The multidimensional nature of American Catholicism requires attention to mission and evangelization as one lens through which to understand the global dynamics of the American Catholic experience. Evangelization and mission were more nuanced than simply “converting” or “civilizing” people. Mission encounters in diverse local contexts transformed those on both sides of the relationship. This chapter will explore briefly three themes: mission to America (“transplanting,” or handing on the faith); the growth of an evangelization/mission impetus within the United States; and the effect of mission engagement from the United States. These mission encounters involved much more than simply learning a catechism. Missionaries effected social change, religious development, and humanitarian responses to injustice in many countries, even while at times carrying on practices that sometimes had a negative effect on the people they came to serve.
Virtually all of the geographic area of the Americas reveals multiple strata of interaction between religion and “foreign” cultures for more than five centuries of missions. The period exhibits a major dynamic of forced or voluntary immigration/migration, a diversity of ethnic and mixed populations, and a perennial mission impulse to meet multiple situations. Missions were not simply about religion but involved complexities around gender, language, culture, politics, authority, and identity. Mission to, within, and from the Americas was driven by the relationship between church and government at home and abroad, particular political and socioeconomic conditions in the new country, theological perspectives, missionary perception of the nature of the human person, variations of pedagogical/mission methods within groups, and assumed or expressed definitions of mission.
The term “missions,” from the Latin missio, “a sending away,” has its own history with different emphases in various Christian and academic communities. The use of the word is situated in mid-sixteenth-century explorations of the New World, particularly with Ignatius Loyola’s identification of Jesuit work as missions. Felix Anton Scheffler’s sketch for a church ceiling mural, St. Ignatius and the Four Parts of the World: Allegory of Jesuit Missionary Work, 1701–60, portrayed Ignatius in the center, looking up toward the Spirit in the form of a dove, with winged cherubs pointing toward figures representing the “corners” of the world. America was portrayed as an indigenous person carrying an arrow.
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