A year after the cessation of the Great War, on November 30, 1919, Pope Benedict XV issued an Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud, the first great Catholic missiological document in the twentieth century. Having identified that there had been missionaries prioritize their nationalist interest over the evangelical one (no. 20), the pope sets as one of his goals to uproot such an attitude in the Catholic missions (no. 19). In order to ensure that the Catholic mission would not be perceived as something foreign on the missionary soil (no. 16), the document encourages the training of local clergy (no. 14), not merely as assistants to the foreign missionaries but to act as equals (no. 15), with the expectation that a local bishop would eventually be set in place (no. 17). As summarized by the late missiologist David J. Bosch in his famous work Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, with the promulgation of Maximum Illud, Benedict XV “was one of the first to promote the right of the ‘mission churches’ to cease being ecclesiastical colonies under foreign control and to have their own clergy and bishops” (2011: 461).
In 2019, to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the document, the Faculty of Religious Studies (now: Faculty of Religious Studies and Philosophy) at the University of Saint Joseph, Macau, organized a lecture series on Maximum Illud with the title: “Evangelisation by Local Missionary”. Three of the contributions to this volume developed out of the lectures given in the series.
Cyril J. Law, Jr., in his article, “Minimizing Maximum Illud,” revisits the early bitter reception of the apostolic letter. The major obstacle to the welcoming of the document was the elevation of the local clergy as equals the foreign missionaries. The article highlights the effort of the renown Chinese Catholic Ma Xiangbo (1840–1939), the Belgian missionary Vincent Lebbe (1877–1940), and the first Apostolic Delegate to China Archbishop (later Cardinal) Celso Costantini (1876–1958), to promote the integration of the teaching of Maximum Illud into the Catholic mission in China.
Another article in our volume, “From Maximum Illud to the First National Synod Primum Concilium Sinenses,” by Franz Gassner, is devoted to the Catholic mission in China at the wake of the promulgation of the Apostolic Letter. Gassner reviews the troubled history of the Catholic mission in China just before the Synod. The First National Synod of China was convened by the Apostolic Delegate Celso Costantini in mid-May 1924. The article highlights some of the important aspects of the synod.
Edmond Eh, in his article, “Religious Pluralism and Intercultural Dialogue in China,” contributes to the discussion from a philosophical perspective. It serves as a missionary reception to the call of Maximum Illud to prevent the situations where Catholicism would be perceived as a religion of a foreign people (cf. no. 19). Inspired by the religious history in China where the three major religions, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism have managed to coexist rather peacefully, Eh argues that interreligious dialogue can greatly enhance the missio ad gentes.
The final contribution to this volume invites us to turn our gaze to another continent. In his article, “” Hugo Gonçalves Dores, in his article “A National Mission in the Times of Maximum Illud,” reveals the reception of the papal document in Portugal that was no less troubling than that in China. Tensions arose from the conflicting views on mission. In Portugal, the established imperial attitude to the Catholic mission was still prevalent. In the Apostolic Letter, Benedict XV calls for a change of attitude from a nationalist one to what Dores calls a supranational one. Finally, Dores demonstrates how this interplay exerted its influence on the Portuguese policy on its Catholic mission in Africa.
Andrew Chi Hei Leong