Develop the Missionary Spirit

The theological foundations of Catholic Extension

Pope Pius X was especially moved by Catholic Extension’s use of
rail cars to minister to Catholics on the frontier

Historical Foundations: The Catholic Church Extension Society of the United States of America began with Father Francis Clement Kelley's desire to extend the Church's missionary outreach to vast pioneer territories in the United States. Like its sister organization, the Catholic Church Extension Society of Canada (now known as Catholic Missions in Canada), it was established with a brief (Qua Nuper) written by Pope Pius X in 1910, expressing a hope to "extend upon earth the Kingdom of Christ Jesus."1

Tim Muldoon, Ph.D.,is a member of Catholic Extension's Mission Committee, an advisory group that helps the Catholic Extension Board of Governors in its work to strengthen the Church's presence in America's mission dioceses. An author, theologian and professor at Boston College, Tim traces Catholic Extension's theological roots from its earliest days to today, where he shows how a missionary spirit enables the Church to thrive.

Writing in Extension, the widely circulated magazine of the Society in 1914 after the death of the pope, Father Kelley expressed with great affection not only his solicitude for the pontiff, but also the missionary spirit which animated the latter's support of the Society. It seems that the pope was particularly moved by the construction of a rail car to minister to Catholics in distant regions of the United States: "here is a practical idea for the care of scattered people without a church."2 Kelley goes on to illustrate Pius' concern for the Church in the United States:


During the years of his pontificate (1903 to 1914), Pius X created fifteen new dioceses in what he called the "United States of North America."4 He saw Catholic Extension as an effort very much in concert with his mission to deepen and extend the mission of Christ among Catholics young and old. In Qua Nuper, he makes mention of two such efforts, namely "Propagation of the Faith" and "Holy Childhood." The former had been established in 1822, but in the first year of Pius' pontificate he recommended the Society to all Catholics. Similarly, the Association of the Holy Childhood was established in 1843 but raised to the level of a canonical institution Pope Pius X was especially moved by Catholic Extension's use of rail cars to minister to Catholics on the frontier. 20 Extension under Pius IX, and Leo XIII recommended it to all the bishops in his encyclical letter Sancta Dei civitas (3 December 1890). These and other missionary efforts sought to support the work of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, the missionary office created by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 to support missions to the lands that European nations began to colonize in the wake of the age of discovery: Asia, the Americas and Africa

In its early days, Catholic Extension shared the missionary vision that gave rise to these institutions. That vision was rooted in Christ's proclamation to the disciples to "go and preach the gospel to all nations" (Mk 16:15, Mt 24:14), as well as Saint Paul's missionary impulse to reach out to both Jew and Gentile throughout the world. Yet by the twentieth century, the understanding of mission had undergone a number of developments that reflected both changes in the world and growth in the Church itself.

The great twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., a peritus at the Second Vatican Council, made the case that the Church had undergone three phases of missionary development. The first movement began with Jesus and his followers, who at first were seen as a sect within Judaism; but with Paul it expanded into the Gentile world. The second movement was its establishment as the religion of Europe and its colonial descendants, the fruit of Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 312. The third movement, he suggested, was a truly global move: a truly "catholic" (Greek katholikos or "universal") Church.5

Both Pius X and Father Kelley expressed an understanding of Catholic mission that reflected the second of Rahner's movements, and as such their understanding reflected both the vision and the limitations of the corresponding view of salvation history. In particular, that vision was predicated in part on the role of the Propagation of the Faith,6 as noted above. Pope Gregory XV had founded the congregation in order to organize the various missionary efforts both outside of Europe and in areas of predominantly Protestant influence within Europe.

Father Francis Kelley, founder of Catholic Extension, wanted Catholics in cities to remember the missionary nature of the Church and serve those on the margins.

Reflecting both the sense of hopeful mission to new lands and a nervous race against Protestant influence, Father Kelley's 1905 essay in the American Ecclesiastical Review outlined the vision that would become the raison d'etre for Catholic Extension.7 He expresses a pastoral hope for Catholics spread out in a vast nation, namely that those in cities not forget those on the margins:


He reminds his mostly urban readership that they must remember the missionary nature of the Church, calling them to participate in the larger mission of the Church:


Kelley was an astute theologian, as well as a visionary and a diplomat. His Extension magazine eventually amassed a readership of some 3 million people, enviable by today's standards. In 1924 he was named the second bishop of Oklahoma City, then very much mission territory. He understood the need to ground his vision in the work of the universal Church, but also summon the attention of the donor base that would support Catholic Extension's missionary outreach. Couching his appeal as a kind of race against Protestant churches summoned an esprit de corps among Catholics, even though today his comparisons to Protestant extension efforts may strike some as overly competitive. What is more important, though, was his sense that Catholic Extension was not only a work for Catholics in remote areas; he saw it as essential to Catholics throughout the United States, both in cities and in mission lands. Writing later about the Society in the Catholic Encyclopedia, he suggested that the aim of Catholic Extension was "To develop the missionary spirit in the clergy and people of the Catholic Church in the United States"8 (emphasis mine). Catholic Extension was not to be one of many initiatives that Catholics undertook; it was to be the very expression of Catholicism in the soil of the United States.

The Vatican II decree Ad Gentes (On the Missionary Activity of the Church) develops this theology. "The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature," write the Council fathers, "since it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father." (2) A key theme from the document which has implications for Catholic Extension has to do with the understanding of mission not as a kind of colonialization, but rather as the planting of a seed which then grows in native soil.


The word "authochthonous,"9 from Greek auto- (own) and chthon (soil) points to a key development in the understanding of mission from Rahner's second to third phase. The aim of mission, according to Ad Gentes, is not to establish European churches in foreign lands, but rather to allow the word of God to grow out of the very soil in which it is planted, echoing the parable of the sower:


Perhaps even more importantly, the word that takes root in native soil will grow to bear fruit for the whole Church.10 To put it most starkly: the missionary impulse helps not only the local community; it is a necessity for the well being of the entire vine that is Christ's body (cf. John 15). To echo Father Kelley's words, Catholic Extension hopes not only to help local churches in mission dioceses; it hopes to "develop the missionary spirit" in all Catholics, both in cities and small towns, large dioceses and small ones.

There is a kind of urgency to this theology, a sense that the Church must always move in a missionary direction if it is to live and thrive. It must not become complacent; it must animate the heart of every believer. Pope Francis, in his message for World Mission Day 2013, reminded us that "the ‘boundaries' of faith do not only cross places and human traditions, but the heart of each man and each woman."11 Similarly, at World Youth Day 2013, the Pope urged young men and women to be "bearers of hope" in every corner of the world, urging them to have courage, to go out and "make noise."12

More recently, Pope Francis has articulated an energetic call to all Catholics to become agents of evangelization in the world today. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel," November 2013), he writes:



Pope Francis emphasizes frequently the theme that the Church exists not for itself, but for the sake of being missionary. Later in Evangelii Gaudium, he writes:


Catholic Extension carries this missionary spirit by helping local communities implant the word in rich soil, helping to remove the thorns which choke off its growth. Originally, this spirit led the Society to build churches and a rail car so that Catholics had access to the celebration of the sacraments. Today, it means funding initiatives like the training of seminarians and lay ministers; developing networks that enhance outreach to young adults and the Latino/Hispanic community; sharing stories of vibrant ministries sustained by local people of faith.13 What is important to underscore is the fact that mission today really takes root only when local people have the means to respond to the vocational call of Christ, unhindered by lack of resources or training. Catholic Extension does not do missionary work; it supports people in local communities who are missionary and who are helping to write the story of the Church in the United States. And in doing so, it helps develop the missionary spirit in Catholics who have resources to share.

Finally, Catholic Extension provides a network of resources for people across mission dioceses: pastors and bishops, academics and social justice advocates, speakers of many languages. Its theology is rooted both in the Biblical metaphors of the True Vine that is Christ and in the Body which is the Church, whose head is Christ. It recognizes the many gifts that people from all walks of life can bring to the mission of the Church. It understands that people from wealthy dioceses can offer gifts to support the work of mission dioceses, but it also understands that people from mission dioceses can offer gifts to support the mission of the whole Church. Over its history, it has built many churches; perhaps more importantly today, it is helping to build the Church in the United States. •

1 Pope Pius X, Brief Qua Nuper (June 9, 1910) in the archives of Catholic Extension. 2 Francis Clement Kelley, "Pius—Our Father," in Extension Volume IX number 5 (October 1914), p.3.
3 Kelley, "Pius—Our Father," p. 3.
4 Pius X, Qua Nuper
5 Karl Rahner, S.J., "Basic Theological Interpretation of Vatican II" in Theological Investigations v. 20, tr. Edward Quinn (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1981), p. 83.

6 That congregation has been known since 1982 as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
7 Francis C. Kelley, "Church Extension," in The American Ecclesiastical Review Vol. XXXII no. 6 (June 1905), pp. 573-585.
8 Francis Kelley, "The Catholic Church Extension Society" in The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 14 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912) 14 Nov. 2013 <>.

9 In Latin, Ecclesiae autochtonae.
10 one could make a strong argument that the best examples of mission during the second phase, such as Matteo Ricci in China, Roberto de Nobili in India, or Bartolomé de las Casas in the New World, evinced this development of missionary understanding.
11 "Message of Pope Francis for World Mission Day 2013," online at holy_father/francesco/messages/missions/documents/papa-francesco_20130519_giornatamissionaria2013_ en.html.
12 "Pope tells young people to ‘make noise.'" people-to-make-noise. See Catholic Extension's effort to encourage young people in this effort at

13A list of some of the remarkable people touched by Catholic Extension's work can be found on the Lumen Christi Award page at