would contend that we in North America are facing an enormous missionary challenge in our day. Further, I would contend that all three of the groupings of the encyclical are evidenced in our country, indeed within most of our local communities, and that all three activities of evangelization are called for. In terms of those who have not heard of Christ or the gospel, we have large numbers of Buddhist, Hindu and (to a lesser extent) Shintoist immigrants from the Far East who have settled in most cities. In addition there are Muslim immigrants from the Near East and from Africa, as well as pockets of people who have simply never had closer contact with the Christian message than the garbled version brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses door to door. The second category, who are blessed by “solid ecclesial structures” and fervent faith and Christian life, might be a little harder to find. Many of us are inclined to think that the most solid ecclesial structure of our acquaintance is the pastor’s Buick, and Roman Catholics are more inclined to use the word fervent to describe what takes place in the back rooms of the United States Catholic Conference than what takes place in the pews. And yet “solid,” I suppose, is a relative term; in any case, not all shanties collapse at the same rate. And we can point to certain dioceses, or parishes, or religious communities in our nation which are comparable to better ones elsewhere in the world.
Perhaps most easily we find evidence in our midst of the third group—those in need of a “new evangelization.” Our society is perhaps not ready to declare itself post-Christian just yet, but the prestige and influence of those who are post-Christian in conviction is enormous, and grows stronger every month. By “post-Christian” I understand an attitude of measured contempt for Christian faith (a contempt which is often malignant, but sometimes just amused) combined with the highly idiosyncratic retention of a set of institutions and experiences having their origin in Christianity but emptied of Christian content. The great Christian truths of sin and redemption, heaven and hell, resurrection of the body and new life in Christ are regarded as fables—pretty lies or pestilent ones according to individual taste. Christian sexual morality is rejected outright. The notion of authority—any authority—in the moral or spiritual life is regarded as preposterous.
On the other hand many of the “forms” of Christian life are preserved. Notions of universal brotherhood and fellowship (once suitably gelded) play an important role; many of the communitarian maxims of Christian morality survive. The Christian disgust for abuse of religious dignity (“Woe to you, you scribes and Pharisees!”) is wrenched out of social context and inflated into a kind of categorical imperative, and in general post-Christians are fanatically sensitive to any misuse of superior position. Perhaps most characteristically, post-Christians have retained the realm of spirituality, while they have pluralized and relativized it into “spiritualities.” These spiritualities often have little to do with religion in the ordinary sense, though Richard John Neuhaus has called them “richly religionized forms of atheism.” For a generation attached to cheesecake without calories and sex without children, these spiritualities attempt to satisfy a human need for ritual and for contact with that Other that makes you feel funny inside, without a corollary commitment to universal moral norms and a life of disciplined discipleship: prayer, fasting, and the other ascetical practices.
All who call themselves post-Christian, and most who would be included in the term, belong to the professional and managerial classes: they are professors, editors, entertainers, “clergy,” doctors and lawyers. But by their influence they have helped to confuse and erode the faith of a far larger number of people, especially the young, who are poorly instructed in religion, if at all, who have no genuine spiritual experience to use as a touchstone of authenticity, who take their political bearings from the mass media, and who are responsive to the blandishments of a wholly secularized cultural elite. The task of re-evangelization is thus in many ways more complex than that confronting those earlier missionaries who dealt with the “virgin heathen,” if you will. It is rare to come upon a completely blank slate, a tabula rasa, in dealing with this new class. Most have been conditioned into negative responses to the gospel even before they encounter it, and most of what they learn from school, from movies, or from the lyrics of contemporary music is false, tendentious, or severely incomplete. Simply the proclamation of the good news in the first centuries was enough, at times, to win allegiance to it; this possibility is extremely rare in our culture: it is seldom news, it is still more seldom “good.”
Moreover, many of the people to whom Paul preached repentance did indeed acknowledge in their own way the reality of personal sin; they were searching (in the main) not for spiritual highs, but for a way to free themselves from a taint, a miasma, a blemish caused by their own wickedness which rendered futile their desire to be at peace with themselves and with their gods. The Ethiopian eunuch whom the Apostle Phillip encountered is an example of this type. Though not a Jew, he was reading the prophet Isaiah in order to make sense out of his own life. He already had, in his own breast, the questions to which the salvation won by faith in Jesus is the answer. I do not think this consciousness of sin is wholly absent now, even among those who are explicitly post-Christian, but the awareness is dim, and is so debased and polluted by the drive for self-fulfillment and self-actualization that the need for salvation is viewed as a tasteless joke by the thriving and as one more variety of therapy by those who are not.
The attitudes which Pope John Paul called “the most painful of all” are intimately connected with the post-Christian world-view, and of course they exist not only “out there” among the unbaptized or lapsed Roman Catholics, but are part of almost every Roman Catholic parish, every diocese, every order of nuns or priests. Moreover, as the gap continues to widen between the church’s apparat (by which I mean the ecclesial bureaucracy and the theological academy) and the man-in-the-pew, it becomes increasingly plain that it is precisely at the bureaucratic and professional levels of Catholicism that timidity and hesitation about the gospel and uncritical admiration of secular accomplishment are most common. The spiritual hunger of the laity is intense, and they ask the church for bread, only to be given stones to gnaw on—“The Many Faces of AIDS,” “Partners in the Mystery of Redemption”—quarried by those who, like the missionary quoted above, are doubtful whether the church is a benign institution at all.
The harvest, though varied, is plenty; and laborers are few. And, of course, not all laborers are able to tell the wheat from the weeds. It is a sore temptation to “opt out” of the effort—to leave the missionary endeavor to those who have more time or energy or resources than we do ourselves. This is a temptation which must be resisted. All Christians, as the second Vatican Council teaches and the pope repeats, are missionaries by baptism: “missionary activity . . . is the task of all the Christian faithful.” He continues, “The need for all the faithful to share in this responsibility is not merely a matter of making the apostolate more effective: it is a right and a duty based on their baptismal dignity, whereby the ‘faithful participate, for their part, in the threefold mission of Christ as priest, prophet, and king’.” 
But how is the mandate of Redemptoris Missio to be put into practice in specific ways, especially by women? I want to propose that it is precisely the dignities of priest, prophet and king—as they are accorded to all the baptized—through which women can best evangelize the world in our day. I am not among those who argue that women should be ordained to the presbyterate. Rather, women must evangelize as priests, prophets and kings according to the manner in which they share the threefold mission of Christ: He who was sent. So how does the Catholic woman or any other conservative orthodox Christian woman of similar ecclesiology carry out this three-fold mission?
First then, how was Christ sent as priest? As are all priests, he was sent to make atonement for sins: yet he was sent not to spill the blood of a victim other than himself—a bull or a goat or a ram—rather he poured out his own blood; he was sent under the knife of sacrifice; he was sent to suffer. It is, of course, Christ himself, not the individual minister, who actually performs the sacraments. Yet the priesthood of Christ also includes suffering, suffering for others, and this icon belongs preeminently not to the male but to the female. Suffering for others, spilling one’s blood for others, is at the core of all motherhood: in the pains of pregnancy, labor, and childbirth; in the burdens of the nursery and childrearing; and perhaps most poignantly in the agony of separation—the agony of the emptying nest, the agony of the untimely death of a child. I have learned much in this regard from Alice von Hildebrand, and I think most people intuitively understand the profundity of the connection between suffering and the giving of new life as it is realized eminently in the lives of women. Early Christians depicted Christ the Priest as the Pius Pelicanus, the “loving pelican,” as it was popularly believed that the female of this species fed her young on her own blood: a provocative and edifying image.
Today we are faced with a culture that hates priesthood, and is not overly fond of motherhood either. Both emblems of suffering remind us that we are not our own: that we have been given life through another’s agony and can only be ransomed from death by another’s agony. This is an intolerable intrusion into the modern fiction that we as human beings are radically solitary—self-created, self-creating, and (recently) self-destroying as well—and that we owe absolutely nothing to others besides non-interference in their lives and destiny. On this scale, priesthood and motherhood stand or fall together. Pious Christian women can evangelize our world, can bring good news to this culture, if they can rejoice in their own priesthood, if they can make manifest the dignity which accrues to the suffering that gives life, if they convince others as they are themselves convinced that a mother loves her child because she agonized in bringing the child into the light, and not in spite of her agony. And if a man can love his mother in return for the sufferings she endured on his behalf, he has to that extent been prepared to love Christ for his suffering—he is ripe for the gospel.
Second, how was Christ sent as prophet? Contrary to the modern notion of prophet as social or political iconoclast, Jesus’ own prophecy was simply transparency to the Father: “Who sees me sees the Father”; “I do nothing but what I see the Father do.” Twenty-five years ago feminists in the church and in secular life were jostling each other in their efforts to show that they could transmit the sacred text—be it the Bible or the Constitution—as well or better than the men who worked as clerics or judges. Their petition was: give us a chance to do what you understand yourselves to be doing. In an astonishingly brief time the wind has shifted 180 degrees, and (a fact too rarely remarked on) the same women who were blowing hot from the south in the Seventies are blowing cold from the north in the Nineties. Now the gambit is: the Constitution is an unjust document, reflecting the class interests of male capitalists; a new law is called for and we are its framers. The Bible, by the same token, is a fraud, reflecting the class interests of patriarchs; a new deity is called for, and we are her prophets. This apostasy takes many forms, from the goddess worship of radical feminists to the gelding of pronouns referring to God the Father, a mutilation which has become far too widespread.
Now is the time for true prophecy, the prophecy of Jesus Christ, the one who was sent to be utterly transparent to God the Father and to his will. It is worth remembering that the Virgin Mary is not remembered for having shaken her fist at wicked merchants or Roman commandants—though God knows there must have been plenty of each in her acquaintance. Her prophecy consisted in letting God shine through her—totally, without a fleck of self-will or resentment to obscure the transmission. Now more than any other time since chickens were sacrificed to Juno on the Capitoline, Christian women should make the fundamental confessions of faith: I believe in the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; I believe in God the Father, in God the Son, in God the Holy Spirit. I believe that one Church teaches about this God, and channels his grace to us through her sacraments. While men and women have in our society forsaken their baptismal commitments more or less equally, the fact remains that a conscious return to religious paganism is more a female than a male fashion, more the concern of Cosmopolitan than of Esquire. One could do worse, in this connection, to adapt the vocabulary of Catholics For A Free Choice and say, “a diversity of opinion exists among Christian women as to the claim that Phil Donahue is a sounder exponent of godly doctrine than Joseph Ratzinger”; or again, “Many committed Catholic women have reflected critically on the catechetical instruction offered them and are forced to conclude that ‘in one name only is there salvation,’ and that name is not Ishtar. As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” If the relation of man to God ruptured by the disobedience of Eve could be sublimely restored by the obedience of Mary, is it too outlandish to suggest that the apostasy of feminists might be not only corrected, but transfigured into a new and profound fidelity, in virtue of a newly realized prophetic mission—a mission given to and and accepted by women as their rightful share in the mission of Christ?
Third, how was Jesus Christ sent as king? He did not come “unto his own” as an oriental potentate surrounded by lackeys in order to demand his rightful inheritance and to punish all who stood in his path. He did not enter his capital standing on his dignity but seated on an ass, knowing perfectly well that he was to die a slave’s death at his own, grisly, “coronation.” As the parable has it, he was sent, as a king-to-be, to take possession of a badly misused vineyard, to turn it to rights. Now, this is one difference between a king and a capitalist: a capitalist is prepared to write off his losses, to judge that an investment is beyond recovery and so disposable. A king, on the other hand, cannot—would not wish to—write off his own dominions, even those which are worthless, precisely because they are his, they are inalienably part of his kingship. I do not know whether the case can be made that this is a “feminine dimension” of kingship, but it is certainly a “kingly dimension” of womanhood. A fellow Jesuit once remarked to me how interesting it is that, when his women friends say, “I pray for you every day,” they really mean it, and do it. And he added, quite rightly, “Women never write you off.”
Having painted the challenges of evangelization in such bleak terms, I should also state “the reason for our hope.” And this reason has much to do with the fact that, in this respect, Christian women are more kingly than their menfolk. They are not prepared to write off their disappointments as a bad investment. In proportion as they are orthodox and faith filled, they are disinclined to shrug their shoulders and walk away from their loves. Sometimes this is seen in very practical terms, as when we visit a school in a ghetto where linebackers fear to tread and find half a dozen nuns in their seventies drilling the catechism into students amid the falling plaster. Sometimes it is clearly mystical, as with those numberless hours of adoration which are and always have been the special preserve of women—those women whose hope can be maimed, but never killed. And if women are quicker than men to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” they are infinitely slower to take themselves seriously when they say it.
Should we be surprised? Priesthood, prophecy, kingship. When these are viewed as avenues of advancement, as dignities to be grasped at, they turn even good men (and women) into trolls. When they are accepted as a mission—a mission not earned or bargained for—they confer incomparable power: the power of the gospel, which derives its force not from human ambition but from the Redemptoris Missio, the mission of the Redeemer.
Numbers in brackets [ ] refer to the paragraph numbers of Redemptoris Missio. This article is from the author’s talk given at “Laborers in the Lord’s Vineyard,” a joint conference of Women for Faith & Family and Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, on October 12, 1991, St. Louis, Missouri.
Rev. Paul Mankowski, S. J., resides at Faber House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is completing his doctoral dissertation while engaged in local parish work.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“The Mission of Christ and Christ-like Women” first appeared in the Winter 1992 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.