The origins of World Mission Sunday

This Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, is World Mission Sunday. Each year since 1926, when it was introduced by Pius XI, the penultimate Sunday in October has been designated as a day for all Catholics to reflect on their commitment to evangelizing the world. This year's theme focuses on the centenary of Pope Benedict XV's Apostolic Letter, "Maximum Illud," delivered at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, on Nov. 30, 1919.

Benedict XV was born Giacomo Della Chiesa in Genoa, Italy, on Nov. 21, 1854. From an early age, he desired to study for the priesthood but was deterred by his father, who feared prevalent anti-clerical sentiments, and instead received a degree in civil law from the Royal University of Genoa in 1875. Della Chiesa's desire to become a priest remained, however, and, after pursuing further studies, he was ordained a priest on Dec. 21, 1878. He also earned doctorate degrees in theology and canon law in each of the subsequent two years, respectively.

Starting in 1882, he served as secretary to the apostolic nuncio to Spain, and from 1901 to 1907, as secretary to the Vatican Secretary of State, after which he was ordained Bishop of Bologna. Bishop Della Chiesa was elevated to the College of Cardinals in the spring of 1914, and within months WWI had begun and Pius X died, leading to his election as pope on Sept. 3, 1914.

He took the name of Benedict XV in honor of the last Roman Pontiff from the See of Bologna, and his election is largely attributed to his diplomatic skills, which would be needed to navigate the world crisis. Many of his actives were directed towards relieving the human suffering caused by the war, including setting up an international missing person's bureau to help prisoners of war reconnect with their families, arranging for neutral Switzerland to accept soldiers afflicted by tuberculosis so they could be treated, and on Aug. 1, 1917, sent a peace note to the leaders of belligerent nations. Regretfully, the latter was poorly received, hampering his efforts to mediate a peace and bring the war to an early end.

"Maximum Illud" was written in the aftermath of World War I, and was intended to promote missionary work as a way of healing in the postwar era. It begins with an introduction laying the biblical foundations for spreading the Gospel and continues citing saints who continued this tradition, spreading Catholicism around the world. Returning to his present day, Benedict XV writes that "more recent years have seen the last of the unknown territories -- Australia and the interior of Africa -- yield to the relentless assaults of modern exploration," yet many people in the world still lived in darkness. The purpose of his letter is to not only inspire Catholics to evangelize these souls but provide practical instruction for doing so.

The letter continues to address superiors of missions, stating that "it is indisputable that the condition and success of the missions depend on the way they are governed." If the superiors are not working tirelessly to achieve their aims, then they are not doing their role justice. They must oversee all peoples within their assigned region, creating converts, improving the lives of those around them, and supporting their missionary priests.

The next section addresses the importance of educating and training native clergy. The Catholic Church is not an intruder in foreign lands and wishes to help improve the lives of those it reaches, the letter says. Native clergy will be of great assistance as their countrymen can identify with them and, likewise, the native clergy can understand and respond properly to the needs of their people.

Benedict XV continues with a section for missionaries, reminding them that their work is the salvation of souls, a divine task, and warns them against becoming involved in local interests. He also stresses that "the man who preaches God must himself be a man of God." By becoming closer to God, he not only sets an example for those around him but can expect more divine assistance with his task.

The final section of the letter is directed towards Catholics around the world who, he reminds readers, are all responsible for spreading the Gospel. The three ways they can contribute are by praying for missionaries, encouraging their priests and seminarians to serve missions, and providing economic support for missions and missionary societies. In this instance, he calls for a special collection in support of missions on the Feast of the Epiphany, but since 1927, the special collection for this purpose has taken place on World Mission Sunday.

By embracing a renewed sense of mission, Benedict XV believed that Catholics could bring light to the world and help heal the wounds inflicted by war through sharing the Gospel and demonstrating charity to those who had been devasted by four years of conflict. He died on Jan. 22, 1922, and was succeeded by Pius XI, who would live to see the outbreak of a second World War less than 20 years later.

- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.