Father Patrick Taveirne is a Belgian CICM missionary, who is trained as a sinologist in Leiden. This article is on the Apostolic Letter
Maximum illud by Pope Benedict XV. As the universal Church observes the ‘Extraordinary Missionary Month’ in October 2019 to celebrate the centennial of the Apostolic Letter, the essay provides the reasons behind it and its significance to the Chinese Church
Pope Benedict XV issued
Maximum illud on 30 November 1919, the sixth year of his pontificate. As is traditional with such documents, it took its title from the opening words of the original Latin text:
Maximum illud sanctissimumque munus, that means “That Greatest and Most Holy task” found in Mark 16:15 and recalled by Pope Benedict XV.
Maximum illud’s origin, unlike other pontifical documents, cannot be traced to a single source. The multi-causal genesis of
Maximum illud has to be understood within the international context of its time. It is the fruit of a thorough understanding of the historical situation, based on the inductive method of diagnosing the missionary reality.
Maximum illud is the first missionary document which studies Catholic missions in their totality with a panoramic vision.
When the Great War, a “useless slaughter” or the “suicide of civilised Europe” in the words of Benedict XV, affected European missionary personnel and resources, the apostolic missions sadly lacked competent indigenous leadership to fill the gaps. The pope recognised the need for a more evangelical approach to missionary work in the world, so that it would be purified of any colonial overtones and kept far away from the nationalistic and expansionistic aims that had proved so disastrous.
In 1904, following the fateful anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer Uprising, the anticlerical French government severed relations with the Holy See and enacted a law on the separation of churches and state in France. A Roman cleric, most likely Monsignor Pietro Gasparri, a canon lawyer and secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, Benedict XV’s future Card. Secretary of State, warned France about the serious consequences and damage caused to her moral influence in the East and the Far East. Nonetheless, France maintained her religious protectorate over Catholic missions by renewing her veto to a papal nuncio in China, on the pretext that he was pro-German, in 1918. The Holy See came to realise the importance of depoliticising missionary work by cutting its links with Western nationalisms and imperialism.
In 1907, the French Canon Leon Joly, who never left Europe but published an incisive analysis of defects in Catholic missions of the Far East, in which he put the question: Why after hundreds of years of missions have so few Chinese converted to Christianity? Joly’s answer was simple: the mission has failed because Christianity was seen as “the foreign religion.” His two-volume work deeply influenced not only Vincentian Father Vincent Lebbe and Father Antoine Cotta, but also Monsignor Gasparri. They promoted an indigenous clergy and Church. Their views are reflected in
The Tianjin Movement with Father Lebbe and Father Cotta at the helm opposed the expansion of the French Concession in Tianjin. In 1915, the Movement protested against China signing the Japanese Twenty-One Demands. The next year, the
Laoxikai affair (老西開事件) occurred. The basis of the struggle was that the French consul with the support of the Church leadership attempted to expand the French Concession by appropriating land adjacent to St. Joseph’s Cathedral and incorporating it into the Concession. Lebbe and Cotta objected and proposed the slogan “Return China to the Chinese and the Chinese will go to Christ.” As a result of their protests the French Vincentian superiors removed them from Tianjin. However, their grievances and views reached Rome and influenced
In the long run, the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal May Fourth Movement of 1919, following Chinese mass student demonstrations against the decision of the Versailles Peace Treaty to transfer the former German Concession in Shandong province to Japan, together with its ideologically diverse New Culture Movement, would lead to anti-Confucian and anti-religious/Christian Chinese nationalism, socialism, Marxism and Communism.
Deeply concerned about the missionary work, the pope addressed three different groups: mission superiors, missionaries, and all Catholics. While Maximum illud did not specifically refer to the missionary situation in China, eventually it was mainly the problem of missionary work in China which impacted decisively the drafting of the letter. More than two-thirds of the document was a direct comment on the situation in China.
Maximum illud Benedict XV called on mission superiors to focus their evangelical efforts on the multitude of non-believers and to adopt an extensive approach, that is, according to the American Monsignor Joseph Freri’s slogan: “to cover the maximum ground with the minimum number”. In case of manpower shortage, superiors should cooperate with other religious groups, and not treat their mission as a piece of private property. The document criticised the missionary congregations for their exclusiveness. Benedict XV personally had a predilection for international missionary societies such as the White Fathers. The pope suggested regular synods to enhance collaboration at the service of the same mission. But most importantly, he urged the superiors to secure and train local candidates for the sacred ministry. In this policy lies the greatest hope of the new churches. For the local priest, one with his people by birth, by nature, by his sympathies and his aspirations, is remarkably effective in appealing to their mentality and thus attracting them to the Faith. Far better than anyone else, he knows the kind of argument they will listen to, and as a result, he often has easy access to places where a foreign priest would not be tolerated.
The pope added that their education should be complete and finished: the same kind of training that a “civilised” European would receive. The local clergy was not to be trained merely to perform the humbler duties of the ministry, acting as the assistants of foreign priests. On the contrary, they must take up God’s work as equals, so that someday they will be able to enter upon the spiritual leadership of their people.
Never before had a pope so clearly laid out a vision for the centrality of mission in global Catholicism, asserting the universality and non-Eurocentric character of the Catholic Church by stating: “The Catholic Church is not an intruder in any country; nor is she alien to any people. It is only right, then, that those who exercise her sacred ministry should come from every nation.”
Benedict XV admonished missionaries that their goal was essentially a spiritual one, which must be carried out in a selfless way. They should not seek any benefit beyond evangelization. The pope urged them to respect native culture and before entering upon their apostolate to have very careful training in all branches of learning and above all the native language, which they should be able to speak readily and competently. Still, the missionaries’ sanctity of life and their motivation and inspiration by the examples of Christ and the Apostles remain indispensable attributes.
The pope highly praised the many consecrated women for their diligence and zeal in assisting the preachers of the Gospel in the missions. He expressed the fervent hope that their achievements may encourage them to further develop their activities and that the usefulness of their work—the education of children and other great works of charity and devotion—may increase in proportion to the care they give to their own spiritual perfection.
Finally, Pope Benedict XV reminded all Catholics of their sacred duty to assist missionary work by their prayers, fostering missionary vocations and providing financial help.
Reception in China
Maximum illud received an enthusiastic welcome from some prominent Chinese Catholics such as Ma Xiangbo, a reformist educator and Jesuit priest, Ying Lianzhi, the founding editor of the Ta Kung Pao and friend of Father Lebbe, and Chen Yuan, who was later to become the president of Fujen Catholic University in Beijing.
In 1920, they published Ma Xiangbo’s Chinese translation from the original Latin text, which remains the most popular Chinese translation up to today.
In February 1920 when Father Lebbe first read
Maximum Illud he exclaimed, “I never expected such a radical solution. Now we can peacefully say that in principle we won all our sacred lawsuits.”
The apostolic letter however caused great consternation and even indignation amongst certain European bishops, chiefly but by no means only in French-controlled missions. Some claimed that the pope had been misinformed. The letter was not published in missionary journals, except the magazine of the American Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers,
The Field Afar, which discussed
Maximum illud in its editorials.
The apostolic letter created division among the bishops in China and polarised the mission field into two camps: the pro-indigenisation “Lebbe faction” and the “French faction” that read the Holy See’s actions as an attempt to undercut the French Protectorate’s influence.
Impact on the Chinese Missions
Pope Benedict XV embarked on a comprehensive reorientation of missionary work. In these endeavours the pontiff was ably supported by the Secretary of State, Pietro Cardinal Gasparri of Italy, since 1914, and the Redemptorist Prefect of Propaganda Cardinal Fide, Willem Marinus van Rossum of the Netherlands, since 1918.
The primary goal of the missionary policy of van Rossum was to overcome national motives and connections as the key element in missionary activity and to build up indigenous churches with indigenous clergy.
In 1922, the Holy See sent an Italian apostolic delegate, Monsignor Celso Costantini, to implement its policies at the scene as outlined by
Maximum illud. In 1923, Costantini established the first prefecture apostolic of Puqi 蒲圻 (Hubei province) for the Chinese secular clergy. In 1924, Propaganda Fide annulled the “privilege of precedence” of apostolic missionaries. Later that year Costantini organised the first Chinese national synod in Shanghai. Two years later, he accompanied six Chinese priests to be consecrated bishops by Pope Pius XI, Benedict XV’s successor in Rome.
In his encyclical
Rerum Ecclesiae (1926) Pius XI followed quite closely the thought of his predecessor in
Maximum illud. Pius XI regarded the planting of the visible organisation of the Church and the erection of seminaries as the first duty of missionaries. With the establishment of Fujen Catholic University in Beijing (1927), which in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci endeavoured to merge Catholicism with Chinese culture, the development of regional/common seminaries, the establishment of local religious congregations, and the indigenisation of Christian art and architecture, Monsignor Costantini aimed at a truly indigenous Chinese Church, notwithstanding the many obstacles and setbacks that he encountered.
Rerum Ecclesiae, was revolutionary in its strong emphasis on the formation of a local or indigenous clergy in mission territories. From the end of the Great War up to the eve of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the increase in the number of local clergy in Asian and African mission countries was truly phenomenal and the quality of their formation was equally remarkable. It would not have been possible without the initial impetus given by Pope Benedict XV as the pacesetter. It was a momentum that was sustained with vigor by Popes Pius XI for Asia and Pius XII for Africa (the encyclicals
Evangelii Praecones and Fidei Donum in 1957).
Relevance in contemporary mission
The Second Vatican Council mentioned the apostolic letter 10 times in its decree on missionary activity,
Ad Gentes. It underscored the missionary identity of the Church by stating that “The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature.”
Twenty-five years later, Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical,
Redemptoris Missio, reiterated the urgency of mission and the unavoidable task for the entire Church: “The mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, is still very far from completion.”
St. John Paul exhorted the Church to undertake a “renewed missionary commitment”, in the conviction that missionary activity renews the Church, revitalises faith and Christian identity and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others! It is in commitment to the Church’s universal mission that the new evangelisation of Christian peoples will find inspiration and support.
St. John Paul’s concerns did not differ much from those expressed by Pope Benedict XV, who at the beginning of Maximum illud, recalled the great command of Jesus Christ to his disciples to go and teach all peoples.
Ten years later on the close of the Holy Year 2000, Pope St. John Paul II in
Novo Millennio Ineunte declared:
Duc in altum! (Put out into the deep!) These words ring out for us today and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence…
Similarly, Pope Benedict XV concluded:
We have good reason to hope that our missions will quickly recover from the severe wounds and losses inflicted by the war, and that they will in a short time again show their old strength and vigor. As we look into the future, We seem to hear the Lord’s voice, urging us to “launch out into the deep water” (Luke 5:4), as he urged Peter long ago.
Two years ago, Pope Francis, in a letter to the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, Fernando Cardinal Filoni, noted the approaching centennial of
Maximum illud and called for October 2019 to be celebrated as an “Extraordinary Missionary Month.” In his letter Pope Francis stressed:
May the approaching centenary of that Letter serve as an incentive to combat the recurring temptation lurking beneath every form of ecclesial introversion, self-referential retreat into comfort zones, pastoral pessimism and sterile nostalgia for the past.
Instead, may we be open to the joyful newness of the gospel. In these, our troubled times, rent by the tragedies of war and menaced by the baneful tendency to accentuate differences and to incite conflict, may the Good News that in Jesus forgiveness triumphs over sin, life defeats death and love conquers fear, be proclaimed to the world with renewed fervor, and instill trust and hope in everyone.